Hitting a sweet spot in organisational leadership development

Charles Galunic

Professor of Organisational Behaviour
The Aviva Chaired Professor of Leadership and Responsibility

Programme Director for our flagship transformational programme, INSEAD Lead the Future

Charles Galunic's academic background straddles the disciplines of organisational behaviour and strategy, while his research explores the ways that organisations can become better aligned to their strategic goals and environment through cultural and structural change. Charles is particularly interested in network theory which unpacks the way that people are connected and how this impacts things like creativity, and our capacity to innovate and to advance in our careers. 

In 2022, INSEAD launched the Lead the Future programme, a flagship online learning journey for leaders that aims to thoroughly transform participants’ critical competencies and their ability to deliver global impact as general managers and organisational leaders. Lead the Future is a departure for INSEAD. Delivered over 12 months, this completely new programme goes deeper and further than many other executive education offerings, and is laser-focused on competencies of organisational leadership. Charles is the academic brains behind INSEAD Lead the Future and the programme’s chief faculty.

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It’s an interesting time to be launching a new programme. A lot has changed in the last couple of years for leaders since the pandemic disrupted our economies and reconfigured business practices. How have executives’ needs changed, do you think?

I’d say that with all of the uncertainty we’ve lived through, there’s a greater need for leaders to be able to distinguish between signal and noise. There’s been a lot of debate around virtual working, remote working and leveraging digital during the pandemic and in its wake, and it’s hard to know precisely where to focus your energy and resources – and where not to. Where leaders sometimes struggle is discerning the real signals – the real trends and shifts that are affecting business. Since the pandemic, we’ve seen disruption to supply chains and with the geopolitical crisis, we’re seeing shifts in the way we source energy and the growing need to secure new points of supply. So there’s a lot of noise. And I think one area where executive education can really be useful is helping organisations scan the environment and assess what really matters strategically to them, and what is noise.

You’re the lead faculty on INSEAD’s new executive education programme, Lead the Future. How does Lead the Future help executives distinguish signals from noise?

Well, the programme is really predicated on three core pillars and the first of those is scanning. We give participants the tools to scan and to understand their world – their customers, their upstream and downstream supply chains and the stakeholders that are integral to these. This is critical to deciphering the strategic signals from the background noise.

The second pillar of the programme is all about reconfiguring assets and resources to adapt quickly to changes in the environment. And this is all about how we reconnect structures and systems within the organisation – to rearrange the plumbing, so to speak, in response to change. This second pillar is really about creating value from reconfiguring the organisation, and becoming both deft and effective at doing that.

The third pillar is around value sustaining for as long as possible, and in a sense, this is the most future-facing area of Lead the Future. Now, most companies don’t want to have to change regularly. It’s preferable to create business models and operations that are lasting. So here, we bring in the evaluation tools – typically tools of finance – that can help predict how new products or services will fare over time; what the revenue stream is likely to be and what market changes are on the horizon. We want to empower them to work through the numbers to achieve long-term profitability, such that innovation and investments earn their keep and sustain themselves. Of course, there’s another dimension to sustainability beyond profit, that is concerned with our planet and our people: how do we protect our environment, how do we mitigate the wear and tear on our workforce and prevent things like burnout in times of uncertainty and stress? How do we make our organisations greener? And the programme delves into this too. We want to raise leaders’ heads and encourage them to think about how friendly their organisations are to our people and our planet.

It sounds like you aim to cover a lot of ground in 12 months. Do you expect leaders to come away professionally and personally transformed?

Yes, though I’d stress that Lead the Future is unlike other leadership programmes that are focused on deep introspection and developing self-awareness. Lead the Future is really all about the holistic leadership of organisations – their systems, processes, structures and strategies – more than leaders’ psychological or personal development in this sense. We want participants to emerge better at leading strategy at a macro level, so we really orientate the learning from a general manager’s perspective – accelerating leaders’ capacity to think strategically and in a way that totally integrates the functions and systems of the entire organisation. I should say that this is also not a degree programme, and assessment is not structured around exams. We use action learning projects instead, where participants take their learning and apply it to their own real-world and on-going business problems as they progress through the programme.

When you say general manager’s perspective, does that mean that Lead the Future is exclusively for general managers? 

No, the programme is really designed to accelerate the capabilities of senior executives who need to stay ahead of the curve in skills and knowledge, and aspiring leaders – perhaps younger professionals with the drive and ambition to accelerate their careers and elevate their status and responsibility within the organisation. Lead the Future is also ideal for HR leaders who are looking to build a world-class, sustainable leadership pipeline. Part of the richness of the programme is the diversity of this cohort, with each participant bringing different perspectives and outlooks, experience and expertise to the shared learning. 

Progressing through the 12 months, as you say, your participants combine learning with their ongoing responsibilities and commitments. The online format facilitates this?

I think that the way that people want to learn has changed over time. More and more, we want to learn in short snippets, over the course of a week say – and from the comfort of our own homes. This programme is around 90% asynchronous in the sense that participants learn at their own pace, and that’s a big advantage of Lead the Future. It’s long and there’s a lot of content to cover. So the challenges to our participants are deep and complex.

We follow a 4-3-2-1 structure. There are four core courses which are both dense and multi-faceted. Then the three piece is the electives – this is where people can really specialise in their focus across the three pillars of scanning, reconfiguring for change and value sustaining. Then there are two live virtual sessions that we have together in live time: the first is a presentation of core projects followed closely by a synchronous delivery on judgement and decision-making, called Strategic Decision Making for Leaders. And finally we have one Capstone and Graduation which is a face-to-face experience with the entire cohort together on campus. Throughout the programme, they also benefit from learning coaches who will help them track their progress and get the most from their focused project work.

You said earlier that Lead the Future is not similar to other leadership programmes that focus on self-development, nor is it a degree programme. Yet 12 months is a major time commitment and the curriculum you describe is challenging. How would you characterise Lead the Future then, and what would you say participants ultimately take away from this experience?

Lead the Future is unlike any other programme that we offer at INSEAD in that it gives participants the tools and frameworks in those areas that as a general manager, they need to be real experts. These areas go beyond functional or operational expertise or the leadership of teams. They explore broader strategic thinking, the comprehensive organisational change and puzzle-solving – and that includes the financial understanding – and the long-term value sustaining that fall under the purview of someone who is really leading a whole organisation every day. And Lead the Future equips them to excel in all three of these areas.

In a sense, Lead the Future hits the bullseye of relevance across the breadth of topics you might find in a business school or in executive education. It occupies that sweet spot in learning and understanding that sits at the core of organisational leadership, and what you need to become a truly rounded, integrative and effective leader of business today and for the long term. There’s no other programme that I know quite like it.

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