Executive recruiters talk to thousands of leaders in different industries and have a unique insight into the changing nature of work and leadership. We spoke to Darren Raycroft, an executive recruiter with the Bedford Group/Transearch, about his views on technology, the future of work, and what the leader of tomorrow will look like.

Can you tell me about your role at the Bedford Group/Transearch and how that has given your insight into the future of work?

I partner with mid-size to Fortune 50 companies to advance their strategic talent agenda, where I am typically engaging with the CEO and other C-suite leaders. My work involves searching for new executive leaders, going after people who are already employed and working within competitor organizations. One of the most frequent conversations I have with my partners is about the future of work. My clients want to know what authentic leadership looks like today, how it will change tomorrow, and what the change will mean to the organization.

What is the most significant change facing organizations?

I work across a broad spectrum of industries, and the pervasive threat I see facing organizations most is technology. Specifically, with AI and quantum computing, and technology in general, the speed and intensity of change are accelerating exponentially, and without precedent.

How will technology change how organizations recruit and find employees?

Technology has disproportionately affected recruiting for entry-level and mid-level positions. It is not hard to find talent with social network platforms, like LinkedIn, which has built-in AI software for sourcing candidates. With LinkedIn, you can find out who is doing what, quite easily. AI technology makes it easy to find active job seekers, informing which channels to post a job on to optimize search results.

My approach to executive recruiting is very hands-on and requires a great deal of experience and judgment. Recruitment is about understanding the individual and their motivations, telling them the story of the client with authenticity. Technology enables us to do more tasks which humans are good at, like sourcing and filtering candidates. However, I do not see technology as capable of replacing humans in executive search, in finding a match on culture fit, for example. At least, not for the foreseeable future. 

I think it’s a dangerous proposition when companies see tech as a panacea that can do everything.

How would you describe the changing nature of leadership in organizations?

Many leaders are accustomed to running hierarchical, top-down organizations. We have seen a slight evolution in the style of business management with the introduction of matrix structures, which has increased collaboration and de-risked accountability. But this is still a relatively minor change in the grand scheme of things and does not fundamentally change the pyramid-type structure at its core.

Some startups are more fluid, where the organization is structured more like a circle, or several circles. Unfortunately, many senior leaders have grown their careers within a hierarchy, and it remains the only way they know how to lead.

Have you seen larger organizations adopt this new structure yet?

Some companies have been able to evolve. Organizational structure is only one element of the architecture that needs reinvention, though a key one in progressing along the journey of becoming an agile organization.  

What does it mean to be an agile organization?

Agile organizations have customer-centric focused cultures and the ability to act rapidly on customer intimacy. The cultural elements of agility are essential.

What other elements will exist in the future of work?

Alternative workplace arrangements will be more pervasive. There is something like 16M freelance type workers in the US today. Most recent growth in work is in freelance work. The 9-5 office type environment and the leadership style that accompanied it is becoming less and less relevant. 

How you lead in a new environment with a diverse workforce, with a mix of full-time employees and other freelance/alternative workforce employees, often located in different geographic regions and within various cultures, for example, requires a very different type of skill set for a leader. How do you motivate, empower, bring them into the company’s vision and purpose in this type of environment? These are the questions that matter most in recruiting within the gig economy for remote workers.

Do you see labor being increasingly borderless?

I would like to see that evolution. I would like to see labor be more mobile and “flow” to the most optimized usage. Technology gives us a way to do that; unfortunately, sometimes, politics gets in the way.

Will work be increasingly remote?

I think smart organizations will continue to experiment, fail fast and move on.

What qualities and traits will good leaders need for the future?

I have done tens of thousands of interviews at the executive level, and this is what I know to be true of leadership in the future:

Leaders of tomorrow will be self- aware and reflective. The importance of that will be higher than ever. They must know how to build high performance and top function teams, and the only way to achieve this is for a leader to know themselves very well.

If you know who you are, you surround yourself with the domain skills you need to compliment yourself, whether you have fixed assets or an ecosystem of contractors.

Like organizations, leaders need to be agile and respond to different environments. Can you work across cultures and groups to understand their motivations? Agility, the ability to learn quickly, and comfort with ambiguity are all essential to being successful in a rapidly changing business environment.

Also, the level of technical understanding to expect at a senior level is without precedent. The baseline level of professional awareness in any role is and will get higher.

In terms of soft skills, I would also quote our Chief Leadership Advisor John Burdett and say, “Leaders are readers.” Leaders will need to be able to pull from a vast array of experiences and demonstrate the ability to learn in different types of environments. The half-life of domain skills has shortened significantly. You need to be continually updating and learning.

If you are doing these types of things, you are part of the group of leaders that are going to be able to embrace change proactively. Rapid change is the order of the day and the only predictable aspect of the future.

How do you see AI and technology affecting how we work?

I heard this great quote, ‘If a machine can do it, it will be done by a machine.’ Computers will do repeatable things and data-driven. I think it goes back to that emotional quotient piece. If you’re a skilled worker, it’s a good thing. It will be incumbent on private and public entities to include that cohort of the unskilled workforce into the changing world of work.

Historically, public and private entities came together to retrain people. When Kodak changed their tech, for example, they got together with the government to train workers on new technology.

If you’ve ever met a farmer, they are very entrepreneurial. We went from agriculture to industrial, and we re-skilled. We can do it again. It is easier for knowledge workers to shift over, but we will all have to become better at what humans can do uniquely.

In the future, we’re going to see groups of teams with machines and robots that have one human manager. How will they lead that organization?

Technology has affected how we live our lives. We readily adopt, we get to choose when we want things, and what we want. People expect that in their personal lives and are starting to expect the same in their professional lives. Flexibility is where, I think, technology can be leveraged to empower people at work.

IBM can tell when you are at risk of leaving. Does that diminish the responsibility of the human leader? The best leaders will tell you that when they have top performer leave, it hasn’t been a surprise. Seeing technology as a panacea is wrong. The question is, “How do you use it to make leaders better?”