If you want insights into what it takes to be a leader today, ask Martina van Hettinga. As a key player in the digitization of Europe’s ecosystem, she has observed and guided many blosoming leaders as they take on the challenges of our fast-developing world. We asked Martina about how leaders can keep up with innovation, what challenges they need to tackle and what skills they need to master to be successful.
What are currently the biggest leadership challenges, and how can they be overcome?
The biggest leadership challenges we currently face are rooted in the increasingly complex and ambiguous world we live in, brought on by the exponential development of technology and innovation, as well as major global challenges (climate change, war, pandemic etc.) and the societal changes accompanying them.
In Germany in particular, we have become a little complacent and gotten used to relying on our prosperity for decades. As a result, there has been little to no pressure to proactively change or adjust to the ever-evolving world around us: politics, the economy and society remained very attached to a stable (or even rigid) status quo.
But then the pandemic happened and revealed underlying issues, which changed our "perceived" reality. It helped open our eyes to the fact that we do not currently live in an innovative, digitally functioning country, and consequently this drove the willingness to initiate more change and innovation.
For organizations, staying innovative is the only way to survive in a highly competitive market. One key component, if not the key component, for driving innovation is recruiting and developing the best talent. As a leader, you need to focus on strategically hiring and retaining the people that can move your organization forward and ensure a successful and sustainable future for the company as a whole.
Another significant leadership challenge is creating a safe, diverse work environment where innovation can thrive. As a leader, you need to be able to cope with and constantly manage the increased pressure that everyone is currently under, and teach your managers and employees to do so as well.
There is also the question of dealing with the constant information overload and keeping your focus on what is relevant. As a leader, less is often more. Focus your strategy, your organization and your teams on a select few clear objectives (which also helps avoid burnout). Consider carefully: What is already paying off today in terms of our long-term strategy and future viability? What will really bring us forward, while also not overburdening the team and helping to create a safe environment for everyone?
How would you encourage young talents (minorities and women in particular) to take on the challenge of leadership?
Often, young leadership talent is discouraged by the amount of experience they think they need for a leadership role. Ultimately, however, experience is always relative. Someone may have X years of leadership experience, but—to put it bluntly—may have spent X years leading "poorly". I don't mean to deny the professional experience that comes with a certain age, but there are also many young CEOs who have successfully founded and scaled a company.
Thus, leadership is not a question of age and experience per se but far more about self-reflection, the willingness to actually manage and lead in a modern style at eye-level, as well as having sincere interest in the people just as much as the business itself. Some things, of course, only come with experience. But everyone needs to start somewhere, so I would certainly encourage young leaders to find a mentor to coach them through the first years.
Women in management positions are more in demand than ever before. However, this trend has not yet eliminated the "leaky pipe" phenomenon: An increased exit of well-educated women from the workforce as they gain experience. It is up to us to orchestrate parenting and care work well and to support flexible, equitable work models to prevent this from happening. We also need to boost female role models by supporting female founders with better access to funding and networks.
At the end of the day, diversity is our only viable chance for closing the huge gap in the talent market.
Do you have advice for management on how to reduce bias and improve the recruiting process for leadership roles?
The biggest personal bias to avoid is hiring clones. Especially in times of growth and pressure, it’s natural to surround ourselves with people who are like us. Instead, look for similarities in values, but also for complementary skills and different personalities that complete your own leadership team.
To fill key positions in a company sustainably, the most important basic requirement is a structured and thorough analysis of the status quo and the future vision of the organization, including its architecture and its medium- and long-term goals. From this analysis, you can derive a set of clear, measurable search criteria/parameters against which candidates are benchmarked throughout the entire search process.
You should always avoid individual decisions. Scorecards are extremely helpful in consolidating and comparing the assessments of various parties involved in the hiring process to filter out bias. The individual ratings of the main search criteria can then be transparently analyzed.
Professional competence is only one pillar of the hiring process—and by far not the main one! You can learn about previous experience and competencies from a person's career history. But what is at least as relevant for assessing whether the person is a "match" is their attitude, values and personality. It is essential to capture and evaluate these through appropriate aptitude interviews.
How has modern technology and current challenges in the world changed what we need in leadership?
One thing is absolutely certain: We have a lack of talent, a severe retirement increase in the next three to four years and an education system that has not kept up with technological developments for more than 20 years. There is an enormous increase in demand for leaders and young talents who are not only able to merely navigate through the digital world, but can shape it themselves.
The stronger the crises and uncertainties, the more relevant the balance of IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and EQ (Emotional Intelligence) for c-level executives. Communication skills, empathy, maturity, and resilience are far from being soft skills—they are essential to successfully lead a company into the future.
I would say that leadership in a modern, innovative, remote environment is particularly dependent on the ability to build relationships. This ability further expresses that the time of big egos is over, and good team players are more in demand than ever.