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Study Shows Future Leaders' Focus on Globalization and Sustainability

A new multi-national study that asked college students the same questions asked of global CEOs found "similarities in terms of outlook on the new economic environment and how organizations should respond" but stark differences regarding globalization and sustainability.

IBM's "Inheriting a complex world: Future leaders envision sharing the planet" was conducted through the company's Institute for Business Value. Research compared the views of 3,600 students in 40 countries--90 percent born after 1980--with 1,541 CEOs in 60 countries.

Six of 10 people in both groups designated creativity as the most important leadership attribute. The CEO group said leaders must be ready to upset the status quo even if it's successful. "They must be comfortable with and committed to ongoing experimentation," wrote the report's authors.

Interestingly, while students found the economic environment more complex than CEOs, CEOs found the environment more volatile than students and dramatically more uncertain. As the report's authors stated, the students "were more confident that information and analysis can be used to better understand even the most complex environments." In fact, many were optimistic that lessons learned from the recent economic downturn could be used to avoid crises in the future. Students were also far more likely than CEOs to trust in data analysis over "gut instinct" for optimal decision-making.

Globalization and sustainability were persistent themes among students. When asked for a ranking of factors that would impact organizations over the next five years, 55 percent of students chose globalization while only 23 percent of CEOs did; and 42 percent of students chose environmental issues while only 21 percent of CEOs did. Also, slightly less than half of students compared to less than a third of CEOs said that organizations should optimize their operations by globalizing rather than localizing or doing both. According to the report's authors, "students perceived that globalization provides an opportunity for organizations to create new value."

Students were also more than twice as likely as CEOs to expect major consequences from scarcity of resources such as energy and water. That divergence of opinion was most evident among North American students, who were three times as likely as CEOs to state that they expected a significant impact. That same geographic group was also 54 percent more likely to say that customer expectations for social responsibility would increase significantly.

The report suggested that these future leaders will probably end up redefining the concepts of success at a personal and professional level, which in turn will "require entire organizations to re-invent their values."

The authors recommended collaboration among public and private organizations to create the learning and training experiences that will be useful to future leaders, based on how they view the challenges they expect to face. "For universities seeking to develop curricula and research for future leaders, the expanding scope of sustainability requires interdisciplinary collaborations across faculty and programs, and an appreciation of students' global experiences and expectations," the report's authors wrote. "Holistic problem-solving in their courses and research requires students to solve real-time sustainability problems. This 'experiential' preparation will be particularly powerful because it will lead to collaboration among local communities, businesses, governments and universities."

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