5 things Future Smart Leaders need to know

We need to protect our core but go to the edge. Every (smart) business is working now on what will be their business of tomorrow. Assuming that tomorrow’s business will simply be what you are currently doing, is a big mistake and a dangerous assumption.

Protecting your core is important. Your ‘core’ can be seen as ‘Engine #1’ – that which you do and do well. Every business has a core to protect and guard in order to be competitive. However, smart businesses are, at the same time as protecting that core, openly looking and exploring ‘Engine #2’ – the ‘edge’.

Engine #2 can be seen as your business of tomorrow. It is estimated that as much as 30% of your time and effort should be dedicated to Engine #2. Author of Leadership is an Art, Max DePree, believes that leaders should be spending as much as “50% of their time in the future”.

Seldom, in my experience, is that the case but the clear message is that our preoccupation with dealing with the very real pressures of the here and now, can prove fatal.

Our ‘core’ is made up of some generic features – common to all but with a unique adaptation to whatever sector or industry in which we find ourselves. The generic elements that constitute the core are:

  1. Our business model
  2. Our capabilities
  3. Our strategy
  4. Our people
  5. Our market (clients / customers)

Over time we have built assumptions and rules around each of these ‘pillars’ forged through both our successes and failures. Over time these rules and assumptions have become embedded in what we do and how we do it. Our Engine #1 has become a finely tuned machine that we know how to service and one where are able to anticipate its needs before they even become apparent. Our time and focus is spent ensuring that our Engine runs smoothly.

Engine #2 will consist of these same elements but each will look completely different to our current practice. These five characteristics will be the framework and structure of our next or ‘tomorrow’s business’ but, each of them will be based on entirely new rules and assumptions. Leadership’s ability to navigate from point A (Engine #1) to point B (Engine #2) will determine whether or not you survive the future. The pathway between points A and B requires adaptive intelligence, something that evolutionary insight identifies as critical to survival.

As you do the essential work of considering Engine #2 here are some key things to consider when it comes to the five core elements that will constitute Engine #2:

1. Your business model.

The likely scenario is that the business model required for Engine #2 will necessitate you cannibalising your existing business model. The Economist once suggested that ‘real innovation is not product and service innovation but rather the ability to innovate your business model’. This is extremely difficult work as it will require venturing into the terrain of asking tough questions and being willing to critique and dismantle the very things that have worked well for you up until this point.

There will be those that are heavily invested in the current model and will fight to defend it come what may. You will hear refrains such as, “if it isn’t broken don’t try to fix it”. It will be a political and emotional agenda as much as a strategic one and you will need to have your eyes (and ears) wide open in venturing into this space. A good starting point to open consideration for this territory might be to ask a question such as, ‘when it comes to our future success, what might be the questions we should be asking, but aren’t?’

The willingness to dismantle your current business model is fundamental in thinking about and building tomorrow’s business.

2. Your capabilities

You will most likely need to completely restock your capabilities toolkit in order to be relevant and competitive in tomorrow world. There will be the need for a complete overhaul of the skills and competencies that you have so carefully and deliberately built to get you to where you are today.

This can be both somewhat disheartening and at the same time exhilarating. It all depends on your mindset in facing this particular challenge. Armed with a mindset of a ‘learner’ this will be a challenge and transformation you relish. Borrowing from the insight and wisdom from two particular men, one a philosopher and the other a futurist, will be helpful here – some would call this ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’:

Eric Hoffer (the philosopher) said that “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”. From Alvin Toffler (the futurist) we learn that “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.

We will need to equip ourselves with an array of different capabilities in order to thrive in the new world of work. The good news is that the ground has already been broken in the quest to know what these ‘futurefit’ capabilities are and we, in TomorrowToday, have been working hard to not only identify them but how best to develop them. (We invite you to visit our Future of Work Academy to explore the skills our team have identified and the resources available to help you develop these skills further.)

Two questions might help propel you along this pathway and would certainly be worth your consideration as you contemplate the capabilities required for Engine #2:

  1. What might we need to keep, discard and create for Engine #2 from what we currently have?
  2. What do we need to learn, unlearn and relearn for Engine #2?

One final point as you think about what will be the capabilities you need for the future: Whatever they are, find a way to measure them as you go about learning them. You get what you measure and telling everyone that we need to be learners, curious, unafraid to experiment and fail, open to questions etc…will not take root in your culture unless these aspirational capacities can be measured. So a last question to be asking would be:

3. How will we measure whatever it is we think we need to learn?

3. Your strategy

For decades strategy has been seen as ‘having a plan’. A great deal of attention has gone into how to arrive at that plan and it is widely accepted that Porter’s model of ‘the plan’ is the way to go. Porter suggests that we take into account six specific areas in collecting the necessary information and data to get us from point A (where we are) to point B (where we want to be). Of course, this is a simplification of a subject that is the focus of hundreds of books and one that dominates all traditional leadership development curricula.

In the context in which we find ourselves – one of exponential change and disruption, all happening at lightning speed, the old way and reliance on the ‘strategic plan’ is a major casualty.

According to the collective wisdom of futurists there are essentially three ways in which the future unfolds:

  • Continuations (‘more of the same’; tomorrow will resemble today);
  • Cycles (‘what goes around comes around’; economic, political and social ‘life-cycles’) and
  • Novelties (the unexpected, the unforeseen).

Prior to the global economic meltdown in late 2008, futurists believed that the ratio between these three ways the future unfolded to be: 73% Continuations; 15% Cycles and 12% Novelties. However, were you to ask the same question of futurists today (‘how does the future unfold?’) the answer would be: 71% Novelties; 15% Cycles and only 14% Continuations.

This significance of this is that in a context were the majority of our ‘tomorrows’ are subject to the unknown (Novelties), strategic plans make little sense. You simply cannot ‘plan’ your way into that degree of uncertainty. We have to completely rethink the role and reliance on ‘strategic planning’.

Already most strategic plans have far shorter time frames and the next step is to do away with them altogether as we build the capacity to continually ‘think strategically’ rather than rely on a process that produces at the end of it, a strategic plan. It was General Eisenhower who captured it succinctly when he said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”.

To thrive in tomorrow’s world, and inherit within our Engine #2, will be an understanding that we need to value the capacity to ‘think strategically’ over a reliance on a detailed ‘strategic plan’. In devising our strategies we will need to jettison our love and dependence on ‘the plan’ and the subject of strategy (certainly in the teaching of it) will look nothing like that to which we have become accustomed.

If this resonates with you and you are wondering ‘where to from here?’ A good first step would be to read William Duggan’s excellent book, ‘Strategic Intuition’. Ten years ago that title would have been considered an oxymoron of note; no longer is that the case. I once had diner with the author and was fascinated to learn that he has been onto this message for quite some time but, for the most part, it has fallen on deaf ears.

3. Your People

The people that will walk through your door (if there is one) in tomorrow’s world will not resemble those currently inhabiting your office space of today. But we already know this. The arrival of subsequent generations from the one responsible for shaping much of our current corporate environment (the Baby Boomers), is a revolution that is already well under-way. The rules, incentives, ways of engagement and conventional wisdom of management and corporate sensibilities are all taking tremendous strain as we attempt to attract, engage and retain younger generations.

The old ‘normal’ is not the new ‘normal’ and Douglas Adams (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) framed it best when he said, “When you’re born anything in the world is normal. Anything invented before you’re 35 is revolutionary. Anything invented after you’re 35 is unnatural and wrong”. The huge and lucrative industry that is known as the ‘War for Talent’ attests to this reality.

In tomorrow’s reality, the people that you work with will have a different outlook than those with whom you work today. The simple explanation for this is that they will have grown up in a different world and that will bring about a different worldview. The easiest and most obvious example of this is seen in the attitude towards and use of technology. Social media has fundamentally redefined the way we connect, engage, collaborate, interact and deal with information.

In exploring what all this will look like in tomorrow’s world we need to consider the ‘new normal.’ We need to avoid ‘right vs. wrong’ judgements (in our understanding of connecting, engaging, collaborating, interacting and dealing with information) and appreciate that our use of technology is invariably paradoxical in nature and largely determined by our (own) generation. What is ‘most appropriate’ then becomes a matter of context: What am I trying to communicate and with whom? Therefore, what would be the most effective medium for that communication?

Understanding the generational shifts in values and the behaviour those values elicit becomes key work needing to be done in order to fully and productively engage ‘our people’ of tomorrow. Thinking that we can simply do ‘more of the same’ or that only minor tweaks are required when it comes to matters ranging from incentives to engagement, will prove to be a fatal error.

4. Your Market

If ‘market’ means your clients and customers, then one could really just copy and paste what was said under the previous point (Your People) right here. Our customers of tomorrow will shift in much the same way that our staff of tomorrow will be different. Different outlooks, expectations, values, behaviours and needs. Understanding the people agenda, both inside and outside our business, is critical. However, there is another aspect to ‘market’ that is worth considering: market as defined by geography.

Extending our product or service into different geographical markets is of course not new. Cross-boundary trade has been part of the global economy for centuries. What is relatively new is our access to those markets – both in ‘new geographies’ that have opened up or, more importantly, our ability to access markets through technology. The reality of now being able to ply our trade and access markets other than our own, given the emergence of a ‘connected world’ that has become a global village. Never before has the small / local business owner had such access. Before it was only those multi-nationals with deep pockets and an extensive reach that were able to ‘think globally’.

The ability to access these new markets will become increasingly important in the unfolding future and with it there is certainly both risk and opportunity. Even were we not to play in markets beyond that of our own, it is increasingly likely that our (own) market will be disrupted by forces from beyond our borders. Such is the nature of an increasing inter-connected world and global economy.

The Engine#2 that we need to be building will necessitate a bigger and more expansive view. It will need to account for forces and influences beyond those currently at work within our existing market as our global economy undergoes continual shaping and reshaping.

Understanding that what works in one market (geography) does not mean that it will seamlessly translate into another market. Smart leaders and organisations understand this and so work hard at understanding the cultural nuances and adjustments that will be needed in the new market. A surprising number, those you think ought to know better, often fail to appreciate the required adjustment. If your ‘new market’ is going to traverse the ‘East / West’ boundary then a helpful book to read would be, ‘The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently’ by Richard Nisbett.

In conclusion, we need to be building Engine #2 while keeping Engine #1 in good running order. By anticipating what the future will require of you in these five areas is a start in this important and strategic work. Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo said that, “Every morning you have got to wake up with a healthy fear that the world is changing, and a conviction that, to win, you have to change faster and be more agile than anyone else”. She, of course, is right and by constructing your ‘Engine #2’ now, you will help ensure that when you need to pivot and change, you can do so. Smart leaders don’t wait for the future to happen, they drag that future towards them, they ‘fast-forward’ the future.

So, enjoy your ‘core’ but know that sooner or later you will be required to move towards the ‘edge’. In order to be ready for tomorrow’s world, this is inevitable and unavoidable work. Smart leaders know that this is work that needs to start today!

Make sure then that you are a… ‘smart leader’.


The world needs a new leadership response to a global context of change, complexity and uncertainty. Leadership expert (and author of this post), Keith Coats is passionate about helping audiences around the world to understand what this response looks like and to equip leaders with the tools needed to respond to this changing context.

Keith’s research and global experience of over 20 years has helped him identify the key-defining factors of a successful leader in the 21st century as the ability to learn, grow and be adaptable. It is his great privilege to help leaders access new frameworks and thinking in order to successfully lead into the future. Chat with us if you’de like to explore how he could help your team prepare for the future.

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