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Leadership

New leadership skills for 2021

This is part of the Hive Learning pulse report, State of Leadership 2021. In this section, we look at how organizational needs have changed and what skills leaders need to build right now.


2020 brought one crisis after another.

2021 brings hope. A vaccine, equity emerging at the heart of the new US government’s policy, and the prospect that we may (at some point) head out into the world again — with trepidation and awe — to hug our loved ones and high five our colleagues (because let’s face it, none of us will miss the elbow tap).

But while 2021 brings hope, it also brings with it a new reality. We are a long way from achieving workplace equity. We face a slow economic recovery, a mental health epidemic, a climate crisis, and the pace of change shows no signs of slowing down.

We are entering an age in which people (and likely soon governments) expect organizations to do more to care for their employees and make a positive contribution to society.

As every CEO and CHRO know, leaders and managers are the linchpins that hold organizations together. They are the glue that accounts for whether organizations and the teams they govern survive or thrive.

Today, one truth is clear. The skills we need from leaders now are not the skills we needed from leaders 10, five, or even two years ago.

Organizations and their people need to be prepared to handle constant future disruptions. They need to be ready to adapt, unlearn, relearn, upskill, reskill, and respond to the many unknowns still to come.

In fact, in Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends survey, 72% of executives identified this (the ability to adapt and reskill) as the top-ranking factor they believed would prepare them for handling future disruptions. But only 17% felt their organization was really geared up to do it.

In short, demands on leaders have never been greater and show no sign of slowing down.

All of this comes at a time when traditional leadership development methods no longer apply. Gone are the days when we can run singular, face-to-face training programs. They no longer work because they’re one-off, one way, and the forgetting curve is real. Not to mention that our new reality rules out face-to-face training, even if we wanted to run it.

The good news is that in Hive Learning’s own experience of running more than 20,000 peer learning programs and deployments over the past three years, we’ve found a digital approach to leadership development to be 50% more effective and 50% cheaper to scale.

On top of that, 2020 brought with it significant innovation and amplified impact in this space.

On a mission to get to the heart of what good looks like in this ‘new normal’, we interviewed some of the most influential people leaders on both sides of the Atlantic about their future-facing people strategies and how they’ve evolved.

Every people leader we spoke to urged that now is not the time to take our foot off the gas when it comes to leadership development.

We must work harder, faster, and more creatively to give our frontline leaders and managers the tools to keep up with today’s world of work. And there is no time to waste.


We asked people leaders two questions.

  • What skills and behaviors do leaders need to survive and thrive through 2021 and beyond?
  • What does that mean for how we deliver leadership development now?

The insights are featured in this practical, actionable playbook.

P.S. This should take you no longer than 15 minutes to read, but hey, we get it, you’re busy. (The world is operating at unprecedented speed, right?).

Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll drop the full report in your inbox in five-minute bitesize chunks over the next two weeks.

In history books, we typically hear about the concept of a leader who is an all-knowing, all-powerful and imposing individual who others flock to follow in the hope of soaking up just a little bit of their wisdom or gravitas. Think Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln.

A tide has been beginning to turn on this ideal for a few years now. Retired army generals like Stanley McChrystal popularized the idea that transparent communication, decentralizing power and empowering teams to make decisions yield the best results.

The likes of Simon Sinek also borrowed from military language the idea that Leaders Eat Last, an ode to the power of servant leadership and why it’s important to build trust, compassion, and put your people first.

But while these ideas were popular, whether they actually drove actual change in organizations was another question. When it came down to it, this “softer” part of leadership often seemed like a “nice-to-have” and, in many traditional organizations, didn’t determine who was hired or promoted.

According to Gallup data, the majority of leaders believe they got a promotion because of performance-related success in a previous non-management role or because of their tenure, rather than because they had the right “people skills” needed to lead others.

But in the last few years, we’ve started to see a shift. Those leaders who are respected and admired today have become so based on a model of truly empathetic leadership. Think Satya Nadella or Jacinda Ardern.


And still, it took a pandemic and social justice movement, Black Lives Matter, for this leadership style to go mainstream. There is no denying the skills that leaders need to embody at work — not just in life — have changed.

Some pioneering organizations saw this shift in leadership coming before 2020 made it obvious. They were further along the journey of upskilling their people on culture-critical skills, though it wasn’t until 2020 that organizations saw the buy-in across the business as everyone recognized just how important these skills are.


At work, we’ve long celebrated people who were able to constantly evolve their technical skills, and with good reason.

But 2020 put the importance of “soft” skills in the spotlight. Josh Bersin calls them Power Skills and we love his assessment:

“The skills of the future are not technical, they’re behavioral. […] Hard Skills are soft (they change all the time, are constantly being obsoleted, and are relatively easy to learn), and Soft Skills are hard (they are difficult to build, critical, and take extreme effort to obtain).”

Power Skills are building blocks. They allow us to collaborate, innovate and ride out disasters. They’re longer-lasting and even improve how we learn and adopt our technical skills.


As every leader we spoke to called out, developing Power Skills is really hard. Not least because they are easily open to interpretation, meaning many organizations have a challenge on their hands in setting expectations about what good looks like.


The good news is, that perhaps for the first time in corporate history, the majority of leaders want to develop these skills and are prepared to invest the time it takes to develop them. People suddenly recognize they’re ill-equipped to have difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion, manage people who are dealing with mental health issues, and build resilience in themselves and their teams.

For L&D professionals, this is a breath of fresh air. Moving from the push of mandatory learning to the pull of employee demand is a great problem to have.

Later, we’ll tackle exactly how to build this challenging skillset.

But first, we’ll tackle exactly which Power Skills organizations identify as critical to success.

  • embrace and champion change
  • operate with resilience
  • lead inclusively and hear all voices
  • learn and adapt continuously
  • collaborate with peers and seek out better ways of doing things
  • foster trust and compassion
  • manage your own mental health and that of your team

We can’t tackle each one of these skills, so we’ve decided to put three power skills in the spotlight — those which are newest on the leadership development radar for 2021 and beyond. Here they are.


2020, the pandemic and reemergence of the social justice movement, Black Lives Matter, thrust two new priorities onto the CEO’s agenda almost overnight.

COVID-19 made wellbeing and conversations around mental health focus topics at work, while the power of the Black Lives Matter movement made it impossible for people not to want to talk about and tackle racial inequities at work.

As the lines became increasingly blurred between work life and home life, bringing your whole self to work took on a new meaning and forced organizations to think about what it truly means to be inclusive.

Wellbeing and inclusion are now intrinsically linked. Now that we’ve opened up these subjects, there’s no going back. Managing collective wellbeing and creating an inclusive culture is now what employees expect from their employer.


In a session we hosted with senior leaders at the beginning of the pandemic, one truth quickly emerged: how leaders treat people will become their legacy. Leaders now have no choice but to show that they care about employee wellbeing, specifically employee mental health.

If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that now is the time to prepare for this VUCA world — one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.


Change has become something of a constant in our lives and shows no signs of disappearing. According to the American Psychological Association, workers dealing with change are over twice as likely to report chronic work stress and over four times as likely to report physical health symptoms.

Addressing mental health at work is such an urgent topic that the World Economic Forum has labeled it a global health crisis, urging that “mental health in the workplace must be a priority for all business leaders globally”.

“We believe now is the time to take urgent, collective action.” – World Economic Forum, January 2021

Now is the time to equip leaders with long-lasting skills that will help them safeguard both their own mental health and that of their teams. Change becoming a constant in many cases means that we can’t simply rely on a survival mentality to get us through specific periods of upheaval anymore. We need to build stronger foundational skills.


The most forward-thinking leaders have always advocated and modeled bringing your full self to work — an integral part of building an inclusive culture at work — and while those who are homeworking are literally inviting colleagues into their homes, it can be harder to build rapport and have more vulnerable conversations.

Now that so many of us are working remotely and with increasingly dispersed global workforces, leaders need to get creative about how they check in with their teams.

Some organizations have spared little in their commitment to employee wellbeing, with impressive gestures that speak volumes.


But no organization can let budget, discomfort or a lack of experience stall them.

The people leaders we spoke to acknowledged that going forward, the focus for every organization is on how to manage mental health and recognize signs others are struggling.

Organizations now realize that employees need more than escalation processes. Leaders and all line managers need to be trained on all the touchpoints that lead up to corporate policies like sick leave. Leaders are being invited to build their emotional intelligence and self-awareness around their own mental health, both of which will help them stay mentally well so they can be ready to support others, too.


Next, just as we saw with popular conversation guides circulated for talking around Black Lives Matter, we need to give leaders guidance on how to actually navigate sensitive conversations on mental health with their colleagues. This part of leadership training is as essential as knowing what to do next about a mental health issue at work.

And as one contributor rightly pointed out, compassion doesn’t only go one way or benefit one party. Leaders benefit from this because they too need to be able to manage and protect their mental health.


Leadership development must now incorporate concrete and practical guidance on mental health that goes beyond just saying that mental health is important and offering solutions like meditation apps — which are great but do nothing to change your work culture or give leaders the tools to practically navigate mental health conversations at work.


From speaking to diversity, equity and inclusion leaders for our State of DEI 2020-2021 report, it‘s clear that employees now expect line managers and business leaders to accommodate things that affect employees as whole people, in and outside of work.

The pandemic brought existing disparities to light that were impossible to ignore. Leaders noticed employees like carers struggle to balance personal responsibilities and work, and it was revealed that people of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in both the US and the UK. There’s also evidence to suggest that the gender pay gap is likely to widen as a result of the pandemic, reversing progress made so far.

The penny dropped for people outside of DEI as leaders saw inequities first hand. And the entire C-suite realized the time to lead inclusively is now.

Employees are looking more than ever to their employers as a social and psychological safety net to provide reassurance and comfort at a very unexpected and somewhat turbulent time. Simply put: Silence is no longer golden. Silence by a company or a leader during this time is quite dangerous in risking employee engagement and trust. We need to stand up to say something, whether it’s where we stand on societal unrest or who we are as a company. It’s something every leader should be doing.

Tracy Ting, SVP, CHRO at Encore Capital Group

Leaders must be prepared to walk the walk when it comes to inclusion. They cannot be mouthpieces because employees will call out lip service when they see it. Leaders are expected to be well-versed in the foundations of diversity, equity and inclusion, and to show that they’re personally taking action and pushing for progress.

We all know that corporate leadership teams have a long way to go to be truly representative of the customers and communities they serve. But the social injustice movements of 2020 mean that organizations will no longer be excused for stagnant numbers and are being held responsible for moving the needle.


Thankfully leaders are also realizing that adding diversity alone won’t bring meaningful change to their company’s culture or success. It’s valuing that diversity and leveraging the benefits of difference that will propel organizations forward.


The surge in the delivery of holistic inclusive leadership programs in 2020 is understandable. A Deloitte study shows that managers and senior executives can contribute up to a 70% difference between people who feel included and those who don’t.

And when the stats also show that inclusive companies are eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes, we expect many more organizations to follow suit. Organizations that want to attract and retain diverse talent must make inclusion a core part of their leaders’ DNA at every level.

And no matter how much we might want to return to the more emotive format of face-to-face conversations on DEI, our contributors for this report and our State of DEI 2020-2021 report prove that there is no excuse in waiting because the progress we can make digitally is huge.


People now realize just how much more they can do at a reduced cost and how many more employees they can reach by doing things digitally.

We had a program championed by our CHRO called managing and leading inclusive teams. She was hesitant to make that program virtual but the feedback was tremendous. And there are some perks because you can include people who would never have been part of that conversation and no longer have the major expense of bringing people to our major offices for a half day program.

Renee Romulus, MBA, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, SWP, HSC, Vice President, Global Talent Development at FTI Consulting

It’s opening up workplace conversations and leaning into nuances rarely considered before.

For global businesses, being able to connect with everyone digitally means inclusion is becoming more thoughtful of local challenges and transcending cultural and geographical boundaries. AVP, Head of Enterprise Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Sarah Kheir, shared how Sun Life is using Hive Learning’s inclusion program to share the company’s message of inclusion and respect in our latest panel discussion on scaling inclusion digitally.

We want to create a space — and technology has allowed us to do that — to reach out specifically to the LGBT community for individuals who are in countries where they can’t identify. They’re now able to build community with other employees globally which has been amazing. The global aspect is challenging but offers so much opportunity.

We love Sarah’s point about bringing people together and building support networks because it highlights the breadth of what it means to be an inclusive leader. Leaders don’t just have to get better at making people feel heard in meetings. We’ve seen more and more calls for allyship and executive-level sponsorship for underrepresented groups.

Inclusion is complex and evolves every day — leaders will need plenty of support to know what they can do on an ongoing basis.


Organizations understand the basic need for employees to reach out to each other for help. We’re more efficient and make better decisions when we work through things together. Even just instilling the spirit of teamwork increases individual motivation and improves performance.

We need to connect our increasingly remote teams so everyone can work together to solve problems, wherever they are in the world. If it isn’t easy to tap into a colleague’s knowledge, well-meaning employees could end up costing their organization by trying to solve the same problem twice.

To achieve a culture where everyone is collaborative, we need our leaders to spearhead this openness with a growth mindset.

A spotlight on vulnerability
Leaders have historically armored themselves — which makes building power skills even harder. We have to actively counter the false stigma that leaders appear weak when they lean into those “soft” skills. Now, many leadership development professionals have to set about reversing decades of entrenched views on what it means to be a leader.

Leaders can no longer go fast enough to keep up with markets or new challenges on their own. They MUST collaborate. It’s the only way businesses will be able to stay competitive. This means leaders need to embrace the vulnerability of saying “I don’t know” and “Can you help?”.

2020 threw everyone into the same state of uncertainty and made it more acceptable to not know what to do. Stereotypes and habits don’t disappear overnight though. They take time and effort to unpick.

Being vulnerable and leading with empathy are very important to showing we as leaders are human and that we genuinely care; it’s much easier said than done though. Many high-powered leaders struggle because that’s not what they were taught, but showing vulnerability and empathy are critical skills that future leaders will need to have because when you’re relatable, people will listen to what you’re teaching.

Tracy Ting, SVP, CHRO at Encore Capital Group


The thing is that there is no true collaboration without parties who are willing to hear each other’s ideas and try new things at the risk of failing. Part of encouraging leaders to be more vulnerable is to reframe failure.


How do we make every person, including leaders, feel like they can ask a question, suggest something different, and risk or admit failure without being judged for it? The secret to healthy collaboration is psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the feeling that employees can make mistakes and take interpersonal risks. Without it, people won’t take the risk of volunteering a new idea, talk about where they went wrong or speak up when they disagree with their peer, manager or leader.

Our contributors explicitly called out the connection between collaboration and psychological safety and emphasized the need for organizations to build psychological safety as the foundation for collaboration.


Psychological safety unlocks collaboration at all levels by creating bridges where hierarchical walls once stood. Leaders need to become experts in building psychological safety with both their peers and the people they manage. This will be critical for helping them move away from a Command and Control model, and for empowering their teams to take ownership and increase their speed of execution.


So how do you build psychological safety? In an episode of the Leadermorphosis podcast, Amy Edmondson, who coined the term psychological safety, says leaders have to lay down expectations from the start and actively ask for opinions because “Most of us are waiting for an invitation to make a difference.”

To really build psychological safety, leaders have to acknowledge the discomfort and normalize doing things that people are afraid to do, particularly at work.

At GitLab, we have a sub-value under our Collaboration value of “Short toes.” Essentially, we are accepting of people taking initiative in trying to improve things. We help team members feel comfortable letting others contribute to different domains in the organization. But the only way to do that is if there’s a culture of psychological safety and openness where people leaders promote that and people aren’t afraid to make mistakes.

Josh Zimmerman, Head of Learning and Development at GitLab Inc.

Communication has always been a staple leadership skill. The move into the blended or hybrid way of working, along with the nuance of virtual communication, has been the reminder many needed to adapt and sharpen this skill if we want collaboration to continue.

At Hive Learning, we’ve shared a Session Guide for building psychological safety in your team that works online. One of our favorite ways to build instant psychological safety is by presenting your User Manual of Me where participants share preferred ways of working and pet peeves.


We’ve noticed that tools like Teams and Slack don’t scale past, well, teams. They aren’t often that useful for bringing large groups of dispersed teams together to collaborate because they are noisy, hard to search in, and hard to revisit. The real-time flow buries older conversation and along with it, your data on who is role-modeling that collaborative behavior, when, how, and how often. In some scenarios, they create more silos than they break.

In order to sustain a culture where everyone stays open to collaboration and continual learning, we need a solution that’s built for that.


A huge thank you to our expert contributors

Amanda Pick, Culture & Engagement Executive at Volkswagen Financial Services (UK)

Anila Brown, Head of Organizational Development and Learning at Harris Computer Systems

Bill Ball, Director of Learning and Development at DISYS

Brad Hartman, Chief People Officer at FerGene

Catherine Schlieben, HR Director – Talent at National Grid

Jacquie Murphy, Head of Learning and Development at Smith and Williamson

Josh Zimmerman, Head of Learning and Development at GitLab Inc.

Lydia Charilaou (MCIPD), Head of Learning and Development Olam Cocoa at Olam International UK Ltd.

Magdalena Blechoska, Europe Region Talent Director at UPS

Maricar Obieta, Global Head of Learning & Leadership Development at Willis Towers Watson

Michael Fraccaro, Chief People Officer at Mastercard

Miriam Williams, Global Curriculum Design Director at Mars

Paula Leach, Founder and Executive Coach of Vantage Points Consulting

Renee Romulus MBA, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, SWP, Vice President, Global Talent Development at FTI Consulting

Ruth Gotian, Ed.D., M.S., Chief Learning Officer in Anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine

Tracy Ting, SVP, CHRO at Encore Capital Group

Anonymous, Learning Innovation Partner at a multinational pharmaceutical company

Anonymous, Global Learning Curriculum Lead at a major UK bank

New leadership skills for 2021

If you want to download the full report and share it with your colleagues, get the PDF here:

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Chanel Diep (she/her)

Chanel is a Content Producer at Hive Learning and works across our programs, delivering behaviour change in areas ranging from diversity and inclusion to wellbeing. Nurturing a personal interest in all things inclusion, Chanel says her job is as much about learning new things as it is about unlearning. Before joining Hive Learning, Chanel championed inclusive travel writing by challenging the use of colonial names and stubbornly tracking down accented characters. Away from the laptop, Chanel spends her time co-parenting her 70+ plants and feebly resisting sweet treats.

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