The 8 key traits of a NextGen Leader
A NextGen Leader (NGL) can be defined as someone who understands the importance of leading a company or business (whether a corporate, scale-up, or startup) in a way that enables it to respond to its surroundings quickly, but without disrupting its flow.
Organizational structure: from machine to organism
About a century ago, companies were organized to be as efficient as possible; they were run like machines. The hierarchical structure was top-down and focused on executing orders effectively. In the 21st century, however, the Digital Revolution has brought on some disruptive forces that are not only challenging this old paradigm but are transforming industries, economies, and societies, as well.
Companies that are run like machines don’t cut it anymore. Employees – or maybe more accurate, people – now want an employer that is both stable and dynamic at the same time. An employer that provides a safe place, is also challenging and agile. They have a stable backbone, but it’s not so rigid that the company can’t evolve and change alongside the market. This flexibility supports the dynamic capabilities that make it possible to adapt quickly to new challenges and opportunities. The organization is no longer a machine, but an organism.
Research shows that agile organizations have a 70% chance of being in the top quartile of organizational health. Additionally, such companies simultaneously achieve greater customer centricity, faster time to market, higher revenue growth, lower costs, and a more engaged workforce. NGLs understand these agile dynamics and know how to make these work for them and their organization.
Key traits of a NextGen Leader
But what does it take for a NextGen Leader to lead an agile business on the road to success? What characterizes this new leader? What makes them tick? In our 25 years of experience with many different organizations, we’ve learned that all NextGen Leaders share these eight key traits:
1. Clear vision
It’s an NGL’s job to help their team and their company see the greater picture. They have to have a clear vision of where they want to go and what that future looks like. They make sure that their vision is understandable for everyone in the organization so that each individual can translate it back into their daily work goals. Teams or businesses that don’t have a clear vision are bound to fail since decisions aren’t aligned with or focused on achieving a certain goal. Goals are directional, they provide a direction for people to follow.
Some NGLs write down basic guidelines that align with the vision. Peter van de Pol, Product Owner of OV-fiets at NS, did so in order to help guide his team. They serve as a reminder and can help with determining in which direction the team should or shouldn’t move or what they should or shouldn’t do, meaning that the vision is always leading and top of mind. Another great example is JFK and his We choose to go to the moon speech. Everybody in congress and the White House, right down to the guy sweeping the floors at NASA, knew that they were working towards getting to the moon because JFK clearly articulated his vision. This was later framed as a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) by Jim Collins.
The 4 business principles of OV-fiets
2. Empowers teams
Once a clear vision is defined it’s up to the teams to figure out how they are going to get there. The NGL has to empower the teams to do their jobs to the best of their ability and then let go and trust her people to make the right decisions. In addition, NGLs have to stimulate and motivate their people and show them what their role is in the bigger picture. A great way to do this is by installing self-steering multi-disciplinary teams that work well together. Something for NGLs to take into consideration is the Google study aimed to find out what makes a team work. The researchers found that what really mattered was “less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together,” Google wrote.
“We don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. They tell us what we should do.” Andrew Berkhout, CEO Greenwheels
3. Listens to the organization
Another thing that all NGLs have in common is that they know how to listen. They know that they hired experts and know that they should listen to them. Because why would you hire a smart person to not listen to what they have to say? As Andrew Berkhout, Managing Director of Greenwheels, said in our podcast Innovative Leaders by INFO: “We don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. They tell us what we should do.” If you want people to follow your vision for the future, you should listen to them about how to get there. To an NGL, listening and learning from the people in their organization comes naturally.
Remmert Stipdonk (l) and Andrew Berkhout (r), CEO Greenwheels during the podcast recording
4. Knows the value of failing fast
One aspect of giving the teams full responsibility is that they might make mistakes that could have been prevented. Yes, this sucks, but NGLs know not to reprimand them. Disciplinary actions will inevitably lead to an organization where people are scared to show initiative and experiment. They will wait for assignments, rather than starting on something themselves. The focus of an NGL lies in establishing a safe environment, where people feel they are respected and valued.
Having people that are not afraid to make a mistake now and then will bring energy, initiative, and a lot of intrinsic motivation to a team. Teams will learn from mistakes and know how to do it better next time. NGLs know how to make sure their teams fail smartly, which means documenting steps and sharing them with other teams, so the same mistake isn’t made twice. Supermarket chain Jumbo has Pathfinders to make sure mistakes are only made once: “We believe that making mistakes is no problem as long as you learn from them and do better next time. On the other hand, we have 35 teams. And although making mistakes is part of the learning process, we do not have to make the same mistake 35 times. Pathfinders avoid this,” says Anneke Keller of the Jumbo TechCampus.
An overview of Pathfinders at Jumbo Tech campus
5. Creates clear boundaries
To make sure that each team knows how far they can go, NGLs communicate clear boundaries. Freedom is great, but too much freedom can feel equally restricting as not enough freedom because there are simply too many options to choose from. Clear boundaries will stimulate creativity within those boundaries and will help create focus. It might be challenging to find a way of defining boundaries that is descriptive enough to help a team but doesn’t feel too much like a top-down order. NGLs understand the thin line between defining boundaries and ordering people around.
6. Shared Leadership
A new order has emerged in this complex world, which is based on providing freedom and taking responsibility. You’re actually creating smaller companies within the organization. Therefore, as a leader, you have to be a sort of superhuman, but as an NGL you don’t have to do this alone. Because NGLs apply the principles of shared leadership.
This type of leadership ensures that responsibilities are (equally) spread out between two people who complement each other with male and female traits. This provides a better balance because two people can handle a bigger workload than one and they both view problems differently. According to Ingrid van Rossum, Innovator at Fuenta, shared leadership offers a solution to the tough, dynamic, and complex issues that contemporary leaders are facing in the transition from “ego” to “eco”.
In the past, roles were rigid and the hierarchy was often based on a pyramid-like structure. New ideas are now emerging within organizations that are much more based on freedom and taking responsibility. Van Rossum: “There’s still a framework, but there’s also more leeway, more creativity, and new types of decision making”.
Shared Leadership provides a better balance
7. Strives for transparency
To make sure everybody feels involved, it’s important to be as transparent as possible. A lack of transparency can quickly feel patronizing or could be conceived as a lack of trust in professional teams. But what does transparency mean? How far do you go in sharing commercial and financial results? MiniBrew has some interesting insights on this topic. They stopped communicating financial results company-wide and now only share them with the commercial team. They experienced that people outside of the commercial team didn’t feel they could influence the results, and thus felt distracted by them.
Transparency is a challenge for both the organization and the NGL. A good starting-off point is for the NGL to at least strive to share as much as possible and realize that sometimes “as much as possible” might mean less than they initially thought.
Edwin Blom (CEO) and Olivier van Oord (Co-founder), MiniBrew
8. Focus on innovation
Deep into the Digital Revolution most companies have a digital core and are focused on innovation. But to make sure innovation generates business value, NGLs first have to create a culture within their company that stimulates this. Innovation is not a department or a Lab; in successful, modern organizations it’s intertwined with every aspect of the company and on top of everyone’s mind. In the most successful companies that we’ve worked for, the complete C-suite was aware of the company’s innovation goals and the opportunities it would bring. Next to innovation being a necessary (dare we say crucial?) part of any corporate strategy, it is also one of the most inspiring subjects to work on. It helps people to spot opportunities and to stay ahead of the competition. NGLs are on top of relevant technological and non-technological innovations for their sector, and make sure they have the right partner(s) to help them if needed.
Part of the puzzle
To become a NextGen Leader, training yourself to become proficient in the above will be an important first step. What’s most important, however, is that you understand that you are just a small piece of the puzzle and just as important as every other piece. Only the complete set of pieces will let you solve it and show you the big picture.
Listen to the podcast Innovative Leaders by INFO for more inspiration and real experiences from NextGen Leaders.
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