The New Leadership Agenda: A Discussion With PA Consulting’s Frazer Bennett

Why organisations need a new way to lead if they want to remain relevant and fulfil their potential

It’s no secret that the world is changing, and faster than ever before. For business leaders, this presents a challenge. No sooner have they got their heads around a certain issue than the whole landscape shifts again. This is both a demoralising and exhausting place to be.

However, for Frazer Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer at PA Consulting, such a negative outlook is only one side of the story. He believes that leaders – and organisations – already have all the qualities they need to succeed in the future. Ahead of his keynote at Disruption Summit Europe, Bennett took us through the reasons businesses have to stay positive.

A change is going to come

At this point in our history, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Our business activity over the past century has left a questionable legacy for both people and the planet – with the exploitation of human labour and natural resources being justified in the relentless pursuit of profit. Now we recognise that these methods are no longer sustainable – or even desirable – we are faced with a choice. What kind of world do we want to live in? What sort of future do we want to create?

Querying the place of humans in the future is the most important step towards answering these questions. For Bennett, there are a series of large forces that are currently impacting the world we live in. These are macro-level, societal changes, which affect what we expect as consumers, as citizens, as patients, as employees – the list goes on. In the business sphere, this is leaving leaders scratching their heads.

“We see big changes, and that the rate of change is increasing,” says Bennett. “This is leaving leaders a bit stuck, frankly. It’s really difficult to know which way to turn, and so we tend to revert to type. We fall back on the stuff we know and trust, to behaviours that have been instilled in us all the way through our working lives. To systematise, regularise, create a process, formularise what we are doing, in order to try and solve the problems we face.”

The issue is, says Bennett, that our old way of doing business simply won’t cut it in the modern age. The problems organisations currently experience don’t lend themselves to formulaic solutions.

“You can’t respond to the pace of technological change by installing a process that’s going to help you manage that change,” he says. “You can’t use a process to respond to the changing expectations of consumers, what they trust, how they make choices or their values – and how their values are impacting what they do.”

It’s all about ingenuity

Instead of reverting to the familiar processes of the past, Bennett and his team advocate focusing on the innate qualities of people to solve problems. This is the human quality of ingenuity – a playful optimism, a creative kind of inspiration that can be applied to solving challenges, particularly those that people have previously shied away from.

If leaders can trust the ingenuity of their employees, they stand in good stead for the future.

“We think ingenuity can help to solve some of the really big societal problems,” he says. “The kinds of problems organisations face today are driven by the kinds of problems humanity faces today, the big, macro-level, multifaceted challenges. These don’t just demand a point solution, they require a system solution. That’s why we believe you need a different way to solve those problems.”

For Bennett, the positive human future that we all wish to see is achievable through our essential nature as human beings.

“In order to address our challenges, we have to go back to what it is that makes us innately human. This is our creativity, our ability to adapt to change, to seek out and exploit difference – because differences represent opportunity. These are things that make us human beings, and these are the skills that we need to be using.”

A new way to lead

Organisations are therefore presented with a mandate to work out how they can bring the core skills of their people to the fore. The business of the future is defined by this principle – and by a new kind of leadership.

Moving away from their tried and tested methods may seem daunting for many business leaders, but Bennett is keen to stress that making these changes needn’t be overwhelming.

“The good news is that the skills already exist in organisations,” he says. “We all have them. It’s just that they have not been emphasised by the last 50 odd years of enterprise. So, leaders may feel uncomfortable, but if you think back to your early years, they were the characteristics we exhibited when we started our careers, when we believed anything was possible. We were insanely creative, and we went out of our way to build new relationships and find new ways of doing things. Those are the skills we have to tap in to.”

“The only reason it feels scary is because we’ve been told for a very long time that these aren’t the skills to be focusing on.”

Four steps towards positive change

Together with the right mindset, and an ideological appreciation of the power of ingenuity, companies need concrete action points if they are to secure a positive future for themselves, their people, and the world as a whole.

Bennett identifies four things leaders can focus on to harness the ingenuity of their employees, and bring about the kind of future they want to be part of:

1) Build a climate of optimism

You’re not going to get very far unless you believe you can. Research shows that optimism is the best way to live longer. It increases the likelihood that you’re going to find solutions to challenges. Building a climate of optimism is one thing leaders can do, and it starts with themselves.

2) Encourage team innovation

We must encourage and empower innovation in our teams. Key ingredients in creating high-performing innovation teams include focusing on user-centric design; making the most of multidisciplinary approaches and bringing together cross-sector expertise; being able to use rapid iterations and prototyping; and importantly, aligning ambition across all stakeholders.

3) Build an organic organisation

We talk about building an organic organisation. Change isn’t going to go away. It’s not about taking one organisation that’s mechanistically set up to behave in one way or deliver one thing – a certain product or service – and changing it so it now delivers a different kind of product in a different kind of way. We’re saying that the ability to adapt to change has to be intrinsic to the organisation. This is thinking about organisations as organisms not mechanisms.

4) Seek inspiration from unlikely places

This means going out of your way to look for solutions to the problems you have in places that you wouldn’t normally expect. Somebody else has already solved the problem you’ve got, all you’ve got to do is track them down. For example, if you look at how young startups behave, they spend an awful lot of energy working out what they can get away with not doing.

They ask: who can I partner with, who can I offload capability to? If you’re building an online startup you’re not going to do your provisioning, your storage, your AI – you’re going to outsource all that. These companies go out of their way to find people who have already solved the problems they’ve got. That’s the fastest, most dynamic way to get to a successful outcome for your company.

On the right path

While many startups might have already made inroads in this way of working, there’s space in the spotlight for corporates too. Bennett notes that many larger companies are currently reshaping their offerings in line with changing consumer expectations.

“Larger product companies like brand holders – the Unilevers and Procter & Gambles of this world – are reframing what their product is and thinking about it in terms of a service,” he says.

“We talk about servitisation, where instead of thinking about my washing powder as a product and buying it from the store, my washing powder becomes a service that’s delivered to me. The washing powder itself still exists but it is now delivered to me as an asset based on machine learning and an understanding of how I’m doing my laundry – a connectivity between my washing machine and the brand holder.”

“This happens as a result of the enabling technology, but companies have to rethink their relationship with the consumer too. Rather than a transactional relationship which takes place in the store, it becomes a longstanding, connected relationship. Companies doing this kind of thing are doing really well.”

A positive human future

As well as catering to the needs of consumers, it’s imperative for leaders to consider their employees in the business world of the future. This touches upon a topic that is currently gaining currency in the corporate sphere: purpose.

“I’m really pleased that purpose is becoming increasingly prevalent in the business narrative,” says Bennett. “Lots more companies are talking about their purpose openly with their customers and with their employees. I think this is a reaction to two things. It’s a reaction to this big societal change where the values people have are changing, and it’s a reaction to what people expect from the world of work.”

“You speak to people entering the workplace today and the reason they choose to work for one company or another is very different to even 10 years ago. It’s driven by values. They really want to understand the values of the company they’re going to work for.”

This taps into the need for the modern business to be accountable to its employees and the world at large. If people don’t rate the work they are doing or the values they are expected to uphold, then companies will satisfy neither their customers nor their workforce.

Building a positive human future therefore begins with authentic values. Leaders – at any level – have to be certain of what that means for their business. On that note, the last word goes to Bennett:

“Values aren’t what I put on the website,” he says. “Values are how I behave.”

Hear Frazer Bennett’s keynote A Positive Human Future: A New Leadership Agenda at Disruption Summit Europe on 10th September