Five essential leadership requirements for 2021

Five essential leadership requirements for 2021

If asked to summarise 2020 in a word, the list would surely include answers such as uncertain, disruptive, chaotic, transformative, unsettling, and challenging.

At the start of this year, we never could have predicted the situation we currently find ourselves in. Up until March 2020, it was business as usual. There was optimism that initial decisions on Brexit had been made, and business leaders felt that they could spend the rest of the year focusing on business transformation and growth strategies. But then COVID-19 rapidly spread across the world and we were all forced to quickly shift the way we work, interact, network, and lead.

To help leaders better understand the business challenges of this year and equip them to thrive in the aftermath, Rialto has continued to embark on our research project in which we invite participants to discuss the future capabilities and skillsets they think will be important based on their experiences of current and future trends. The research feeds into the Rialto Accelerated Leadership Index (RALI), which enables leaders to benchmark their capabilities and skillsets. Approximately 350 leaders have contributed to this year’s research update.

Many businesses moved their staff from the office to remote working formats, some for the very first time. Business leaders needed to quickly adapt their approaches to accommodate the change in both their team’s and customers’ circumstances. Whether facing a downturn or growth, the new remote working situation highlighted the need for empathetic, authentic leaders with the customer and employee experience holding equal focus and sitting at the heart of everything.

Many leaders saw the importance of putting people first this year, especially their employees. In fact, the treatment of staff during this time soon defined what type of employer these organisations are. Widely, we saw employee loyalty and motivation maintained. Customers behaved similarly, remaining loyal to their favourite brands and returning as repeat customers.

The common themes arising from this year’s findings is the need for all leaders to be more collaborative, flexible and agile. It has also been suggested that leaders will need to become an exemplar requiring a range of capabilities and skillsets that can be switched on and off, enabling them to react to what is happening around them.

What follows are five of the key leadership capabilities that are being sought after to ensure leaders—and their organisations—are fully fit for the future. Rialto will continue to feedback findings on a regular basis as we continue to see changes in these predictions across our projects and many dialogues.


1. Adapt to Overcome Any and All Challenges

Our 2019 report identified the importance of developing the three As of agility,

adaptability and acumen. The challenges of this year made this an even more essential task for business leaders, especially the first A: agility.

No one could have predicted the massive amount of change and the obstacles this year would present. Many business leaders were forced to think on their feet and quickly adapt their mindset, management style, work practices, and plans in order to lead through these circumstances. Doing so effectively required agility in every possible area.

Working from home, lockdown restrictions, and widespread illness compromised the mental health and wellbeing of employees throughout 2020, and their leaders had to become more emotionally agile as a result. Leaders had to help their teams overcome these heavy burdens while also navigating these emotional challenges themselves. Customer relationships needed to be managed with additional care, consideration, and delicacy. The most effective leaders led with empathy, sensitivity, openness, and compassion this year and will need to keep this same level of emotional intelligence and agility moving forward.

Tough decisions also needed to be made, causing many organisations to change course and quickly adapt. It was a true test in risk, operational and decision-making agility as some leaders may have needed to navigate their team through new working conditions, cutbacks, difficult market conditions and an increasingly urgent need for digital transformation.

After this year’s tests of agility, leaders will need to think critically about which business and operating models will bring success moving forward and feel confident enough to shift focus to these areas. This will require adaptability and a lack of complacency. It is important to seek out continuous learning opportunities in order to stay current and allow for quick pivots to new models or technologies that may help advance the business.


2. Start an Open Dialogue

Communication and engagement challenges are presenting themselves and the two are becoming intermixed as traditional hierarchical structures break down and we see leadership positions shifting hands to Generation X and millennials. These younger leaders are bringing in fresh ideas and different approaches, with the latter of the two groups more heavily focused on experience than some of their predecessors. Additionally, the older members of Generation Z are beginning to enter the workforce and bringing their own set of expectations to internal operations.

Externally, leaders must also navigate communications with some of the most socially conscious consumers seen in decades. Today’s consumers care about the causes the businesses they buy from support, how they treat their staff, their environmental impacts, the fairness of their supply chains, and more. Clearly communicating stances can prove massively beneficial for building or improving customer loyalty, whereas vagueness or dishonesty can put customers off for life. Today’s consumers are also the most tech savvy we have ever seen and have come to expect a certain level of personalisation or ‘wow factor’ in their experiences. Engaging these customers both in person and online has become a critically important challenge for many business leaders to navigate.

Communication and engagement proved especially difficult this year as business operations shifted virtually, as did buying and servicing in many cases. Leaders will need to work hard to unite teams working remotely long term in order to maintain morale and productivity, while also encouraging impact on the team and individual levels. It is likely that many businesses will face tough market conditions well into the new year. Generating customer loyalty through strong engagement and experiences will be key.

Leaders need to show clarity of thought, honesty, and humility when communicating to engage both their staff and their customers. Creating an open dialogue between staff of all levels allows employees to feel more involved and engaged with their teammates, role, and leadership. Leaders who are able to communicate and engage successfully will possess strong storytelling abilities while also being able to provide clear, succinct, and relatable messages for all of their audiences.


3. Become a Digital Champion

This year was a pivotal moment for business 4.0 and digital transformation. Leaders and organisations who had been resisting change or slow to transform were forced to adapt suddenly and quickly in order to continue conducting business amid the lockdowns. Instead of regressing backwards, businesses and their leaders are more likely to continue on the path that they have started down towards digital transformation.

It should have become clear by now that technology is the way forward for all businesses, regardless of size or industry. Leaders should work to understand the impacts of converging technologies on their sector, clients, organisation, and job function, as well as the increasing rate at which they are going to be used. This does not require the leader to become a tech expert but may require some upskilling in order to build up confidence, understanding, and relevant capabilities. This will help leaders to make more informed decisions when selecting tools or methodologies, as well as helping to generate buy-in within the organisation.

Leaders who act confidently inspire confidence, and this will help to quell the fears of any resistant staff. Instead of resisting, leaders should embrace the idea of transformation to become advocates and champions of change within their organisation.


4. Deliver on Promises Efficiently

Since we first began conducting research for RALI, the ability to deliver results quickly has always featured in our findings. However, what we found this year is that the speed in which leaders must execute strategies, projects, and results has changed. It has become a matter of how leaders are able to organise and lead change initiatives across the organisation, and how quickly they can deliver on any promises made.

This acceleration towards even more rapid results could be attributed to a number of sources. As we previously mentioned, this year’s pandemic has required a high level of adaptability and quick thinking, all without a lot of time to work with. It could also be attributed to the increasingly digital world we live in, where everything is available at our fingertips with a few clicks. Whatever the source of this shift, it has meant that leaders need to be able to align strategic business initiatives and people to deliver results at speed.

It can be difficult to get a team on the same page, and staying on the same page in the fast-paced business world is even more of a challenge. Leaders have to respond to rapid changes in economic, market and customer demand.  Having a formula to keep the team aligned and projects on track is more important than ever before.

The best leaders are recognising that the barriers to boldness and speed are less about technical limits and more about mindsets toward what is possible, what people are willing to do, the degree to which implicit or explicit policies that slow things down can be challenged, and bureaucratic chains of command. Heading into the new year, it will be essential for leaders to get clear on these roadblocks and work collaboratively with their teams in order to overcome them. That way, unnecessary delays and setbacks can be avoided and projects can progress quicker, allowing for that highly desired speed of results.


5. Become an Out-of-the-Box Thinker

Pandemics, wars, and other social crises often create new attitudes, needs, and behaviours in the workplace, the market, and society at large. We can anticipate these events to an extent but can rarely predict their impacts. For example, in February none of us would have anticipated the longevity, reach, or damage of the coronavirus pandemic. In these cases, leaders typically have to think on their feet to come up with solutions to unexpected problems.

These influential events highlight a need for greater imagination. When these circumstances arise, the most successful leaders are those with the capacity to create, evolve, and exploit mental models of things or situations that don’t yet exist. Imagination and creativity are key factors for seizing and shaping new futures for work. This creativity needs to be channelled for purpose and not executed on a whim. Strategic creativity requires time for reflection, curiosity, inquisition, experimentation, and optimism.

Imagination is arguably one of the hardest things to keep alive under pressure, yet it can bring about some excellent benefits for business leaders and their organisations. In recessions and downturns, 14% of companies outperform both historically and competitively because they invest in new growth areas. We found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations who were able to imagine came up with new business models that helped their businesses stay afloat or even excel, and they saw significant value as a result. For example, when the restaurants shut, many small restauranteurs and fruit and veg distributors reallocated the stock that would have supplied these eateries into meal boxes that were then delivered to households.

Individuals at all levels who are able to see creative ways around the problem when backed into a corner are the most effectively poised to thrive when future pandemics or disruptions occur.



Undoubtably, the skillsets highlighted here, especially agility and innovation, will continue to prove essential for years to come as businesses strive to overcome any long-term impacts of the pandemic and new challenges presented by Brexit.

The leaders who will be most successful at navigating the so-called ‘new normal’ in 2021 will have the ability to quickly pivot when unexpected obstacles arise but will still be able to maintain empathy and compassion in all of their dealings with staff and customers. These leaders will see challenges as opportunities to do things differently and will become champions for change in their organisation. 2020 has rapidly accelerated the wheels of widespread digital transformation, so leaders will need to seek out opportunities to better understand the impacts and benefits that new tech can bring their organisation. Communication will be key for these leaders when working to create buy in for new initiatives, maintaining morale, continuing to make an impact, and building customer loyalty.

Despite everything, it is still essential for leaders to continue investing in their own professionalism, development, and personal digital brand. Networking in the traditional sense was halted this past year and it is unclear when it might resume. There are still many opportunities for executives to connect with and expand their network virtually. The successful leader in 2021 will be entrepreneurial and take initiative to continue forging new relationships.

Continuous learning will also be key for advancement. Business as we know it has changed, and the skillsets required have evolved alongside it. Successful leaders will understand this and refuse to become complacent, seeking out opportunities to stay current while keeping their eyes focused on the future.

We at Rialto look forward to sharing further insights and trends with you.

If you are interested in taking part in events such as our leadership dialogues and surveys, please contact press@rialtoconsultancy.com  To find out more about the RALI, please visit www.ralionline.com

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