• In a volatile and uncertain world, it can be challenging for professionals to prepare for the future.
    • Technological change means that technical skills will be increasingly important going forward.
    • But so-called “soft skills” will also be of utmost importance, as they promote collaboration and effective problem solving.

    One of the key challenges facing the next generation of financial leaders is acquiring a set of skills that will stay relevant in a rapidly changing world. With everything from climate change to technological disruption, it is hard to decide on what area to focus on.

    “The world is getting noisier and sometimes, it might feel a little out of control,” said Bryan Goh, Graduate Analyst, Markets and Securities Services at HSBC.

    He was speaking at HSBC’s Securities Services Future Leaders Live, a virtual event for professionals that will drive change in the financial industry over the coming decades. Via polling, attendees said that they were excited about the future, while acknowledging the challenges that come from being adaptable.

    One way to describe the situation is via the concept of VUCA, an acronym made up of four words that each capture a different aspect of the challenging environment that we face. These are volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

    We can better understand these on a personal level by seeing how they might affect our careers in the future. Volatility for example, is associated with the speed of change, and we can see that in how the most in-demand skills did not even exist 10 or 20 years ago. Complexity is evident in the problems we tackle at work. They are complicated and multi-layered, requiring an interdisciplinary skill set. The World Economic Forum says that complex problem solving and critical thinking are some of the skills that will grow in prominence in the next five years1.

    Rapid technological progress drives the VUCA world. We are living through the fourth industrial revolution, with new technologies evolving at a pace that is hard to keep up with. Artificial Intelligence, robotics and automation are just a small selection of the technologies that are going to shake up labour markets in the future. Young professionals need to be aware of these factors when planning their development.

    “The need for technological and behavioural skills will rise as demand for the physical and manual skills that were prominent in the first industrial revolution will decrease,” said Bryan Goh. He cited a McKinsey study that forecasts a 55 per cent increase in the demand for technological skills by 2030, and 24 per cent increase in demand for social and emotional skills – such as leadership and being able to manage others2 .

    Developing in multiple dimensions

    How exactly can next-gen leaders prepare themselves for an uncertain future? The answer could be to see development as a multi-directional progression, rather than a linear path, said Skott Taylor, Client Director at consultancy Bridge Partnership. Development can thus be understood both horizontally and vertically.

    “To use a computer-based analogy, we could say that horizontal development increases the size of your mental hard drive, and vertical development boosts your processor speed and power,” he said. “Having both means you are in a better position to analyse and use the vast amount of data you have stored in your hard drive, and you are prepared to withstand any sudden, unexpected changes in your working environment and the world around you.”

    In concrete terms, we can understand horizontal development as soft skills like being able to communicate with impact and connectivity, alongside harder digital skills in emerging technologies – such as AI, automation and open banking. Vertical development is the acquisition of more abstract capacities. For example, being able to make sense of a complex situation, or being capable to effectively respond to and work with conflicting ideas.

    But as technology continues to rise in importance, we should not forget that the purpose of computers, robots and other labour-saving devices is that they take over the tasks that can be automated, while leaving human beings to focus on what they are uniquely good at – namely, higher-order thinking. Dialling up what makes us essentially human will be a key to success in the future.

    Staying focused

    Last year, Stephen Man from HSBC’s Securities Services was promoted to Global Chief Information Officer – a position that is much larger than his previous role. A big step up is a reason for celebration, but at the same time, Stephen found that accepting new responsibilities during the pandemic, and juggling them with the demands of raising a young family, was sometimes a challenging experience.

    The solution he found was to take a step back and reflect on what really matters and to put aside trivial topics. By doing this, he was more able to apply his full capabilities to the matter at hand.

    Stephen’s experience is a good example of how it is possible to employ essentially human skills to make sense of a changing environment. The opportunity to pause and work out what is important highlights that the financial industry needs to better understand professionals to not only have the hard technical skills to do their job, but also the softer skills that are necessary to make sense of a fast-changing world and collaborate effectively with colleagues.

    So no matter how the future turns out, the next generation of leaders should remember that as long as they keep their minds flexible and open-minded in ways that a computer cannot, there will always be a role for them in the ever-evolving financial industry.

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