Building future leaders

What are the building blocks for developing leaders? Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook offer some suggestions

In the high-stakes arena of modern business, senior leaders bear the weight of growing responsibilities, frequently finding themselves at the forefront of multiple pressures at any one time. It begs a question:  are HR and L&D adequately equipping potential leaders with the developmental support required to prepare them for what is expected of them? Ruth Spellman, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) thinks not. She says:

 “The UK has lots of management and leadership potential, but it will take a concerted effort from HR managers to help harness this talent, reduce the number of managers unable to recognise the skills they actually have and prevent vast swathes of management talent from falling down the gap.” 1  

Focus externally as well as internally

Senior leaders carry a heavy burden of wide-ranging responsibilities, often in the glare of publicity. Decisions once kept within the confines of the boardroom are subject to intense scrutiny. An illustration is three news stories over the last few months where senior managers were widely held responsible by social media and the jury of public opinion. At NatWest Group the chief executive had to resign after breaking client confidentiality on a decision on a controversial public figure’s bank account. There were loud calls for the director general of the BBC to resign over the private life of a single TV announcer. While at ITV, its head was called to account in a Parliamentary Committee hearing for the behaviour of a well-known celebrity.

The decision-making of senior managers is increasingly influenced by external factors such as government, global supply chains, and environmental considerations. These influences span a broad spectrum, including customers, competitors, regulators, industry trends, suppliers, investors, and societal and environmental trends. As a global energy company, leaders of Shell have experienced the eyes of the world watching every move on how it handles climate change issues. Dramatically, this has included activists publicly criticising Shell’s very existence, disrupting meetings and occupying premises, including its headquarters’ offices in London.

Every leader of an organisation must work hard to maintain a dual focus, internal and external, so that they can navigate their organisation through the complex and ever-changing business landscape. This is a many-layered and difficult task and the development process needs to be rethought to give leaders the best chance to succeed. HR and L&D can play a key role to assist in this process of development.

As the guardians of workplace culture, managers are responsible for creating an environment that encourages continuous learning and professional development

Pressures shaping senior leaders

With the business world spinning faster than ever along with required changes to meet changing demand, leaders must become more adaptable and resilient, along with their organisation. In the face of mounting political, economic, environmental and social concerns, leaders are expected to be sensitive to calls from different groups and, for example, to embed sustainability and corporate responsibility into their strategic thinking.

Within the organisation, as the guardians of workplace culture, managers are responsible for creating an environment that encourages continuous learning and professional development.

There is a renewed focus on employee wellbeing as a crucial aspect of the modern leadership role. Recognising the direct link between wellbeing and productivity, leaders need to be mindful of employee mental health, stress management, and the creation of a healthy work environment.

Harnessing key competencies

Senior leaders need to understand and develop a new set of enabling competencies which contribute powerfully to leadership effectiveness. These enabling factors sit firmly as a leadership responsibility and include:

A supportive culture sits high on the list of enabling factors. As role models, leaders have an important contribution to make to cultivate a positive atmosphere. This environment encourages innovation, cultivates learning, and promotes constructive feedback which can be a lifeline for leaders.

Continual learning opportunities in a business world that’s in a constant state of flux, grasping continual learning opportunities emerge as a valuable imperative, whether they come from the latest technologies, leadership development programmes, industry conferences, or networking events.

Networking skills have to be a key learning target. While senior leaders could in theory operate in isolation, in reality they increasingly need to network to successfully work through leadership challenges.

Having a capable and supportive team is another crucial pillar of success for senior leaders. Leaders need to help create competent and supportive teams who are capable of adopting workable and adaptive strategies.

Recognising and dealing with external influences where these significantly impact an organisation’s trajectory, equipping leaders with appropriate antennae, knowledge, and skills is imperative.

Staying attuned to employee morale, motivation and feedback keeping open channels of communication and feedback is becoming ever more essential to respond to changing circumstances.

Making use of high quality data: senior leaders need access to pertinent, high-quality data, and the tools and training required to interpret them.

New approaches: senior leaders often highlight the importance of keeping abreast of new approaches offered by the use of external consultants or strategic business partnerships. In a globally connected business environment, external contributions can unlock access to new ideas, technologies, or expertise.

HR and L&D’s role in leadership development

The changing roles of senior leaders and managers have implications for HR and the process of learning and development in organisations. HR and L&D must adapt to their new demands by developing relevant, flexible, and inclusive development initiatives to prepare leaders for the range of challenges in the modern workplace. Some examples include:

Mentoring and coaching mentoring is particularly valuable in offering a sounding board from experienced leaders. A mentor may help with exploring careers, setting goals, developing contacts, and identifying resources. Coaching deals with personalised learning in live situations.

Online learning in the digital era, online learning platforms offer flexible knowledge acquisition, valuable in time-pressured roles, while conferences and networking events open gateways to industry trends and valuable connections.

Traditional education centres still have value in delivering aspects of a comprehensive leadership programme.

Business simulations can be complex to set up and run but provide a risk-free environment to test realistic decision-making strategies, and peer learning which allows executives to learn through shared experiences.

Engaging with external influences

There is a particular need to develop senior leaders to recognise and engage with external influences. Development needs to be innovative to engage and meet these important requirements of senior people’s needs, for example:

  • Where the emphasis should be on real-world scenarios and case studies, highlighting how external pressures have impacted similar organisations. These modules should encourage critical thinking, equipping leaders to anticipate and discern the potential implications of such influences.
  • Opportunities, enabling them to glean insights from peers and broaden their perspective.
  • Leadership curricula to deepen understanding of how the media, political shifts, and global events influence organisations.
  • Encouraging leaders to regularly access diverse information sources, keeping them attuned to external pressures.

Examples of learning in practice

Case study: Business learning through a simulation

An international tech engineering group used an extended business simulation in their senior leadership programme. Participants, split into competing teams, made industry-relevant decisions, including investment, stock management, and handling a PR crisis. The simulation, integrated with a 10-week part-time management programme, allowed them to experience the impact of their decisions, fostering team skills and improving understanding of complex concepts. The hands-on nature of the simulation made it a valuable learning tool for the company. Participants experienced the realities of a wider business picture and some of the strategic issues the company was facing.

Case study: Handling communication with media

At a respected UK business school MBA programme, with experienced international clients, a tv studio is equipped to model a high-stakes, catastrophic business crisis, which involves professional tv interviews and frequent social media updates with requests for comments. Observers review the effects and coach the skills involved. Participants frequently comment how much has been learnt through first-hand experience, highlighting the need for planning and preparation, plus face-to-face skills.

Final thoughts

Modern senior leaders inevitably face myriad challenges, coming from inside and outside the organisation, with external pressures taking on a much greater importance. With tailored support and comprehensive learning strategies, HR and L&D can offer leaders the means to be equipped to navigate this complex landscape, fostering the leaders of tomorrow.


1 HR Magazine, August 2023

Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook are development specialists who focus on helping managers and organisations to develop high performing teams. Steve is an associate at Cranfield Executive Development, Sarah is MD of The Stairway Consultancy Sarah at

Steve Macaulay

Learn More →