An International Perspective: Top Leadership Challenges For 2020


While leaders and managers in every region face many similar challenges, they also face certain challenges that are very specific to the geography in which they’re based. Here, four academics from around the world share their views on the most important leadership priorities in their markets for 2020.

The US challenge: bridging the generation gap

“An important challenge facing US leaders in 2020 is the growing generation gap in attitudes and capabilities between themselves and workers soon to be entering the labor market,” argues Rob Anthony, professor of management at the Boston campus of Hult International Business School.

A study of the top 1,000 US companies by revenue, conducted by organizational advisory firm Korn Ferry, puts the average age for CEOs at 58, chief HR officers at 55 and CFOs at 53. At the other end of the spectrum, the post-millennial Generation Z will start to turn 23 and soon command the largest share of the US labor force.

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“Gen Z is highly diverse, well educated, hard-working and entrepreneurial,” says Anthony. “It is clearly distinguished by having grown up in an age of ‘always on’ mobile connectivity, social media, and on-demand entertainment.”

He continues: “In contrast with Millennials, the indications are that many in Gen Z prefer virtual social worlds, and they are not natural team players. Their loyalties depend upon the promise of growth.”

Anthony believes that the c-suite will be challenged to understand and meet the needs of the next generational cohort, especially in a tight labor market. “Demands for new structural arrangements, such as remote working and desk swapping will increase, putting pressure on traditional management approaches and measures of organizational health,” he explains.

Nevertheless, there are upsides to the generation gap. “Leaders and younger workers have much to teach each other,” says Anthony. “Gen Z can inspire older leaders to embrace bold technology visions and harness the breakthrough potential of technologies such as blockchain, machine learning, and robotics. For their part, more mature leaders can enable Gen Z workers to acquire the soft skills they need for career success in an economy that is driven by innovation and based on collaboration.”

The French challenge: liberating the workplace

Liberté is engrained in the French national motto. Yet, the daily experience of French people is that their sense of freedom tends to evaporate once they enter the corporate world, according to Isaac Getz, professor of leadership and innovation at ESCP Europe in Paris and author of Freedom, Inc. “In particular, employees’ freedom to use their initiative has historically been stifled,” he says. “Paradoxically, this is key to the ‘corporate liberation’ revolution that is currently taking place in France – a revolution that is set to further pick up pace across French organizations in 2020.”

Corporate liberation means giving employees responsibility to take any action that they –not their superiors – decide is best for their company’s vision. “The liberated workplace is built to meet the fundamental human needs of equality, self-realization and self-direction,” explains Getz. “Every morning, employees go to work because they want to and, once there, they do their best, meaning that their companies largely outperform counterparts.”

Since 2012, hundreds of French-based companies have embraced the concept of corporate liberation. Most are SMEs, but multinationals such as Airbus, Decathlon, EDF, ENGIE and Michelin, have also embarked on the liberation journey. Meanwhile, the French government has even joined the movement. Getz predicts that over the coming year, “we are sure to see more and more French CEOs try to establish a radically different, liberated workplace”.

The Australian challenge: combatting a lack of trust

“A major leadership challenge in Australia is restoring trust among consumers and workers who feel they are the victims of systematic predatory behavior,” says Professor Gregory Whitwell, chair of CEMS, the global alliance in management education, and dean of the University of Sydney Business School.

Over the past few years, a number of well-known Australian financial institutions have made the headlines for engaging in fraud, deception, inappropriate financial planning advice and aggressive product pushing. Scandals also emerged in relation to money laundering, misconduct in foreign exchange trading and insider trading.

In December 2017, the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry was established to inquire into and report on this wrongdoing. “The almost daily revelations of the Royal Commission generated intense interest and outrage because the savings and future wealth of everyday citizens were at stake,” says Whitwell.

He adds that, for consumers, the revelations effectively affirmed the notion that companies’ claims of customer centricity were nonsense and that too many businesses – not just financial ones – “rewarded behaviors aimed at achieving profits at all costs”.

This prevailing sense of mistrust extends to government, with only a third of Australians saying that they trust senior government officials. “The leadership challenge then is how do you restore shattered trust?” queries Whitwell. “And how do you do this when faith in regulatory agencies and in government is itself broken?”

The Chinese challenge: developing a global mindset

As more and more Chinese companies expand abroad, cultural differences are putting their leaders to the test, says Dr Hao Chen, assistant professor at the department of leadership and organization management at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing.

“Some Chinese business leaders have shown their quick adaptation and willingness to learn and change,” says Chen, who is also a member of the CEMS global leadership and cross-cultural management faculty group in China. “Nevertheless, many are still struggling with identifying the key problems that exist across cultures, not to mention finding an effective solution for them.”

Chen argues that many Chinese business leaders need to develop “a global mindset that can help them adapt to foreign cultures and learn how to use their leadership style in ways that allow them to get their job done in host countries.”

She points out that there is no single correct way to enter new markets. “Winning in one does not mean winning in all,” she explains. “An inclusive organizational culture helps to connect people from diverse cultures and create stronger bonds.”

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