How to future proof your career

4 Jul 19

In uncertain times, one of the few certainties is that leaders are going to need to be agile. Traditional training models may no longer be the best fit but there are ways to prepare for the unknown. Hult Ashridge’s Sona Sherratt explains. 

Whether it’s uncertainty around our political leadership or concerns about the impact of Brexit, it feels hard to predict what will happen tomorrow, let alone in five years’ time. Furthermore, as public sector organisations embark on digital transformation projects – and new organisational structures and career paths emerge – how do you know what skills you will need for the future?

In our research at Hult Ashridge, we explored how the leaders of today felt their skill needs had changed over the past 10 years. We found that managers would have liked more support with becoming adaptable, particularly as adoption of new technologies such as artificial intelligence have accelerated. There was also an emphasis on the importance of emotional intelligence and soft skills – that getting to know others’ motivations and using empathy when making decisions would have shaped them into more effective leaders.

As a new generation of leaders comes through, what is certain is that these changing times require them to learn in an agile way. Traditional models of training up high-potential staff to be a heroic leader are ill-suited to an environment where the factors influencing our decisions are constantly shifting. Leaders of tomorrow will work as a community, networked with others both inside and outside the organisation, and they will need to adapt their approach as they go. So how can you acquire those skills?

  1. Develop a growth mindset
    A growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, means you are able to face challenges and adapt to them, learning from the experience. Rather than relying on fixed ideas of how to deal with situations, those with a growth mindset are open to taking risks and working outside their comfort zone. Gradually exposing yourself to new situations or taking on projects that you might normally shy away from could help you develop this mindset. Be curious about unfamiliar situations and take on board diverse viewpoints as you formulate strategies for the future. Take each new situation as a challenge from which you can learn rather than seeing situations as hurdles that you will either clear or fail.
  2. Work on your relational skills
    Skills such as influencing, negotiation and communication will be crucial for leaders guiding teams through changing times. You can, of course, explore these skills in formal management courses, but building connections with a diverse range of people means you can hone them in real-life situations. Explore opportunities for cross-functional working inside your organisation, remembering that sideways moves may help your career in the long run, and seek out external networking opportunities or partnerships with like-minded organisations. 
  3. Become digitally aware
    Developments in AI and other emerging technologies may be happening faster than most of us can keep up with them, but it’s important to have enough of an understanding to know how they will impact your industry. It’s not a case of learning how to code, but it might help to understand how technology can augment what human teams are capable of, and how it will affect your sector, your workload and your leadership style in the coming years.
  4. Learn how to learn
    Learning agility is all about recognising that all of our experiences shape how we lead. In our survey, many respondents (especially younger ones) told us that the best learning often came through failures or things not going to plan. Similarly, finding opportunities to stretch yourself and learn new skills on the job (or by shadowing someone else) can ensure you’re continuously acquiring new knowledge. Be open to feedback from others so you can adapt your learning as you go.
  5. Take ownership of your career
    Don’t rely on your employer to equip you with all of these skills. Formal courses will help you acquire key capabilities, but self-directed learning can push your ambitions further. Use a combination of online research and asking your network to find learning avenues that work for you. This could also involve building your emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Leaders who responded to our survey talked about how they learned from major life events and from being mindful of how emotional reactions affected others.


Top tips…


  1. Seek out a diverse network of people both inside and outside your organisation and be curious about their projects
  2. Direct your own learning and understand that learning never stops
  3. Get to know how technology affects your job and your sector


  1. Forget ‘soft’ skills such as influencing, negotiation and communication
  2. Stop looking for opportunities
  3. Be afraid to fail

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Where can I find opportunities to learn on the job, or learn about a job I’d like in the future?
  • How can I shift myself out of my comfort zone and take manageable risks?
  • Where can I find out more about how digital transformation will affect my organisation and the sector I work in?
  • What can I learn from major career milestones I’ve crossed already?
  • How can I start to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?
  • How can I learn to learn from every experience?

Sona Sherratt is professor of practice – leadership, at Hult Ashridge

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