Mathieu was one of 16 business leaders in a leadership retreat asked to think about the characteristics of effective leaders in 10 to 15 years.

The group was made up of very accomplished leaders, age 30 to 55, who were collectively managing thousands of employees and multimillion dollar budgets. They were struggling to identify the capabilities that will be required to lead their their organizations in the future.

Not only could they not identify leadership of the future, they were doing little about building future leadership capability today.

It dawned on them all that they needed to be building tomorrow’s leaders by investing in younger workers. The very same employees that many of them were struggling to understand and engage with.

Mathieu had the advantage of youth, given he was barely 30 and responsible for 400 employees in a natural resources transformation plant. He led a spirited and fractious discussion that resulted in the group identifying some required leadership capabilities of tomorrow.

YMAZING Leadership: Building tomorrow's leaders today
A Chinese proverb states that while the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second-best time to do so is now. (Free Images)

There was consensus on a requirement that future leaders be supreme collaborators, highly intuitive and insightful with all forms of people and technology and bring a high level of openness and flexibility to their leadership roles. Experts would agree.

Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser at the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, an executive fellow at Harvard Business School and the author of It’s Not the How or the What but the Who, has concluded from research that spotting leadership potential in younger workers comes down to looking for four specific things. He points to curiosity, insight, engagement and determination as the best predictors of future leadership potential.

Mathieu and his 15 colleagues had agreed that curiosity and the ability to actively seek out the unknown, to aggressively look for feedback and learning opportunities, were critical for future leaders. They then differed substantially over the other characteristics.

They are not alone in their struggle to identify what will be important for future leaders.

Leadership: Generations don’t agree

The Hay group, a global consulting powerhouse in people strategy since 1943, recently concluded based on looking at data from five million employees that “there is a significant difference in what generations think will be valued in leaders in 10 to 15 years”.

Members of Generation Z, barely into their 20s, believe practical skills such as planning and decision-making will lead the way for future leaders. Boomers, who along with their Gen X colleagues are largely the ones deciding how organizations spend their leadership development dollars, believe the future of leadership lies in people skills, most notably how to connect and engage with others.

I believe this split reflects where people are in their careers and stages of professional development more than what generation they belong to when trying to predict the future.

So amid differences of opinion on what future leaders will need, here are some suggestions on how to build tomorrow’s leaders today by focusing on high potential younger workers:

  1. To quote John Hammon, a top HR executive from Australian banker ANZ, developing future leaders means putting future leaders in “optimal levels of discomfort.” There is nothing like a well-suited developmental assignment or project that does NOT throw somebody in the deep end but does promote their learning through appropriate discomfort.
  2. Promote processes and opportunities to strengthen self-awareness. It is commonly known that younger workers crave feedback and leaders need to be self-aware. Placing leadership potential candidates in scenarios where they get ongoing, meaningful and direct feedback serves everybody’s interests. Consider psychometric assessments, robust mentoring and 360-degree assessments, where peers and colleagues get to weigh in on performance and development needs.
  3. Creativity, autonomy and clarity of purpose will define our future workplaces. Giving young leadership hopefuls training, coaching and guidance in how to foster innovation, how to become master delegators and how to doggedly define and communicate both the organization’s and individual’s purpose and roles will not only engage them today but will also give them the insight they need to create those same conditions as leaders of the future.

It takes a long time and concerted effort to strengthen leadership capability and confidence and for many organizations and their aging boomer leadership teams it’s getting late.

Finding ways to effectively work with and get the very best out of younger workers is important. Finding future leaders among those younger workers is critical.

The good news is, as the famous Chinese proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now. I trust Mathieu and his cohort would agree.