A Look in the Crystal Ball: Challenges Leaders Will Face in 2014

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.” — William Shakespeare, British playwright and poet.

A Look in the Crystal Ball: Challenges Leaders Will Face in 2014 by Laura StackLet’s face it: business life won’t be getting any easier or slower or less complicated (unless human nature and civilization undergo a radical reversal). Technology will keep advancing at a rapid pace, and the changes it brings will continue to reverberate through our society.

When I was growing up, many things we take for granted now didn’t even exist: cell phones, CDs, DVDs, home computers, and satellite radio, just to name a few. Now they’re commonplace things most of us enjoy. What might be commonplace 30 years from now? There’s no telling, but what I can say is this: the business leaders who are ready and willing to embrace the future will be the ones who prosper for decades to come. You can succeed in the future only by facing today’s challenges head on, reframing them as opportunities, and taking advantage of them.

Here are the top six challenges I see facing today’s business leaders.

1. Agile Innovation. The rapid velocity of modern business seems unlikely to slow, requiring an organizational culture of speed, fast decision-making, and quick action. However, speed and agility can take you only so far if you lack the vision. Nokia suffered from their lack of vision in the 2000s when their leadership decided to forgo smartphone development in favor of “dumb” cell phones. They had a superb technological team that could have given them a significant head start over everyone else. But after Apple and other smartphone producers hammered them in the marketplace, they came back with products like the high-end Lumia. Its innovative features—and investment in aggressive marketing—have taken back part of their old market share.

2. Competition from emerging nations. As modern capitalism takes hold in nations that traditionally followed other economic systems or that have simply begun to become wealthier, we’ll see more direct business competition from those nations. According to management consultants McKinsey & Company, by 2025 about 45% of the Fortune Global 500 companies will call emerging nations home. On the other hand, as more people adopt Western-style living standards, those of us who stay on the ball will have more opportunities to prosper.

3. Data management. With the growth of cloud storage and WiFi, data has become easier than ever to store—and easier to steal. Even traditional data storage methods can fall to poor management or programming errors. A recent security breach at Target, the discount retailer, left the credit card numbers and personal information of millions of Americans accessible to hackers. At the moment, legal requirements and penalties for cyber-theft vary state-by-state; we lack overriding Federal laws, much less national task forces, to police crime of this nature. Until the law catches up with technology, business leaders must take the initiative to protect their own data, not to mention organize it logically.

4. Talent management. As we slowly emerge from the Great Recession, workers no longer feel an overriding need to stay with one company, especially if they dislike the working conditions. Add in the technological revolution, and many workers need not go to an office on a daily basis. Some have found they don’t even need a traditional boss. The balance of power has become more equal, such that workers and management now lie on a continuum rather than on different levels of a hierarchy. As a leader, you’ll find yourself becoming more of a facilitator, visionary, and cheerleader to tech-savvy, independent-minded workers than ever before. Your challenge will be to keep findings ways to encourage to them to own their jobs and motivate them to spend their discretionary efforts on the organization. You may also find that cost-cutting needs move you toward less traditional workplace solutions, like increased outsourcing and telecommuting for some workers.

5. Focus on adding value. How you respond to change can prove critically important during mergers and downsizing. Billionaire Richard Branson, who has overseen hundreds of companies, emphasizes the need for tightening up organizational structure and refusing to take on another person’s flawed legacy: better to restart the company altogether. If you find restructuring necessary, he suggests making your organization “very small, very specialized, and very expensive.” Meanwhile, he recommends bringing your people together regularly so they can bounce ideas off each other, get to know each other, and learn to function as a smoother entity.

Over and Out

Shakespeare called the future “the undiscovered country,” since we can’t tell exactly what it will be like until we get there. But even through you lack a map, that doesn’t mean you can’t hold yourself and your team ready to blaze a trail into that new territory. With the above challenges in mind, I invite you to move forward and colonize a prosperous new tomorrow, prepared in advance for what’s most likely to come. Stay loose, stay agile—and be ready for anything.