Spotlight On... Learning and Leadership

February 2011

How to Succeed in the New Normal
By: Tom Hood

As the Great Recession of 2008 begins to recede, organizations are beginning to ask, “What’s next? How do we succeed in this “new normal?” A tsunami of changes has swept over us, changing the business environment, workforce and workplace in what many are saying are permanent and fundamental ways. Smart organizations are planning how they will survive and thrive in this “new normal.”

Questions like these are on the top of every executive’s mind:

  • Is our organization prepared for the pending recovery?
  • Is our organization positioned to thrive in the “new normal?”
  • How do we prepare our organization to survive in constantly changing conditions?
  • Do we have the bench strength to navigate the increasingly competitive environment?


The two Ls -- learning and leadership -- will be the keys to future success in an increasingly complex world. Leading organizations have adopted new strategies for dealing with this rapidly changing world. They are strategically and systematically focusing on learning and leadership development to get and keep their competitive advantage. Let’s look closer at these two fundamentals for success in the “new normal.”

Your rate of learning as an organization and individual must be greater than the rate of change in the industry in order to remain relevant. Think about it as this simple formula:

A research report recently released by the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), titled “Bridging the Skills Gap: New Factors Compound the Growing Skills Shortage,” shows the majority of businesses and professional service firms are unprepared for the recovery and do not have the “bench strength” to handle execution of their organization’s changing strategies. Add the pending retirement of the baby boomers, and the generational differences that the millennials bring to the workplace, and you have a perfect storm facing your organization.

To keep pace in your industry, let alone excel as a leader, requires your rate of learning to be greater than, or equal to, the rate of change.”   -Unknown

The ASTD report identified five major skill gaps facing professional service firms:

  • Leadership and executive skills
  • Professional and industry specific skills
  • Managerial and supervisory skills
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Sales and business development skills

These findings were further reinforced in a Grant Thornton study titled, “The evolving accounting talent profile: CFO strategies for attracting, training and retaining accounting professionals,” which identified the three most critical issues as:

  • Lack of “soft skills” (e.g., critical thinking and problem-solving, negotiation and communication)
  • Concerns over workload and lifestyle in accounting and finance
  • Lack of deep technical skills

These reports reflect the significant changes in the business environment, workforce and workplace that have happened through the recession. Our research shows that leading organizations are taking a strategic look at learning that includes a focus on leadership development, culture and talent management. They are investing in these areas with specific business objectives to support growth and innovation in this slow/no growth environment.


Second, in a world of increasing complexity, uncertainty and change, leadership is needed to innovate, create and navigate the organization and its people through the whitewater environment in which we now find ourselves.

We have identified three critical competencies and five qualities essential to leadership in the “new normal.” These are critical for an organization to inspire its teams and to get that “discretionary effort” that leads to higher performance.

The three critical competencies are strategic thinking, strengths and positivity, and network leadership. Strategic thinking is a future-mined and flexible mindset and the ability to understand change and complexity. Strengths and positivity are skills in understanding a strengths-based approach and the power of positivity in teamwork, engagement and trust. Network leadership is the ability to influence across departmental and even organizational boundaries in an increasingly interconnected world.

Our research shows that leaders must be able to think strategically, both critically and creatively, and be ready to shift their perspectives and those of others. Then they have to mobilize people to help them get the work done - insights to action.

Here is our list of the five most important qualities of extraordinary leaders:

  1. Sight: The ability to see emerging trends, identify patterns and shift perspective when necessary (future-minded and flexible).
  2. Insight: The ability to learn faster than the rate of change in your industry and apply these insights to your organization.
  3. Create: The ability to think creatively and critically to apply insights that can create new high-leverage opportunities for your organization.
  4. Communicate: The ability to make your thinking visible to others and your ideas portable, combined with the ability to collaborate inside and outside your organization, to build and sustain social networks of people engaged in the work.
  5. Inspire: The ability to mobilize support and engage others to join you in ACTION.

What’s old is new again. Tom Peter has a famous quote: “Hard is soft and soft is hard!” That sums all of this up quite nicely. In a world where we are plagued with constant interruptions, multi-tasking and distractions, we need leaders who can inspire us and help “make sense of the changing and complex world.” Leadership skills and development will be the single most important differentiator in the “new normal.”

Learning + Leadership = Success in the New Normal

The formula for success is to take learning and leadership and integrate them into your organization. Start with your strategy and an assessment of your environment. Then identify the top five critical competencies you need in your organization. Develop a plan to develop your leaders in critical business units and a learning plan for the critical competencies that will support your business strategy. All of this must be flexible and adaptable to handle future changes and unexpected circumstances, so plan on constant iterations and revisit at least quarterly.

Now is the time to focus your organization on business performance, innovation and growth by strategically focusing in learning and leadership development.


Tom Hood, CPA, CITP, is CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute. Tom was recently named one of the Top 25 On-line Influencers in Talent Management by the HR Examiner. He has also been named one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the Accounting Profession by Accounting Today.

Hood will present, The State of Informal and Social Learning, at the upcoming NASBA CPE Conference on Wednesday, March 9, 2011, in San Diego, CA.


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