What does the future want right now?

April 1, 2019

Unquestionably spring has arrived. Look at the parks and gardens: blossom, buds, weeds and all evidence of life as the sunshine triggers growth. As a response, we sow seeds, plant bulbs, prune, cut grass, add fertiliser, clean ponds: the garden centres get inundated. We are hopeful our efforts and designs will pay dividends as the year progresses.I have always liked the narrative of leaders as gardeners. It reflects that organisations are complex ecosystems and is far more meaningful than the old cliché of the leader as the ‘general’ dispatching troops about the battlefield. Indeed, one of the most influential generals in the US Army of recent times was to relate his leadership role to that of the gardener. General McChrystal, began to understand his role as one of nurturing the organisation – its structures, processes and most importantly its culture. He was to say, “the gardener cannot actually ‘grow’ tomatoes, squash or beans – he can only foster an environment in which the plants do so”.Recently I worked with a client to understand how their younger generation perceived a number of influential talent development propositions. The purpose was to understand what the ‘future’ wanted right now and to determine what we could do to establish a ‘forward looking’ environment where they may flourish. Borrowing the Hackathon concept from the IT crowd… we applied our own Blacklight ‘process’ to the approach thus eliciting a far deeper understanding of what is hidden and influential in organisations (you know where to find us if you more on this…!). The output from the day was extremely interesting and I wanted to share three of the themes.


· Receive and give feedback, lots of it, and often– however, feedback must be trusted, timely, multi-dimensional and underpinned by great listening and open dialogue. Within this group was a huge motivation to learn, improve, gain confidence, and be competent to manage a career path that was far from certain. Unfortunately, once a year PDRs, managers uncomfortable or reluctant giving feedback, over reliance on praise rather being corrective (and that praise focusing on ability and financial outcomes rather than effort and integrity) – simply was not enabling people to grow in any meaningful way.

· Be the CEO of your own career (what a lovely turn of phrase). Those young people in the Hackathon certainly knew the authority they had in shaping their careers and that the buck stopped with them. They wanted choice and options – and not linear pathways. However, when they looked for organisations to support them in their development this could be missing, disappointing, too restricted or too hard to find. For this group the availability of quality development opportunities was far more important than any promotion, raise or bonus.

· Managers must be team and individual performance coaches – this rejected the old concept of the manager fixated on status, task and control. Not a revolutionary new concept, but one that underlined that managers still have a long way to go before they are appreciated as the performance coaches they need to be. In addition, the focus on the coach should be on the team and the individual – a principle well established in sport but not always in business.

The general conclusion was how powerful the motivation was to be future ready. To be fit for whatever the unfolding world throws up. To take personal accountability for their own competence and career progression. It therefore became evident that this demographic would hold businesses to account on the availability, opportunity and quality of development support provided, including nurturing a strong culture of learning and improving. They wanted to be inspired by how they could grow. It was also clear this would be a differentiator in their choice of future work and employer.

The novelist Mary Cantwell said “Gardeners, I think, dream bigger dreams than emperors”. Our leaders need to think big too about the how they go about supporting the future of their people in their quest to learn and improve. For it is in this commitment that a tacit alliance exists in ensuring good people, products and services continue to innovate, stay fresh and remain attractive to customers. As the general said – it’s about fostering the conditions for that to flourish. It is the role of a gardener! And the garden is culture.

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