Learning agility is key to success in a fluid world

What are the shifts that dominate leaders’ minds? When Duke Corporate Education surveyed our clients, some interesting trends emerged. The drive for sustainability and the demand for agility remain evergreen tests for corporate leaders. But it is the advance of technology that is paramount in the consciousness of c-suites worldwide.

The seemingly unstoppable march of digital power ought to promise a less labor-intensive, more efficient, future for humans. Yet the evidence suggests that it can pose both a benefit and a hazard for leaders.

When we asked 25 clients and partners, “What are the top leadership challenges facing your organization in 2024 and beyond?” more than half (56%) nominated digital transformation and/or generative artificial intelligence. Those two digital challenges combined outweighed any other single option.

This stark finding reveals a paradox. Technology is a tool designed by humans to make our lives better. It has been developed with a goal of making businesses, governments, and NGOs more successful.

Yet, perhaps because of the rapidity of its advance and the uncertainty that fosters, it can present more as threat than promise. Leaders might not always fear for their own jobs. Yet all good leaders recognize that many of their people fear for theirs.

How do leaders make digital disruption work for their businesses and their people, rather than against them?

“The ‘steady job’ seems increasingly like yesterday’s concept,” write Duke CE’s chief executive Sharmla Chetty and president of global markets Vishal Patel in Duke CE’s Dialogue magazine article called Everything, All at Once.

“Tomorrow’s leaders face a workforce divided between the haves and have-nots; the creative class, who direct and innovate, and regular workers, who have more routine roles and face replacement. AI will foster much greater profit margins in companies – it will send labor productivity through the roof as more gets done, faster.”

The breath-taking acceleration in business processes has the potential to deliver huge gains to companies, governments, and societies. But the downside risk is stark.

“For routine work, robots are cheaper than people,” note Chetty and Patel in their Dialogue article. “People at the top will reap the rewards, while those at the bottom face underemployment, or unemployment. The destabilization of companies – and societies – is a likely consequence.”

Success amid instability

It is striking how many other challenges mentioned by leaders in our survey are wholly or obliquely related to this destabilization. Some 40% of companies we surveyed reported that business transformation presented a key challenge. Several more organizations told us that change management, the future of work, or disruption, presented the largest tests of their leadership. The message is clear: change is a daily reality, and leaders are charged with driving their businesses forward against a mutable backdrop. “While we think the rate of change is fast, today is the slowest rate of change for the rest of your life,” Patel says. “We must be able to adapt.” 

The leadership advantage

Yet while the challenge is profound, a disrupted, volatile business landscape creates almost unlimited opportunities. Technological advance creates enhanced networks, which deliver a wider terrain on which to play. And, as our world shifts, fissures emerge, creating multiple business openings for leaders and their teams.

The key to turning threat to promise is better leadership. At Duke CE, we’ve long believed that our purpose is not in fact education, but leadership. This pivot away from seeing our purpose as focused on “customized executive education” to leadership enablement for positive change stems from our observations of what is happening to leaders as they cope with ever greater change and ambiguity. Simply, we need more and better leadership in more places because we need more collaborative energy to solve new, bigger and more complex problems.

Impala Platinum is a mining major in South Africa. Its group executive for people, Lee-Ann Samuel, emphasizes the need for leaders that can deliver digital transformation across the business. She argues that cultivating a transformative mindset is crucial in sectors characterized by change. “Staying agile and leveraging technology to enable learning and development is key, especially in a rapidly evolving industry like mining,” she says.

Since August 2020, Implats has partnered with Duke CE, which designs custom leadership programs aimed at addressing the miner’s specific needs. Following detailed consultation work between Implats’ and Duke CE’s experts, two distinctive programs were devised.

“Implats has always recognized the importance of strong leadership,” Samuel tells Dialogue magazine in the article: Unlocking Leadership Excellence. “But we knew that we were moving into new territory, and that demanded a new approach to how we develop leaders.”

This innovative method of leadership development helps companies navigate the modern maelstrom, by using leadership as a strategic lever to make gains in an uncertain and volatile setting.

Change mindset

Chetty and Patel define the present day as being in ‘polycrisis.’ The world, they note, is at the confluence of powerful forces – geopolitical, environmental, and socioeconomic – that conspire to create a turbulent, uneasy reality. In such situations, traditional business approaches, and stock leadership approaches, are doomed to fail.

“A change mindset is often advocated. It is less often demonstrated,” write Chetty and Patel. “This is partly because embracing constant change, uncertainty and ambiguity is counter to established business practice – which seeks instead to foster a sense of control. Yet a change mindset is critical for succeeding as a leader in the new paradigm.”

Embracing change and challenging the status quo are at the core of Duke Corporate Education’s custom education program with steel giant ArcelorMittal. A key tenet of the program is the idea of adaptive leadership, drawing on the work of Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz. “It has helped us with all the shifts that the organization is going through,” says Imane Jelloul, global head of talent and senior leader development at the steelmaker. “We need to focus on empowering tomorrow’s leaders. That’s why these programs have a transformative impact.”

Adaptive agility

Duke Corporate Education, a top-ranked custom education provider by the Financial Times of more than two decades, comes from a pedigree of adaptability and agility.

Financial Times Rankings 2024

“Our clients want practical and applied insights, and co-creating performance metrics with us,” said chief executive of Duke CE Sharmla Chetty in a recent Financial Times interview. Duke CE was ranked #4 worldwide in custom executive education. We’ve been consistently ranked in the top 4 globally over the last two decades and are the #1 provider associated with a US-based university.

Duke University is famous for one of the fastest-moving team games on earth – basketball. Its legendary coach, Mike ‘Coach K’ Krzyzewski, led the men’s team, the Blue Devils, to five national titles.

Today, Duke Corporate Education’s custom education clients are often called to the Cameron Indoor Stadium to play basketball. In basketball, as in business, participants must move quickly to adapt in a dynamic and competitive environment. Some of those taking part have little experience of the game. Yet after rehearsing plays with Duke coaches, they can thrive in the high-octane setting. Learning agility, as ever, is the driver of success when everything is fluid and fluctuating around you.