Key Attributes of a 21st Century Leader

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The idea of equality and diversity in the workplace isn’t exactly new. But the negative impact it had on one of our clients demonstrates it’s not just an ethically and morally important issue for society. Encouraging diversity can transform your business and create new, different or better outcomes, which lead to a more secure future.

Our client,  a £multi-billion global construction services company, is fiercely proud of its 100+ year heritage, deep engineering roots, and a strong culture to educate and mentor future leaders. However, when the company was established the world looked very different –  the men would go out to work and the women would stay home to take care of the family. While developing future leaders is crucial to an organisation’s success, the problem our client faced is that ingrained in its DNA were masculine attributes, which underpin beliefs, values and behaviours.

Traits such as nurturance, sensitivity, supportiveness, warmth, cooperativeness, expressiveness, modesty, humility, empathy, and being emotional, kind, helpful and understanding have been cited as stereotypically feminine.

Traits traditionally viewed as masculine in Western society include strength, courage, independence, and assertiveness.

The macho mindset in this organisation was most visible in the company’s ways of working. Over generations, the business had developed a solid repeatable process, which included the so-called ‘big cajones master plan‘. To ensure the team were hailed as heroes, they would set ironclad cost targets that were tenaciously managed down, so they always over-delivered on profit.

You think the plan is fail-proof, but everything changes

Over time, the company had grown to take on larger and more complex projects, including multi-generation client environments, and those with broader social responsibility. The world had changed but the company had failed to keep pace. The predominantly masculine attributes of the leadership team made the delivery team feel unable to report problems upwards. Instead, they continued to follow the narrative of “We’ve never had this problem before. We know what we’re doing.” It wasn’t until the team was nearly three-quarters into a large and complex project, they finally admitted to massive cost overruns that would cost the business £millions. 

It was the wake-up call the business needed.

The CEO recognised the strategic imperative to get ‘back to basics’, and also take into meaningful consideration that its workforce had also evolved to be multi-generational, and increasingly diverse. The leadership team started to check the foundations on which the business was built. It needed to determine how to:

  • Understand the end user better, what they wanted, and how they used the product/service.
  • Interact with society more and keep pace with change.
  • Deliver profitable projects by broadening the supply chain and encouraging customer collaboration and joint ventures to develop larger projects.
  • Make the workforce feel confident about committing to a more accurate plan.
  • Evolve the company’s leadership so managers were equipped with the mindset and tools to empower their teams.


However, this was all reliant on the business possessing the right capabilities to change from its old ways of working. 

According to research from HBR, women are actually more effective than men in 84% of core leadership competencies, which include resilience, developing, inspiring and motivating others, championing change, and collaboration and teamwork. If the business could change the mindset to encompass more of these traits alongside the existing strategic and technical expertise, it would encourage a new, more diverse, culture to emerge.

Team diversity is the key to future success

By taking a new approach, the organisation placed greater emphasis on diversity so it wasn’t so male-dominated. Through a series of workshops across Europe, Australia and the Middle East – that were by design diverse, multi-generational, cross-functional, and cross-hierarchical – they practised new key skills, such as active listening, and the basics of ‘coaching as a conversation’.

Additionally, mentoring became cross-functional and cross-hierarchical. And this helped support the transition towards more empowered teams who felt able to deliver and collaborate with people up, down and across the business.

It kick-started a powerful movement that saw step-changes across the business – and the research shows this diversity has a measurable impact on the bottom line. Of course, there are always a handful of people who dig their heels in during times of change. Here, 1-to-1 coaching was important to help leaders see how the old ways of ‘command and control’ were no longer relevant, and understand how empowerment and emergent strategy were the keys to securing their future success.

two women looking at talking woman


Why is diversity more relevant now?

Consider how our workplaces are increasingly multi-generational and multicultural. The baby boomers are hitting retirement and now account for just a quarter of the working population, while millennials hold the lion’s share at 35%. Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever. And women make up 48% of the global workforce.

As a leader, you will achieve significantly more through leaning into change. You need to understand the mindsets of individuals, and recognise the opportunity to lean on their diversity of thought to deliver new, different, or better outcomes – cognitive diversity is shown to lead to a 20% increase in innovation, as well as improved problem solving and decision making.

Organisations that embrace diversity are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors and 70% more likely to capture new markets. Discover how S&S can help you change to support your future growth.


What we do. 

Our experts work closely with senior leaders in understanding the nature of the challenge leaders face in driving change. We have tried and tested tools that our experienced practitioners use in working side by side with our clients to understand the change landscape and work on real issues that bring this power to bear.

Stuart Williamson
Written by Stuart Williamson
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