Malcolm Cannon: Skills development and transformation hold key to future success

THIS week the IoD (Institute of Directors) celebrated our annual Director of the Year Awards, recognising the Scottish leaders who are rising to the daily challenges of running a business during very difficult circumstances.

The evening highlighted just how important the business community is in Scotland, and how vast our pool of talent is. Scottish businesses are at the heart of our economy, and so it was reassuring to hear the First Minister package up a range of plans to provide ongoing support to businesses last week and make a forceful commitment to their delivery.

Though several initiatives were announced to support a variety of sectors, two key themes cut through for me: skills development and transformation. Both pick up on recommendations laid down in Benny Higgins’ report from the Action Group for Economic Recovery.

The commitment shown to youth employment is especially encouraging. We know there is a lot of talent in Scotland, and at our DoY awards we recognised two young leaders who have particularly excelled over the last 12 months. But there will always be more we can do to encourage the next generation to succeed, and the Youth Guarantee and funding for apprentices goes a long way to support this.

If young people don’t have the opportunity to enter the workforce and begin to hone their skills, we may find ourselves facing a ‘coronavirus skills gap’ in the coming years.

The Youth Guarantee will provide some comfort to leaders who are planning the future direction of their business, as they know the pipeline of talent will not been disrupted. It complements other initiatives that the industry is establishing, such as the IoD’s own Future Directors programme. This involves university and college students becoming members of the Institute, thus gaining a better understanding of how businesses work and developing their leadership skills, while also providing reverse mentoring for established directors.

But skills training doesn’t just lie with the young so we, as leaders, must continue to be open to learning and upskilling our own teams to contribute to the transformation of ourselves, our organisations, and the sectors in which we work.

I’ve spoken before about how our world has changed over the last six months and it’s not something that will stop soon. Now more than ever we need to strive to improve our abilities at handling corporate challenges like those we have experienced recently.

The establishment of a Centre for Work Transformation is an inspired move, indicating there is recognition at Government level that it is not, and never will be, business as usual. That consideration is being given to how the future of how we operate may look is reassuring.

Anecdotal evidence is showing that productivity remains high while working from home, and businesses must look to the future and decide how this workplace flexibility can be maintained and built upon as we move forward. Leaders and colleagues have been faced with no choice but to be resilient and adaptable in recent months, regularly changing direction, making business decisions with extreme consequence, and transforming working practice, while having no real idea of what may come next. The boards which have faced up to those tough decisions, innovated early and embraced change have demonstrated the type of leadership skills and credentials we need more of.

What we have come to learn is that our people are vital, and so by focusing on the upskilling of existing staff, and offering as much opportunity as possible to the next generation we may just be able to future-proof our businesses.

Malcolm Cannon is national director of IoD Scotland

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