The Future of Work Demands Complementary Leadership Models



Strong leaders have always been essential to guiding organizations through periods of growth and transition, but today they are increasingly challenged to make the right decisions to drive business performance. Issues like digitalization, managing employee expectations, environmental sustainability, and diversity and inclusion efforts now demand leaders’ attention, but facing these fundamental organizational developments often requires specialist knowledge leaders may not necessarily have.

As a result, many leaders are not prepared to take on their expanded roles. In fact, only half of business leaders feel confident leading their teams today, according to a recent survey from Gartner. What’s more, only half of the employees surveyed agree their team leader effectively creates a vision for the future of the team.

To address emerging challenges, leaders must identify ways to successfully navigate these shifts and turn them into opportunities for growth. Meeting new leadership expectations will require many leaders to cultivate new skills and competencies.

‘What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There’

Leaders are not always best positioned to manage every responsibility they are tasked with, and they are now challenged with additional responsibilities that are entirely new to their roles. This reality is motivating leaders to work differently and adapt new mindsets.

In fact, 60 percent of HR leaders say they are prioritizing their current and future leadership benches in 2019, making it the second-highest priority for the year, according to a recent Gartner survey. In response to the industry-changing shifts spurred by digitalization, increased transparency and public pressure, and the evolution of how work gets done, HR leaders articulate that “what got us here won’t get us there.”

While the HR function is focused on how the organization leverages leadership models, relying on leadership models isn’t enough to help leaders tackle real business priorities and fulfill team performance goals.

Rather than focusing on leadership models, HR needs to create an environment built on “complementary leadership,” the intentional partnership between one leader and one or many leader partners to share leadership responsibilities based on complementary skill sets. Gartner’s 2019 leadership effectiveness survey, “Reshaping Leadership to Prepare for the Future,” found that leaders saw up to a 60 percent boost in team performance when they implemented the complementary leadership approach.

To enable complementary leadership, HR leaders should focus on the following questions:

  1. How do we help leaders focus on the right capabilities?
  2. How do we get leaders to change their behaviors?
  3. How do we fill leaders’ urgent capability gaps quickly?

While complementary leadership can and does occur organically, HR plays a key role in creating the conditions that allow complementary leadership to occur, or even creating complementary partnerships directly.

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To Develop Complementary Leadership, HR Needs to Focus on 3 Changes

1. Equipping Leaders to Identify Development Needs

The first step for HR is to assess the organization’s leaders to understand their current levels of skill proficiencies. This will help determine what gaps exist and what skills require development and fine-tuning.

However, today’s leadership assessments can be misleading because they do not necessarily include the right inputs and often prioritize results based on the wrong metrics. HR must align development programs with leaders’ daily work functions to help them understand how they can effectively use new skills in their current roles.

To do this, leaders should focus on sourcing development priorities from their teams, which will enable employees and leaders to coalesce around a shared set of priorities in service of the team. Additionally, specific context must be factored into assessments of capability needs and performance potential. This enables a better understanding of how leaders are positioned to perform within the specific challenges and needs of their business units and/or functions.

2. Developing Leaders for Practical Application

HR leaders should focus on embedding leaders’ workflows directly into their leadership development programs. Leadership development programs typically last a few days and aim to completely transform leaders’ approaches to their roles. However, leaders may struggle to apply drastic transformations immediately. Leaders must be able to see how they can apply complementary leadership in their daily work functions. Integrating workflows and priorities into development programs provides leaders the opportunity to apply their learning in context.

3. Creating Leader Partnerships

Instead of trying to rush leaders’ development, HR can help them identify and make the most of leader partnerships to fill urgent skill needs. These leader partnerships allow each leader to specialize in core skills, develop needed skills, and lead in critical areas. Gartner’s 2019 leadership effectiveness survey shows this type of partnering can increase leaders’ skill preparedness by 54 percent.

Ensuring that leaders are equipped to lead their teams into the future is a necessary HR strategy for today’s organizations, and HR should be sure to direct resources to the right components of leadership development and support opportunities. Enabling complementary leadership ensures that HR meets the goal of preparing leaders to operate for today and innovate for tomorrow.

Sari Wilde is managing vice president of Gartner’s HR practice.

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