Navigating Tomorrow: 3 Leadership Skills to Succeed in the Age of AI by Jennifer Congdon

Jenn Congdon
Diversity and Inclusion
Female Leaders
Leadership Skills

In this Leadership Insider series, Margaret Jaouadi speaks with senior-level business leaders to ask them what in their view are the top 3 leadership skills needed by the leaders of tomorrow to succeed in this changing world and why and what shaped them as a leader.

For this installment, Paul Galanti, Head of Sector – Industrials, Americas at Pacific International Executive Search introduced Margaret to Jennifer “Jenn” Congdon, a transformational HR executive who most recently served as the first CHRO of Ecobat, a leader in the collection, recycling, production, and distribution of resources essential to modern life.

Margaret Jaouadi
Thank you for participating in our Leadership Insider series, Jenn. Before we start talking about leadership skills, please introduce yourself and tell us about your leadership journey.

Jenn Congdon
I am a seasoned global HR executive with extensive experience in both public and private equity-backed companies, serving as CHRO. My professional journey has been nothing short of incredible, commencing at Cisco Systems, a company renowned for its very creative, outside-the-box thinking and cutting-edge approach from an HR perspective.

Subsequently, I transitioned to Honeywell, where I honed my skills in process excellence. This phase allowed me to understand how to take innovative ideas and imbue them with a structured process, ultimately driving exceptional business results. I was able to leverage these skills at Rexnord, where I was Vice President of Human Resources for the power transmission group and helped build out the HR infrastructure to ultimately lead the company to an IPO event. Following this, I dedicated eight years to the pure play water sector, contributing my expertise as Vice President of Human Resources at Xylem Inc., a Fortune 500 company, and as the public CHRO at Watts Water Technologies Inc.

In my most recent role, I navigated the dynamic landscape of Ecobat, a private equity-backed organization and one of the world’s largest battery recycler that meets essential energy storage needs by making the business of batteries safer and more sustainable for a circular energy economy, serving as their first CHRO. This diverse background has equipped me with a comprehensive understanding of HR challenges and solutions across different industries and geographies, fostering adaptability and strategic thinking.

Margaret Jaouadi
The role of CHRO has significantly evolved over the years. How would you describe those changes from your perspective?

Jenn Congdon
I’ve been fortunate to work in organizations where HR is truly valued, and its significance has evolved over the years. In today’s rapidly changing world and with the advances in AI technology looming over many jobs further fueling the uncertainty over the future of work, the need for a human-centric approach is more crucial than ever. We must consider our organizations empathetically, focusing on our employees as the driving force behind business results.

Historically, HR was often seen as the office of personnel management, but it has transformed into a multifaceted and strategic function. For those less familiar with all that HR encompasses it includes: strategy, talent acquisition, talent management, learning and development, total rewards (covering compensation and benefits), employee and labor relations, HRIS, communications, strategic change management, organization design, and DE&I to name a few. The depth and breadth of HR go beyond being one-dimensional, highlighting its critical role in shaping the overall success of an organization. Today, HR plays a much more strategic role. Employees are at the forefront of business success, and how we engage, treat, and collaborate with them is paramount.

Margaret Jaouadi
Do you have a favorite part of HR?

Jenn Congdon
I do. I have a couple of favorite parts of HR. One of them is succession planning, a critical aspect of HR that involves identifying and developing employees who have the potential to fill key leadership positions in the organization. It helps ensure that the organization has a strong pipeline of talent to support its long-term goals and objectives. I enjoy thinking about who the right leaders are that are ready now or will be ready in one to two years, and how we can help build their capability.

Another part of HR I am passionate about is aligning the HR strategy with the business strategy. My deeper understanding of it developed through my experience in Organizational Development, change management, and talent acquisition within HR. In these roles, my focus revolved around creating and implementing strategies aimed at enhancing organizational effectiveness and efficiency. It involved managing change, developing talent, and acquiring the right people to support the organization’s goals.

Margaret Jaouadi
I’m glad that we’re talking. Succession planning and thinking about future leaders are exactly what this interview is about, and I’m thrilled that these are particular passions of yours. I’m excited to get started! So, having worked with many leaders over the years and being one yourself, what would you say are the top three qualities that you find crucial for future leaders to be successful in this changing world?

Jenn Congdon
When I considered the questions you provided in advance (and thank you for that), the role of AI in this context became apparent. So, there are a couple of skills that stand out to me, or rather, four to be precise. Firstly, adaptability and integration are crucial. Future leaders must swiftly pivot to embrace change and guide their teams through uncertainties.

Navigating through these challenges involves helping the team understand the ethical considerations, especially in the realm of technology. It’s vital to discern what is ethical and what isn’t, and then apply that knowledge to ensure we operate within those boundaries. This understanding not only helps us navigate ethical dilemmas but also accelerates our progress. It’s essential to go in with our eyes wide open, recognizing both the limitations and the potential for acceleration.

Another vital skill is being a strategic thinker. It’s crucial to take a holistic view of the organization, understand its long-term goals, and then stay laser-focused on achieving those objectives. Think of strategic goals as a North Star guiding the leader, especially when navigating through changes and uncertainties.

Finding the right balance between adaptability and staying aligned with strategic goals is key. The North Star analogy is fitting from the continuous improvement standpoint – it serves as a constant reference point to ensure the team doesn’t veer too far off course. Having a clear purpose and a deep understanding of the strategy helps align the entire organization, preventing over-adaptation or under-adaptation and keeping everyone on the path toward success.

This brings me to another crucial aspect: ensuring a combination of resilience and vision. Leaders need to be vision-oriented, understanding what they aim to achieve. Amidst the volatility, it’s essential to incorporate resilience into the broader picture, staying the course when necessary and being flexible when adjustments are required. The interplay of resilience and vision is particularly vital for today’s leaders.

I know you mentioned three skills, but I’d like to add a fourth: creativity and innovation. Leaders must be comfortable with quick failures, learning from mistakes, and fostering innovation. Especially in today’s dynamic environment, where numerous challenges demand creative solutions, this skill is invaluable. Combining this creative mindset with process excellence creates a powerful and well-rounded leadership approach.

Margaret Jaouadi
How can we recognize resilience in leaders? How do you define it?

Jenn Congdon
We know that resilience is the human capacity to meet adversity and then recover from it. Resilient leaders can sustain their energy level under pressure, to cope with disruptive changes and adapt. Recognizing resilience in leaders involves assessing their ability to maintain a sense of purpose and stability during adversity.

I believe that inspiration and resilience are intertwined qualities in leadership. To foster resilience, leaders need to consistently focus on motivating and inspiring their teams to achieve shared goals. In challenging times, transparency in communication becomes crucial. They need to make sure to provide clear explanations of the situation, helping the team understand the ‘why’ behind their actions.

Finding that balanced authenticity is key, and I believe it plays a pivotal role in both inspiration and resilience. Leaders must bring a genuine part of themselves into their roles, being true to who they are. I’ve observed that the most impactful leaders are those who show humility. They acknowledge that they won’t always have all the answers but excel in relying on the expertise of their team.

These leaders admit when they don’t know something and openly share their experiences, both successes and failures. I had the privilege of working with an inspirational leader who embodied this approach. His humility was evident in his oratory skills and his ability to tell compelling stories. By acknowledging his shortcomings and lessons learned, he created an environment where people felt connected and motivated. This kind of authentic leadership is like a gravitational pull that contributes significantly to building a resilient and inspired team.

Margaret Jaouadi
You are very fortunate to have worked with a person like that. And now the final question. Can you think of the biggest thing from your past that shaped you as a leader?

Jenn Congdon
Reflecting on my journey, I’d say the most significant factor that shaped me as a leader was being a competitive athlete in my youth and playing college basketball competitively. The experience instilled in me the importance of discipline through consistent and dedicated practice—a concept often linked to the famed 10,000-hour rule. However, it wasn’t just about personal performance; it also involved leading and motivating my teammates to bring out the best in them.
Sports taught me how to excel as an individual but also how to coach and inspire others within a team dynamic. What stood out was the contrast between a blame culture, where individuals are singled out for losses, and the understanding that success and failure are collective outcomes.
Applying this mindset in my leadership journey, I embrace accountability. When we succeed, it’s a team win. Equally, if we fall short, I take ownership as a leader. While discussions about learning from these shortfalls are crucial, ultimately, I recognize that the responsibility lies with me. This perspective ensures that both successes and setbacks are approached with a focus on collective responsibility.

Margaret Jaouadi
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on leadership skills. I have no doubt many people will find them inspiring.

For a confidential chat about how Pacific International can assist you with your Talent Acquisitions and Diversity challenges, please contact David Howells or one of our Executive Search Consultants specialising in your sector.