Niamh O'Keeffe: Predicting the future
Business often appears to be in a state of constant flux. But, as author and adviser Niamh O’Keeffe explains to Anna Melville-James, leaders need to cast fear from their minds – there are more ‘predictables’ than it seems
“The best way to predict the future is to create it,” said Abraham Lincoln. And for leadership consultant and First100 founder Niamh O’Keeffe, Lincoln’s words provide an evergreen lesson for the leaders of today.
With a 25-year career advising chief executives at global corporations and entrepreneurial ventures, O’Keeffe is well placed to dissect the changing nature of leadership.
Advancing technologies and changing workforce expectations make effective leadership more complicated than ever – and the challenges of industry disruption have come to def ne today’s business psyche.
It’s a firefighting landscape that requires a reset, according to O’Keeffe, whose new book Future Shaper: How Leaders Can Take Charge in an Uncertain World offers a guide to the skills needed to thrive in a climate that is in a state of constant flux.
“Privately leaders admit how overwhelmed they feel. At the top, CEOs and C-suites are quite frightened about the future of their businesses,” she observes.
“Leaders have been under ‘threat alert’ for the last five to eight years around the idea that they must ‘disrupt or be disrupted’. That feeling of being constantly unnerved and not knowing what’s going to happen next has become the status quo.”
Drowning in detail
O’Keeffe pinpoints one of the main issues as being too many leaders lost in too much detail. For example, she says, if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.
The upgrade begins by knowing what’s important and what isn’t, stepping back to see the big er picture and deciding what you are really trying to achieve, and why.
She calls on leaders to embrace the inevitable, including the growth of new technologies.
She starts by breaking down an often “overwhelming and unknowable” future into a logical framework of “five Ps”: decide on a preferable outcome, persuade others to support the outcome, be resilient and persistent, then nurture successful teams to get great results and continue to grow a platform or power base. Even in a world that seems def ned by fast-paced and seemingly unlimited change there are still “predictables” from which we can push off.
“People act as if there are so many wild cards in the future, but, in reality, there are very few,” she says.
“We are oversensitive to this, and that’s why my core message is around being fearless – not letting fear block you from having vision as a leader.
“We need to calm down and realise that a lot is actually predictable. For example, the demise of the high street was talked about in the 1990s, so it’s not actually a surprise when a shop closes down now.
“We need to deconstruct it all so that we are less afraid and can understand what it is we’re actually dealing with as leaders.”
According to O’Keeffe, the core problem for leadership is a lack of vision.
This is where fearlessness is needed to unlock the future of a business and inspire trust in the upcoming workforce, with its expectations of work that is so radically different from those occupations that have gone before.
“Millennials and gen Z want meaning in their working lives. If you wanted to motivate gen X and above, you focused on giving them money, status or power.
“And of course, these are important to the younger generations too – but meaning is now their number one priority,” she says.
With such fulfilment often expected as part of the deal by a youthful workforce, there are significant challenges for leaders looking to motivate and retain their talent.
She says, “The future shapers will be the ones who can successfully blend all these elements and create a vision with an outcome that connects with those looking for meaning.”
It’s also important, says O’Keeffe, to recognise that successful leadership can come from absolutely anywhere.
“You don’t need a title or permission to lead,” she observes.
“You can see that with Greta Thunberg, for example. She had zero power base, no title and no brand. She was just a schoolgirl, but she is a great example of a future shaper because she has purpose and vision.”
The key for future leaders is realising the locus of power lies within, rather than being batted about by external forces.
“If you put your energy and focus in a particular direction, you’re going to convert that preferable into a predictable,” says O’Keeffe.
In looking to the bigger picture, cultivating more relevant skills, clarifying vision and prioritising accordingly it’s possible to stop feeling so overwhelmed and start to shape the future you want to see.
This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of CA magazine.