HR expert Q&A 2: Learning to see the big picture and know all the options

Times of change call for new abilities. What can executives do to strengthen their profile during and after Covid-19? This is an excerpt from a discussion of “The leader of the future” organized online by BMI Brussels with high-level HR consultants and executives, including moderator Jean-Marc Benker of ProfilerConsulting in Luxembourg, Christina Aon of CERASP in Canada, Aad JCM van Vliet of Avvartes in Switzerland, and Marie-Pierre Saint Viteux of Volvo Construction Equipment in Belgium.

Jean-Marc: The world has changed a lot recently. What sort of learning is going on at companies?

Aad: A new report by McKinsey says almost 80% of 1,200 business leaders surveyed see investing in learning and skills development as key to their organisations’ future. But 45% said they don’t have a concrete plan for building the needed capabilities. So an important issue for leaders is the speed of learning. They need to make sure it really is happening, on a team level and an organizational level. There is a traditional view of learning as individual. I strongly believe that to move forward as an organisation you need to make sure you are learning on the level of your organisation.

Jean-Marc: McKinsey says executives encourage capability-building programmes for employees but don’t often lead by example. Aad, you’ve been coaching business leaders for years, what do you think about managers going back to university for more knowledge and skills?

Aad: It all starts with you realising that you have to learn. Self-awareness is the bedrock of leadership. If you don‘t know yourself, your strengths and biases, then it will be very difficult to be a successful leader. Successful not only in terms of being recognised by others, but also in terms of living your purpose, doing what you want to do and making the difference you want to make.

Investing time and money in education is an important decision. You are investing for your future, not for your past. You want to thrive in this new world. Look not only at the faculty (which is really important), but also at your colleagues in the classroom. Who are the people you are going to be quite intimate with for the next couple of years? Where the learning really happens is when you open up. It does not happen in your brain – the first place it happens is in your heart.

Now, the new world is all about doing it together. So you want a business school where the content is important, of course, but also a lot of attention is focused on developing yourself as a leader. When people see you, they ask themselves ‘can I trust this person?’ and ‘can I respect this person?’. Only after that do people start to look at competencies. So first it‘s about the quality of relationships, which really is about how you see yourself and your role as a leader.

Jean-Marc: How would you pick a business school and programme for executives?

Marie-Pierre: In line with what Aad was saying, I think the key criteria for an executive MBA type of programme should be its focus on this new world, the new normal, on fast learning to develop the competences of the future. For that, make sure the professors have relevant experience.

Another important element is a global approach – that is even more important now with the development of the remote world. There are no barriers anymore between countries, so a programme should give you a chance to experience the global world and be in a highly diverse environment of professors and other participants. That will create huge opportunities for the future.

Jean-Marc: Christina, you completed the UCLouvain International Executive MBA a few years ago. What changed after that? What was the most valuable thing you gained?

Christina: It was being able to see the bigger picture and understand how all the different aspects interact when I discuss issues and make decisions. In fact, I joined the programme mainly to fill a knowledge gap. I have a good background in sales and marketing, logistics, project management, organisational development, but I had zero knowledge of finance. And there was a very large project I wanted to lead, with a budget of millions of euros which I needed to learn how to manage.

I did learn about finance, but I also learned new things about HR, and discovered other parts of the big picture which I am now able to see. That has really been key sometimes for not wasting time, for understanding why others are behaving as they are, and for considering the larger context of decisions. When I started my career years ago, I thought I knew what was important. But over time you see that life is more complex and that a lot of factors come into play when you make decisions.

Jean-Marc: In today’s world, is it better for an executive to have a generalist or a specialist profile?

Christina: The generalist profile wins. For certain roles you do want expertise: I want a lawyer who‘s gone to law school and a doctor who‘s gone to medical school. But in terms of leadership, you need to be generalist. It has to do with flexibility, to understand all the many things that are going on and know what the options are. You don‘t have to be the expert in each area, you have to make sure you have the right people in those roles to guide you so that you can make decisions. You must be able to pivot on a lot of different issues. Companies need somebody who has dipped their toes in many different pools to be able to understand what’s going on across the board.

Read HR expert Q&A part 3: “Leading others’ growth and communicating purpose”