Leaders who feel like their shoelaces have been tied together by the current tangle of challenges can smooth things out with future skills. Already, the 2020s have emerged as a time of change. Seismic shifts in the workplace are reshaping the way business is done, meanwhile economic uncertainty continues unabated. Leaders can find a sure footing with future skills, and stay on track towards sturdy growth and security.

Why are future skills important? 

Future skills are important because they equip people to cope with the ongoing shift in mindsets in the workplace and prepare for the rapid onset of technological advances. Ultimately, they are the secret sauce that leaders will depend on in the 2020s in successfully managing change.

A combination of social factors has brought about wholesale change in attitudes in the wider community and consequently within the workplace. Shaped by Me Too and Black Lives Matter, the pandemic and the rise in hybrid working, social attitudes have evolved.

During lockdown, millions worked away from a centralised office. At home, many placed new emphasis on personal needs such as clear recognition from leaders and better access to personal development. In short, mindsets shifted towards flexibility, tolerance, and personal values. At the same time, the pandemic accelerated the use of digital and AI tech.

Between them, these transformations have spurred the need for a combination of high-level skills. Consultants McKinsey believe that “the need for manual and physical skills, as well as basic cognitive ones, will decline, but demand for technological, social and emotional, and higher cognitive skills will grow.”

Old problems, new solutions

Cultural shift has speeded up developments that were long overdue. In the past, Diversity and Inclusion strategies were sometimes less than heartfelt. There is more work to do, but D&I is becoming centre-stage in company culture. Box-ticking gestures are being superseded by developments such as blind recruitment practices, reverse mentoring and better understanding of bias.

New mindsets in the workplace have led to other reforms too. Onboarding practices are no longer confined to funnelling joiners through hours of company doctrine. Better instead to help new people quickly develop the confidence to find their creativity. Similarly, annual appraisals that rake over the past are being replaced with continuous forward-looking personal development sessions.

Millennials and Generation Z in particular are reluctant to accept some of the ways of doing things that their parents were familiar with. Digital natives, with online followers and high-performing profiles, don’t do well when told to box up their personality.

Younger generations welcome employers who encourage people to bring more of themselves to work, particularly through personal development and upskilling. Employers who fall short risk struggling with job retention, as many found in the Great Resignation.

What is upskilling?

Upskilling involves developing abilities that will enhance your performance in your current role. For leaders, upskilling includes learning to keep pace with change so that business practices can evolve smoothly without interrupting growth.

Upskilling is important at a time when leaders must somehow loosen links with a newly flexible workforce while maintaining a tight rein on unity, morale and team spirit. They must consider employees’ personal development and personal needs, while still keeping a competitive edge over rivals. Upskilling with future skills eases these difficulties

What’s the difference between upskilling and reskilling? 

While upskilling supports an existing role, reskilling enables a change in direction. According to the World Economic Forum, half of all employees around the world need to upskill or reskill by 2025, in particular as a result of automation and new technologies.

It’s clear that company cultures are evolving. What’s less clear is what they should look like, or how employers should make appropriate adjustments. For example, many leaders have struggled to get to grips with hybrid working and the weakening of centralised control.

How do you build a culture that can flexibly accommodate people’s needs yet still be sturdy enough to drive productivity and growth? How can leaders help their people cope with change, while ensuring they stay focused, efficient and happy? Such paradoxes raise many questions.

What are future skills for leaders?

Future skills equip leaders with answers, focusing on four themes. Managers will need to be agile thinkers, skilled in guiding people through change, able to unite a diverse team in scattered locations, and capable of maintaining excellence in communication. At Working Voices, our courses in future skills focus on these four subjects.

Agile Thinking – outdated responses might fall short of meeting new challenges. Better to be adaptable and ready to find new solutions by approaching a problem with the mind of a constructive critic. Critical thinking, better described as agile thinking, develops your ability to make strong decisions, understand flexibility, apply data and knowledge, engage creatively with problems and understand how others think.

Leading Through Change – at the start of the pandemic, change struck overnight. Its lingering effects are exacerbated by geopolitical turmoil in Eastern Europe, and economic uncertainty globally. The troubles of the early 2020s are set to continue, so too are technological developments, and challenges arising from the climate emergency. Navigating change, uncertainty and complexity with bounded optimism is an essential skill for leaders at all levels.

Social Wellbeing – new ways of working are underpinned by stronger recognition of the value of individuals, not as cogs in a machine but as people who can think with agility, who can communicate with each other and who can cope with change. By nurturing individuals, leaders can protect the team. These skills in social wellbeing support sustainable productivity through connection, collaboration, self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

Communicating with Data – easy access to data can lull managers into a misleading sense of security, as if the data were the whole story. Data is essential, but for the story you need people. Understanding data, and sharing its lessons, requires skills in analysis and interpretation. Complexity must be shaped into a meaningful picture if it is to be communicated to others, whether through written reports or graphics and visualisation.

Leaders as moral change agents

Employers offer more than profits for shareholders. As ‘moral change agents’, they have the power to develop a motivated, engaged workforce. Doing so pays long-term dividends. Sustainable working practices, boosting engagement, productivity and retention, will support a business and its people through disruptive periods of change and uncertainty. For more on sustainable working practices, take a look at our guide to the Sustainable Human.

Given the unsettling developments of the 2020s so far, leaders might feel as if they’ve been hurled on to another planet before they had time to pack a toothbrush. With the right skills however, they can keep up with change. There may be uncertainty and trepidation, but there’s no going back. A little secret sauce in the form of future skills will help to sweeten the journey.



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