`Keep doing what your're doing & you'll fail` - Keith Coats
"As you look to the future, the surest way to fail in tomorrow's world is to continue doing what you're doing today." So says Keith Coats, founding partner of TomorrowToday Global, an international consultancy that focuses on the future of leadership, global trends, strategy, diversity and talent. Keith will be speaking at the upcoming CFO Awards, held at Summer Place on 12 May 2016.
Keith argues that one of the biggest problems with leaders today is that they've stopped learning and stopped asking questions, and are no longer curious.
"Learning comes from being in uncomfortable situations, and many leaders won't step out of their comfort zones. That, over time, builds up a wall against all of the ingredients that go into learning - dealing with uncertainty, asking questions, learning how to listen. Many of today's leaders have been schooled out of that. And leaders who aren't adaptable are in trouble."
Tell us about TomorrowToday Global.
"The company has been around for about 11 years. It was started by myself and three friends. We were all consulting independently until I suggested that we could synergise and do better if we pooled our resources. For about a year we ran parallel consultancies until we decided the time was right to collapse our respective businesses into TomorrowToday. Two years ago we decided to have greater synergy across the planet, and called the business TomorrowToday Global."
"TomorrowToday partners clients in helping ensure that they are 'futurefit' - helping them know how best to lead in a changing world. In the global context this demands being adaptable and building the capacity and ability to not only 'look out the window' but to understand why and how the world is changing - and what this means for their industry or business. Powerful keynote addresses, a variety of digital resources, workshops and consulting processes are some of the means whereby TomorrowToday engages in this work. The TomorrowToday team work across the globe with a variety of industries, addressing strategically key topics such as global trends, disruption, leadership, talent, diversity and organisational development."
"Our company is virtual, and we try to model the new world of working that we talk about. We've embraced digital technology to communication and collaborate. Most people in the business are shareholders. We created an ownership structure throughout the business so that everyone feels like they own it. We give staff tremendous freedoms, and we don't have written contracts. Luckily we are small enough and maverick enough to make it work. We also pride ourselves on having robust conversations and modelling a different way of working. There are lots of ensuing models that have come out of the way we do business."
You refer to yourself as a 'futurist'. What does this mean?
"Future studies is a discipline, and refers to futures plural. A futurist is somebody who focuses on creating models to understand the nature of the unfolding future; what is or could be happening. So it's understanding those models and making sense of them in business strategy, anticipating disruption and being smarter about dealing with change."
"Our gaze is always down the road. We help companies to look ahead, to look out the window, and to consider how best to prepare future-fit leaders. We consider what organisations that are going to thrive in the future need to be doing."
Do you enjoy what you do?
"I love what I do. To me, it's not work. I've very fortunate in that regard. I've had two major careers, this, and one in non profit, and neither felt like work to me. I enjoy the learning that comes naturally from working with smart people. I enjoy that no one day is the same. I enjoy the international travel - I take about 25 trips a year. I'm always learning and meeting new people, so I constantly feel like I'm growing."
You say that the key defining factors for a successful leader in the 21st century include the ability to learn, grow and be adaptable. How can leaders develop these abilities?
"Many current leaders have stopped learning. They learned formally, then went out and built their careers. They have answers but no questions. They aren't curious. Learning comes from being in uncomfortable situations, and many leaders won't step out of their comfort zone. That, over time, builds up a wall against all of the ingredients that go into learning - dealing with uncertainty, asking questions, learning how to listen. Many of today's leaders have been schooled out of that. And leaders who aren't adaptable are in trouble."
"We talk about VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In that kind of world and context, leaders are facing adaptive rather than technical challenges. Adaptive challenges are when the leader applies a solution to the problem, or knowing what to do when you don't know what to do. Leaders today are facing previously un-encountered challenges. You have to ask different question and have a different mindset. Being adaptive is harder than it sounds. In a VUCA world you need an adaptive strategy towards leadership. The rules of the game are changing, and when the rules change, if you don't understand what's causing that change you just end up doing more of the same. All that this does is dig the hole deeper and faster. But, if you can step back and understand how the world is changing and why, and understand the things driving disruption, the response is totally different."
What are some of the challenges faced by today's leaders?
"To lead in a contemporary world, you need to understand diversity. Because many businesses today play across global markets, many have been unsuccessful in foreign markets because they've been insensitive to cultural nuances. Complexity plays out in the diversity issue; in the different understanding of leadership and building rapport."
"Generational diversity is another challenge, and is often misunderstood. So you have "Boomer" bosses trying to replicate what worked in their day but they're failing to understand the next generation, which is coming into the workplace with a very different value base."
"But there are challenges on every level - personal, technological, how we communicate. Learning appropriateness in certain situations and having dexterity in certain situations is critical. We often have a rigid mindset at senior leadership level. That doesn't translate into the modern world, which is highly connected."
What global trends affect today's leaders?
"There are various key disruptors affecting leadership, as I mentioned previously, but another one is institutional change. Because the nature of institutions has changed. There's more legislation and regulation, government changes, internal cultural shifts and demographic shifts; environmental shifts and changing societal values; all of which have a huge impact on leadership. The change is ubiquitous; it's all over."
"Leadership is always about people so this one is massive. We talk about the world changing, the customer base changing, the employee base changing, the workplace changing. Leadership sits in the cross hairs of all of these, because all of these are leadership's key responsibilities."
What advice do you have for leaders in difficult or stressful times?
"There's a need for authenticity in leadership, and for emotional intelligence. When leaders don't build emotional intelligence, it is more difficult to deal with external stresses. You lead out of who you are so paying attention to who you are is fundamental to leadership. Looking back, that wasn't the natural pathway for leaders. Today it's more about understanding it as a character ethic. Also, different people handle situations differently. So you need to know what your stress points are and how you respond, because this could be totally different to another leader. Bottom line, you have to do the work in self awareness."
What are the key traits of a great leader? And who do you regard as such a person?
"Great leaders understand themselves and what is needed. They have the ability to hold the big picture in place and to think strategically. They are curious and ask the right questions; great leaders in today's context aren't those who have all the answers but those who pose the right questions. Consider invitational leadership, which says there's the best in everybody, and that everybody has a valid contribution to make, and they'd rather make that than not. Therefore, the role of the invitational leader is to create an environment that invites the best out in others. That's a profound and simplistic way to understand leaders - getting more out of others than they might know is possible. Another great trait is authenticity. But all of that said, leadership is context-specific, so you can't always say great traits of leaders are X, Y, Z because those traits are different in different contexts."
"With regards to who I think is or was a great leader, certainly in our South African context, Nelson Mandela stands out head and shoulders as a leader worthy of emulating."
What are the key traits of a great CFO?
"The CFO is responsible for looking at the company's numbers but is also part of the executive team, so the CFO has a dual role to play. Most companies focus on the short-term. There's a real danger in that, especially when you look at sustainability, for example, in an emerging market like South Africa. I believe it is the job of the CFO to change that. Companies need to take a longer view to ensure sustainability. The CFO, being closest to the numbers, must initiate a longer-term conversation around how we measure ourselves and what matters, because we often only measure ourselves against the numbers. Because their training is about the numbers, they sometimes battle to step back and look at the bigger picture. If your CFO can step back while still looking at the numbers, I'll say you've got a winner."
"In times past you had CEOs who had come through the humanities side. Big there was a swing away from that a few decades ago, and the route to the CEO now is through financial acumen or engineering. What that produces in a CEO is a very different world view and orientation. They look at different measures and criteria. There is, however, a danger in that CFOs are accustomed to looking primarily at the numbers, so when they get into their role as CEO they bring this same approach, and therein sits the problem. I would advise them to go do something totally outside of their comfort zone."