Tomorrow’s Leadership Trends: Bridging the Global Generation Gap in Human Resources

by Elaine Varelas, managing partner of Keystone Partners

While attending the International HR Conference in Barcelona, Spain recently, Keystone Partners’ Managing Partner, Elaine Varelas, brought back insights on new trends in global leadership.


The lobby of the Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona is abuzz. Holding cups of espresso, attendees and speakers chatted animatedly at the third International HR Conference. English, German, Spanish, and other languages surround me. It’s not just our country of origin that separates us, so do our roles; we are a diverse collection of the world’s HR leaders—young mavericks, experienced entrepreneurs, high-tech consultants, and savvy fundraisers. Yet I quickly realized how alike the challenges facing us are, regardless of the location or industry.

The trend I’ve noticed most lately? More and more of my client companies are global, and they want to know what to expect, how to deal effectively with the new challenges they’re encountering, how to cultivate global talent, and break cultural barriers to derive success. I am not alone; many HR leaders are grappling with the same challenges.

Like many of those in the audience, I sensed that the current evolution of HR is happening on a larger scale than ever before. Of course, digitalization is on everyone’s lips—creating and scaling business outcomes by enabling employees with technology, from social media and virtual team-building to robotic innovations. And we know such applications go beyond the workplace.

“In this natural progression, technology is embracing not only HR categories but tools around work-life balance and professional development, engagement, and social interactions. People management looks at the employee both within and outside of work,” explained Gary Cormier, Harvard University’s director of Human Resources.

Still, “Human beings thrive on connectivity, and when it is real and genuine, it is awesome,” said Terry Gillis of Carswell Partners .

“Global leaders need to view the workplace as an employee experience—what HR can do to source, attract, develop, and learn from its employees, keeping them engaged at an emotional, aspirational, and virtual level,” added Cormier.

When people experience this real deal, they engage on a deeper and more lasting level with the business, while also contributing long-term to a company’s success. Concurrently, they are looking to leaders who can successfully manage uncertainty and ambiguity; who are adaptable and agile; and who are comfortable working in and with virtual teams.

This tangible management style translates on a global basis to a leadership that’s transparent; that trusts the autonomy of an individual while also prizing team spirit. Today’s leaders are curious, bright, ambitious, and generous. They see the business world as a whole, not only as a workforce that is five generations strong, from Traditionalists to Baby Boomers and Gen Z, but one that is intercultural and thrives on connectivity to each other, and purpose.

Sylvia Taudien, the director of Advantage Consultores, Partner of CPI in Spain and Portugal, and Organizer of the 3rd International HR Conference explained, “This year we opted to focus on young entrepreneurship. We have clearly seen the capacity these young people have to change the world and to change organizations. Millennials and native digital speakers are responsible for labor innovation. They are young revolutionaries in their passion and innovative projects. This trend will increase the number of freelancers and independents (‘Knowmads’).”

These individuals understand that to achieve their organization’s goals, they must aim for transformational leadership by networking virtually to pull human resources together. It’s second nature, no matter the country of origin.

Consider Ireland’s Jordan Casey, who has managed to establish himself as a symbol for young entrepreneurship across the globe, publishing many successful digital products, while also becoming a well-known international speaker.

The teenage tech prodigy behind Casey Games and Europe’s youngest CEO has explained to the press, “Luckily, a lot of my friends (and my brother) are interested in technology. I’ve taught them a bit of programming, and now we have something of a team. We don’t work in a physical office but we work online together. We share ideas and our work through platforms like Skype. I think this could be the future of the workplace.”

Fabian Kienbaum, managing partner of Kienbaum Consultants International, said, “The younger generations of professionals indeed tend to have a different notion of what life and work mean. They are adjusting to a volatile world, and they are confident and outspoken about the new ideas they can contribute. In terms of an intercultural or global workforce, this means that younger people often find it easier to adjust to changing teams or new circumstances. Change has become the norm for them, which is an invaluable soft skill to have. In the end, globalized businesses will benefit from these globalized people.”

I think we’d all agree that talent has no borders. Much has been made of Millennials, and their beliefs in diversity and inclusion as essential to business success. Being able to work across different cultures is critical to thriving in a global marketplace.

The experts I’ve spoken with in Barcelona call this cultural intelligence (CQ)—the ability to function effectively across various cultural contexts, including country of origin, country of work, generational subtext, or other influencers, such as multiple ethnicities—in one office or virtually—connected to a single goal.

“I believe CQ will be the topic most companies will grapple with and want to gain influence over in the future,” added Cormier—who brings 30 years of experience in both HR and leadership to the table. “The International Labor Union projects that 90% of senior leaders from over 68 countries name multicultural leadership as a top organizational challenge in their companies. Today, it is less about learning to assimilate to the culture you find yourself in and instead, [more] about gaining cultural awareness. Sensitivity is key to leadership on a global platform.”

Every organization wants to develop the most successful global HR leaders. I asked Simon Dolan, the Future of Work Chair Holder at ESADE Business School, Barcelona, to describe these talents. Dolan has published books in several languages on the topic of managing people.  His texts are found at universities around the world.

“I would say, first of all, the ability to change people’s attitudes into people’s competencies. Next is having a clear vision of what the global strategy is for satisfying a company’s needs and goals. And, finally, one must be able to oversee motivating people and turning that motivation into something sustainable over time,” Dolan mused.

On the topic, Cormier concluded, “Global leaders need to really figure out what will engage employees and find ways to more actively promote this engagement. Just like recruitment learned to tailor the candidate experience and make it a brand experience that was positive enough to encourage candidates to apply, so too, global leaders need to now look at the employee experience and brand it as a positive experience that encourages staff to stay and contribute to the company’s success.”

As the program closed and participants departed from the beautiful piazza, the buzz continued. No matter our country of origin or native language, we have shared terrific conversations about how best to develop leadership, sustain employee experience, capture and keep top talent, and so much more. The speed of change in the HR world has motivated us all to embrace a future rich with challenge and opportunity.

Elaine Varelas is a U.S.-based career development consultant for over 20 years. She serves as a managing partner of Keystone Partners. Whether working with Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, or not-for-profit organizations, Varelas’ focus is on creating and implementing leadership development, strategic coaching, and talent management initiatives that support business objectives.