There was a palpable buzz on the top floor of the AllBright women’s members’ club* recently, when Management Today assembled its 2022 class of 35 Women Under 35.
Looking around the room of bright minds, even the most hardened cynic would feel hope for the future of business. Our winners excitedly swapped career stories. One woman is creating a product to help cancer patients at risk of sepsis. Another founded a £4.5m cleaning company aged 18 with just £20, a bucket and a mop. While a third spurred the launch of a £480m credit facility, managed by the World Bank, for female entrepreneurs in developing countries.
Despite the celebrations, the group are acutely aware that leading a business won’t be any easier now that the pandemic is seemingly over. From double-digit inflation and the increasing costs of goods, to hybrid working and digitalisation, a host of challenges await them. But their talent, drive and determination are a powerful combination. So what do they think the future of business has in store?
The challenges ahead
If one thing is for certain, it’s that the world of work is only going to become more tech-driven. “Leaders that keep their pulse on the rise and use of technology will become the benchmark against which future leaders will be measured,” says Shabri Lakhani, chief executive of SalesWorks.
With the emergence of direct to consumer, Web 3, AI and the metaverse, businesses that aren’t competing for customers in these new spaces will lose – or fail to recruit – them. So it has never been more important to get to grips with these evolving technologies.
It’s not enough for a handful of senior leaders to understand the changes. As automation, AI and VR become more prevalent in workers’ day-to-day roles, businesses will need to think about how to invest in upskilling the whole workforce.
As leaders brace for an increasingly digital world, they will need to balance such things as automation and AI applications with remaining “human” – the most used word by our cohort to describe the future challenges. For example, although chatbots are an efficient way of engaging customers, they can accidentally pick up and start using profanity.
In addition to increased automation, our 35 Women Under 35 also voiced concern for how to keep an increasingly online and diverse workforce connected. “How will leaders retain a sense of humanity in the workplace?” Emilia Drozda, StoneTurn’s director, says.
And as if balancing the needs of the business and its workers wasn’t enough, “leaders of tomorrow will be forced to consider not just what’s best for them, their team and their business but also what’s best for the protection and preservation of our planet”, Amy Williams, Good-Loop’s founder and CEO, warns.
How to future-proof businesses
As consumers think more about their impact on the world, businesses will need to balance the bottom line with expectations to do good. “Leaders need to be acutely aware that prosperity is being redefined and good business is no longer all about financial wealth – it now includes societal and environmental well-being,” Drozda says.
When it comes to ethical issues, businesses have to be genuine. In the aftermath of Covid-19, more people are online than ever before and they’re unafraid to call out injustices. From BrewDog to KPMG, there was a wave of brands and bad bosses boycotted in 2021. It’s only a matter of time until firms that still practice green-washing, tokenistic tactics and outdated approaches to management are ousted (probably on the next tell-tale metaverse version of Glassdoor).
Having a workforce as diverse and modern as today’s consumers is key to future-proofing firms. While businesses have mostly mastered attracting diverse candidates, retention remains an issue. Although lots of businesses create groups for under-represented employees, Julia Rast, senior manager, global solutions and innovation at Xaxis, says that not enough firms look at how their existing culture needs to change to “create an environment where everyone feels they belong”.
She adds: “Start doing that today because if your team feels they belong, they will thrive in your organisation. Otherwise, you might risk losing talent to competitors who have invested time in making their company more inclusive.”
And by hiring diverse talent, our 35 Women Under 35 stressed that this goes beyond gender and race. With a recession looming, technology moving at a fast pace and the ticking timebomb that is climate change, businesses need workers with an array of backgrounds and skillsets.
At the same time, the fight for talent has never been fiercer. Workers no longer see a job as a paycheck but as an integrated part of their lives. So businesses need to invest in their employee value proposition. Those that still think of flexible working as a perk haven’t yet understood that the power dynamic has permanently shifted in favour of the people.
Beyond flexible working policies, Farrah Ekeroth, EY’s head of employer brand, says that “taking care of your people” is key to retention. To weather the storms ahead, businesses must look beyond profit at how they can better serve their workers, their customers and the planet. “Tomorrow’s workers crave a deep connection to their employer and purpose,” she adds.
How leaders have to evolve
Today’s leaders may have thoroughly earned a seat at the table, but be warned – it’s no longer acceptable to comfortably keep it warm. As Bhavisha Gorecha, EMEA chief of staff for global operations at Credit Suisse, puts it: “Leaders are under a degree of scrutiny unlike previous generations and are expected to take personal accountability for driving meaningful, impactful change.”
In order to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, leaders must bid farewell to the traditional top-down approach and sharpen their soft skills. Most leaders got practice during the pandemic, where employees needed managers who could listen, build a sense of community and help fit work around their problems. Now is not the time for leaders to ease back into old habits. This shift in how people prefer to be managed isn’t going away.
Cleannest’s co-founder Morgan Mixon says “empathy and adaptability are the two facets of leadership that I think all leaders will need in order to galvanise their teams over the long-term and to cleverly design businesses that create value for people and the planet”.
The same goes for leaders who want their workforce to be authentic and empathetic to the array of ages, cultures and abilities at their firm. Embarking on a “do as I do” approach to leadership will, in time, break down hierarchical barriers within the business and create an open culture.
Equally, leaders who think they’re the smartest person in the room will struggle to adapt to emerging technologies. With Gen Z growing up in a heavily digitised landscape, leaders should lean on their younger workers for input. “Even though these younger managers might not have a backpack filled with years of experience, they have access to a wealth of information in a fast-evolving era,” Rast says. As such, she adds that the relationship between bosses and subordinates will evolve to a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge.
Ultimately, leaders need to throw away their imaginary crystal ball and realise it’s okay not to know all the answers. The only way leaders are going to tackle the challenges of tomorrow is by knowing that they are going to fail. Sometimes, spectacularly. But only by creating a supportive company culture can leaders expect their team to pick them back up when they fall – and probably joke about it together on Zoom.
*Created by women for women, AllBright is an all-female members’ club in the heart of Mayfair. Designed to inspire and open opportunities, the club invites women to create invaluable connections over coffee, learn business lessons over lunch, and join daily events from workshops to panel discussions and beyond.
Who’s who in Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35 photo shoot?
Pictured left to right: 1) Lauren O’Donnell, 2) Becky Kean, 3) Natasha Bray, 4) Farrah Ekeroth, 5) Jennifer Quigley-Jones, 6) Bhavisha Gorecha, 7) Amy Williams, 8) Shabri Lakhani, 9) Julia Rast, 10) Umaima Ahmad, 11) Kaltrina Brahimi, 12) Rachael Flanagan, 13) Emilia Drozda, 14) Katie Hunter, 15) Morgan Mixon, 16) Joni Ferns, 17) Ayomide Akin, 18) Amy MacBeath, 19) Maria-Luiza Popescu, 20) Gigi Jia, 21) Rachel Conroy, 22) Rushina Shah, 23) Jillian Fisher, 24) Joanna Trippett.