next-generation leaders, leadership

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We can take heart that the next generation of leaders is highly likely to put their COVID-19 lessons to use in their ascent to the C-suite, writes Sunita Rajan, Managing Director, Media Sales, APAC, Bloomberg Media.

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While we won’t fully understand the impacts of the pandemic – financial, social, and personal – for years to come, some things are already clear. The way many people live and work has fundamentally changed, and in some cases they want their workplaces to adapt. A bigger debate employers must start considering is what happens when this pandemic-affected workforce eventually moves into leadership positions, and what it means for the future state of the workplace.

With that in mind, Bloomberg Media undertook a research project to acquire insights into this new cohort. In conducting the Next-Gen Leadership Survey, we spoke with 1000 professionals around Asia who can broadly be considered ‘next generation’ leaders – people on their way to senior management roles – to get a sense of how leadership has changed post-pandemic.

The research bears out something that may feel intuitively right to HR practitioners – that the post-pandemic workforce feels newly emboldened in what it wants from employers, and that their expectations of leaders have changed and hardened.

There appears to be a new, stronger emphasis on the creation of more people-centric workplaces. Arguably, the pandemic has accelerated a gradual trend that was already well underway – but the expectation from next-generation leaders on things like flexible work, remote working, and work-life balance is now non-negotiables.

This shouldn’t be surprising – the pressures of the pandemic have prompted many of us to become introspective about what matters to us. However, the strength of sentiment within the data was surprising.

Workplace flexibility is here to stay

The Great Resignation, as it has become known, continues to fuel concern amongst these next-generation leaders – many of which are already in middle to senior people management positions – with 81% reporting normal or greater churn.

This is leading to a greater acceptance of what success looks like for direct reports. The next-generation leaders are less willing to subject themselves to long hours in the office – and are less likely to judge others by the same measure. Most young leaders are confident the flexible working model (for instance, hybrid working) will be sustained after the pandemic.

In fact, almost three-quarters (75%) of the leaders we surveyed believe that their companies have benefited from the advent of flexible working and most of them intend to continue offering flexibility, largely across the board in some form.

In particular, leaders in India, Singapore, and Indonesia have found workplace flexibility more impactful compared to those in other markets such as Japan and Hong Kong – the latter group is often associated with cultures of office attendance. Unsurprisingly, information sectors like finance, insurance, and technology led the way in adopting remote working as a business norm.

An evolution of leadership styles

Much has been made of the blurring between home and office for employees during the pandemic. While those criticisms can be valid – many employees arguably felt more tethered to emails because of the lack of a home/office divide – there is another effect at play.

Our research showed that next-generation leaders have acquired a great deal more empathy for colleagues and their reports because of the pandemic experience.

By necessity, this group of aspiring senior leaders became more immersed in the challenges of colleagues. Conversations about juggling home responsibilities became commonplace – often augmented by kids, partners, and messy living spaces on Zoom. Likewise, operational challenges brought managers closer to their teams – oftentimes, managers were more likely to have to roll up their sleeves than in pre-pandemic times.

This was evident in our research, with agility, adaptability, and flexibility emerging as the biggest learning for leaders during the pandemic.

What does this all mean? Our interpretation of the data is that there are three clearly identifiable cohorts of future leaders. Whereas these groups might have once been best characterised by their approach to productivity, or profits, this generation will be defined by how they engage with post-pandemic expectations.

We see three distinct leadership styles that have emerged:

  • New Frontier leaders who are agile and open-minded with idealistic social welfare and environmental goals for their businesses.
  • Pragmatist leaders who are balanced and more motivated to care equally for profits and purpose.
  • Traditionalists who have largely resisted change and remain focused on business success.

As always, HR practitioners will often have to reconcile senior leadership preferences with the overall business culture and the expectation of employees. In the context of a tight labour market, a newly emboldened workforce, and the new mainstream application of flexible working, that reconciliation may prove extremely difficult.

It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom of the pandemic. However, we can take heart – as members of the workforce and as human beings – that the next generation of leaders have weathered the COVID-19 experience and they are highly likely to put these lessons to use in their ascent to the C-suite. As these leaders rise in seniority, many will bring more empathetic and flexible working cultures with them.


Lead photo / Shutterstock; article image: Provided [Pictured: Sunita Rajan, Managing Director, Media Sales, APAC, Bloomberg Media]

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