Leaders are confronted by a maelstrom of digital disruption. How should you best respond? In a world where decisions are increasingly made through artificial intelligence, visualised in virtual reality and transacted using a token on the blockchain, what are the leadership qualities you need; not just to survive but to thrive and stand out? If robots can do any role that involves thinking, repetition or managing complexity better than you, how do you avoid losing your cherished corner office or the airline lounge pass?
It seems the threat is real in broad economic terms. At the apocalyptic end of the spectrum, a 2017 McKinsey & Co report predicted that up to 375 million people may need to find jobs in a new sector altogether to offset the threat of unemployment posed by automation. But managers and professionals will also need to look up from their spreadsheets and find new ways of creating value. Professor Richard Susskind describes the emergent disruption poetically: “We are advancing into a post-professional society… If we leave it to professionals themselves to reinvent their workplace, are we asking the rabbits to guard the lettuce?”
The good news is that you are currently much better than any robot at expressing or generating emotions, building relationships with other humans, using intuition, creating ideas and entertaining others. But how many of these skills are the reasons for your success in your role? Are you valued for what you know, or how you make others feel? Are you highly regarded for the value that you can accurately measure, or the new potential value that your imaginative ideas might create?
In our work with senior executives at LBS Executive Education, we often challenge our participants not just to consider the strategic and operational challenges of a digitally disrupted future, but to identify and experiment with very different personal responses, new approaches and new ways of working.
It’s not enough simply to be more knowledgeable and articulate on the form and nature of disruptive technology: leaders need to find ways to be personally adaptable and agile and to embrace the new visibly and enthusiastically. Our shorthand for this is to encourage leaders to experiment with new ideas, thorny business challenges and, yes, even ‘experiment’ with themselves. And what’s at the heart of experimentation? The need to find out. What happens if...?
At a recent workshop, we shared a hypothesis about future leadership from Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Chair of Business Psychology at University College London. In the past, leaders stood out through their intelligence quotient (IQ), as their mental abilities enabled them to learn and solve novel problems faster. But then we (their employees, colleagues, stakeholders) required them to develop their emotional quotient (EQ), as their ability to perceive and express emotions, or develop strong interpersonal skills, made them better equipped to navigate organisational politics and take others with them through change or uncertainty.
Dr Chamorro-Premuzic suggests that, in the future, these abilities will still be important, but the differentiating quality for the leader will be how well they have also developed what he calls their “curiosity quotient”, or CQ.
Leaders with a high CQ demonstrably exhibit a sense of curiosity and proactively develop new habits. They actively invest and reinvest in knowledge acquisition, using a broad range of sources from formal education, science journals and art appreciation to quirkier social media and networking clubs; exercising and honing their ‘horizon-scanning’ habits. To develop that curiosity, they constantly have their radar switched on to detect new ideas and technologies. They may be early adopters of unproven tech and in the workplace enjoy opportunities to try out new approaches and work on new assignments – and not just rely on the skills and expertise that have got them to where they are.
‘Leaders need to find ways to be personally adaptable and to embrace the new enthusiastically’
Those acquainted with Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset will recognise familiar territory here, but there also seems to be an instinctive, quirky and idiosyncratic quality to the highly curious that makes them particularly unusual and challenging colleagues.
Breakthrough thinking is not always warmly embraced. Radical, off -the-wall ideas can often run counter to the governance mindset in the boardroom or the audit committee. Shareholders and regulators hold their breath as Elon Musk shares his curious ideas on Twitter.
Such a reaction is nothing new. According to Walt Mossberg, when Apple CEO John Sculley decried Steve Jobs’ behaviour to the board for “issuing contradictory instructions, insubordination, making people miserable, losing the firm millions of dollars,” Jobs retorted: “I invented the future. What does your resume say, John?” Jobs left Apple, corporatised Pixar and Next and returned to Apple 11 years later, curiosity renewed, and set about creating the most valuable enterprise in history.
When you meet someone with high CQ, they may appear more at ease with ambiguity and may smile knowingly when you ask them to explain their purpose, or their need to take time off for a ‘knowledge quest’. They may also seem easily bored, distracted and uncertain about the value of that rigorous new budgeting process the firm is rolling out. Does this sound like you? If not, perhaps it’s time to think about what you can do to enhance your CQ and be seen as passionately curious to others.
A recent workshop with a group of global leaders threw up some intriguing ideas. Here are just a few:
1 Change the channel – switch on your radar and adjust your social media filters. Don’t just follow, like and share stuff when you have the same perspective on a subject as the poster. Wrestle with feeds and ideas that challenge and contradict your own point of view. You don’t have to stray far from your normal frequency to be surprised, bemused and appalled at the lens others see the world through and share. This is not about senselessly swinging across political spectrums or exposing yourself to content that can harm, but being aware that your own filters and habits are narrow and constrained.
2 Take a different look at your city. A colleague of mine used to advocate taking a different route to work, highlighting the problem with the practical but inane daily habit of taking the same train and stopping at the same coffee shop on the way to the office. We can allow the very familiar to feel insanely dull. If you live in London or another major city, why not jump on a tourist bus for a change? Be elevated, see the cityscape from a different angle and look at it through the eyes of someone else. Even if everything the guide tells you is a hilarious fabrication, the act of observing and hearing someone else’s enthusiasm for the familiar can help you see it afresh and encourage you to find out more.
3 Work somewhere else (for a few hours). Tired of your working environment and wondering how you can make it more creative? Organisations like Open City make it possible to get access to just about any UK workplace at least once a year. Want to pound a City trading floor or a hedge-fund manager’s office in Mayfair? Intrigued by the set-up at Google, Facebook or LinkedIn? They can satisfy that particular curiosity.
4 Never eat lunch alone. Keith Ferrazzi’s smart book Never Eat Alone is recommended. We all know our networks are too narrow, our social circles too small and our perspectives in need of broadening. The trick is not just to map it, measure it or quantify that gap, but to actively pursue and provide ‘pay-it-forward’ support and help to others as you build new relationships, contacts and perspectives on the world. Ferrazzi’s lunch idea is a simple strategy, but one that might change your outlook on your colleagues, your work or your life.
5 Ask questions, listen more. A personal experiment we loved was as simple as this. A senior leader who had commanded the chair of his business team meetings with confidence and aplomb was directing well but learning little. His experiment: six consecutive weeks of only asking questions. Avoiding his natural tendency to finish others’ sentences and close discussions down when he had heard enough, he simply let the meeting and discussion breathe by asking others to contribute. He described it to us as one of the best things he had ever done; now he simply rotates the chair across the senior team.
6 Consult someone born in the 21st century. Our instinct when confronted by the ambiguous and the unusual is to seek expertise or hire expensive consultants. Most organisations have digital experts ready to hand: digital natives armed with an iPhone pretty much since being able to talk. So if you are curious about how you make your brain more ‘woke’ or you’ve just discovered that a 19-year-old thinks RnB is something completely different to what you’ve always thought it was, talk to the youngest people in your firm and ask what makes them curious about the future.
The curiosity response to digital disruption is similar therefore to the leadership response required of any major market, strategic, customer or organisational change. The strategy answers can, of course, be practical and based on real insights. The need for action, not inertia, is clear. But also helpful seems to be the leader’s willingness to wrestle with new and contrarian ideas; with more voices in the room, more ideas brought to the fore and younger, digital natives, valued as well as wiser older heads.
The curious leader doesn’t have to transform from suit to jeans and from car to skateboard, but they do need to be alive to the full diversity, creativity and imagination that they can readily tap.