Imagine a convention of economic historians in fifty years time looking for the keyword to define business and commerce in the first decade of the 21st century, and the likelihood is that two prefixes, e-and global, will be uttered as liberally as they are mentioned now.
Grand questions about what it is that defines an age are not just the territory of historians and this week business leaders across the world have been invited by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants to ruminate on what it is that today makes their world go around.
In London this Tuesday the week long event- Global Business Management Week – centred around a suitably big question: what makes business leaders tick. Top executives from multinationals and top organisations such as Unilever, Cadbury Schweppes, BT and the Cranfield School of Management gathered to discuss the issue at the breakfast table.
And in front of the early morning discussion group CIMA placed the results of a survey of 400 top global executives that reveal some surprising results.
It would seem that senior managers, whether from manufacturing or retail and finance, or based in the Middle East, Asia, France, Germany, the USA and Britain, do not necessarily view the changing world of business as commentators and management textbooks would have us think.
Contrary to the proportion of column inches dedicated in the business press to the importance and impact of the technology and e-revolution, only eight per cent of global executives thought IT will have the greatest single impact on the future of business.
And a mere six per cent of global business leaders recognised e-commerce – already top candidate for key business concept of the decade – as the defining influence that will shape their business world.
Whether luddites or visionairies, the issue at the top of the minds of half of the global corporate leaders contacted – whether in San Francisco or Singapore, London or Dubai – is how to capture the right calibre staff, with a further 17% opting for speed of change as the key influential factor.
If business leaders taking the long view want above all else a steady supply of alpha males and females as time marches evermore rapidly by, the quality they are most anxious to find in these would-be-senior managers is the good, old fashioned attribute of leadership.
Vision, communication skills and the ability to respond swiftly to change were all highly rated by surveyed executives – and only two per cent rated IT as the most important skill required by future business leaders.
Senior managers in the US most admired in their colleagues vision and the ability to see around the corner; while in the UK and Germany the traditional ability to lead, manage and motivate were rated as the key ingredients for a successful leader, closely followed in Britain by strategic focus and in Germany by adaptability in the face of change.
For John Chester, the chief executive of CIMA, the results prove that managers of the future need to have a broad range of abilities to survive in a fast changing business environment.
‘Skills requirements have shifted’, he said. ‘Tomorrow’s business leaders will need to master a portfolio of skills, encompassing traditionally ‘softer skills’, such as communication but without neglecting sound business judgement and strategic vision.’
Colleague Mike Jeans, president of CIMA, agrees but believes the results indicate that IT skills have become a given in the CV armoury of a modern executive.
‘You don’t ask people these days if they can use the phone, and likewise it is a given that senior managers have IT skills,’ he explains. ‘I don’t think these results say that IT skills are less important than other skills – rather they point out that leadership skills are rare and valuable quality.’
Once global corporations have overcome the difficult hurdle of attracting the right-calibre leaders-to-be, its next battle is to make sure its lieutenants don’t take their sought after skills elsewhere.
Jeans says: ‘Just paying people a lot of money is not going to retain staff, what the survey indicates is that high-calibre staff need an exacting work environment and challenges.’
Chester argues there is a lack of differences between the views of business leaders from different regions and cultures.
‘Perhaps this points to a world class group of leaders with similar backgrounds’, he argues. ‘Perhaps, they are more influenced by their business education and the leading edge business books they read, than by the patterns of the culture they come from.’
At the same time, according to Jeans, more personal expression has crept into the world of work, and once rigid corporate structures now need to be flexible about people and how they are organised.
CIMA’s survey has sounded the gong for the old strengths of character and leadership above the specifics of the new economy – historians will have to argue whether personality or technology defined business at the beginning of the 21st century.
EUROPEAN WORKING CULTURE
French and German executives work fewer hours and still manage to stay at the top. Questioned about the length of their working week, 83% of directors in France and 61% in Germany said they worked 50 hours a week or less. Europe’s two major economies contrast starkly with statistics from countries dominated by the Anglo-American business model, with only 35% of respondents in the US and 34% in the UK working less than 50 hours a week. The results highlight a gulf between the work-life balance in mainland European countries and the UK, where 31% of executives said they had specific policies in place compared to four per cent without a strategy.
France emerged with a poor attitude to catering for the families of employees – with 15% of French directors admitting to having a family friendly policy in place. But the French get home ahead of others and clocked the shortest working week at 47 hours.(see above)
E-BUSINESS INCREASES WORKLOAD
E-business and advances in communication technology have increased the workload rather than making time for busy top global directors.
Nearly two-thirds said technology had prompted a change in their work patterns, while 82% technology had increased their workload.
And there are marked differences by region, with at least 90% of the respondents in the UK, the US and Asia claiming that technology had given them extra work to do.
Over 45s were more likely to say that work had increased with technological developments, while younger respondents generally claimed that technology had reduced the amount of work they had to carry out.
And just six per cent of business leaders say e-commerce is the defining influence shaping their corporate world.
Stress management is recognised as a vital corporate tool in the fight to retain quality, trained staff, but figures gathered by CIMA’s global survey suggest just one third of top companies operates specific stress management policies.
The majority of top directors surveyed around the globe may be slow to recognise the cost-benefits of investing in keeping staff healthy in mind and body, but flexible working hours, family friendly and stress management policies were recognised as beneficial. Gillian Lees, director of technical services at CIMA, said: ‘Respondents appear to be somewhat contradictory on the issue of staff policies. They rated stress management policies as more important than family friendly policies – yet only one third have the former in place while 50% have introduced family friendly policies.
Several businesses clearly fail to practice what they preach.’
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