Fast Company recently featured CEOs from major corporations like 3M, Pepsico, Starbucks, and others sharing lessons from 2012 and describing how these lessons will apply in the coming year. While we don’t roll in the same company as these folks, we still learned a lot from our clients this year, and have some exciting ideas for the year ahead.

We asked journalist Corrie Lisk-Hurst to help ‘organize our insights.’ Here are some highlights from our conversation…

CorrieWhat are the biggest challenges and changes your clients faced this past year?

(David)    Today, technological change has created many situations where young professionals who are masters at emerging technologies are being put into senior roles with really broad scope. So, on the one hand you’ve got more tenured people whose technical expertise may be less than cutting edge, and on the other you’ve got younger people with technical expertise but with less maturity, wisdom, and people management skills.  This creates both tension and opportunity that many of our clients are trying to manage.

 [Rob]   And this year we’re still seeing the lasting impact of the recession. Our clients have always asked themselves how to best invest in their people. But over the past four or five years we’ve seen more of them leverage their development dollars through people they believe are their high potential emerging leaders. They are making tough decisions to develop those they believe will sustain them over the long haul, rather than providing broad-based leadership development for everybody.

[David]  A side benefit of targeting high potential performers is that it reframes a long-standing bias that development is about “fixing people.”  These days, many of our clients view the opportunity to work with an executive coach or to participate in an ongoing development process as prestigious, whereas even a few years ago it generated hushed comments about being sent to “charm school.” Development is seen more as a reward nowadays, and there is widespread recognition that developing people leads to higher levels of engagement and loyalty.

Corrie:  What other changes are you seeing?

[Rob]  Traditionally, organizations focused heavily on developing vertically directed leadership skills and behavior, such as creating goals, giving feedback, delegating, and all that very important stuff. But now clients are placing greater emphasis on lateral leadership, leading across boundaries, and breaking down departmental silos.  Thus, we are being asked more than ever to help people develop their influence and collaborative skills.

[David]  We’re seeing a trend toward trying to change people’s thinking so that they’re not just trying to win for their local purpose, but rather to think more broadly about affecting the “enterprise” and building stronger partnerships. That’s new thinking for people who have grown up in a mindset of internal competition and self-promotion.

Corrie:  Do you think this is related to the economy, or is there something else at play?

[Rob]  It’s more of a recognition that the environments most organizations operate in are too complex and volatile, and leaders are obliged to focus everyone on creating customer value. Siloed thinking just doesn’t cut it.

[David]  I totally agree. To build on that, creating a culture of innovation is one of those emerging shifts that we weren’t talking about in the mainstream a few years ago. Smaller, more agile companies are fueled by innovative thinking. Our larger clients are trying to emulate that.

Corrie:  Is that a challenge for newer leaders – being able to think in terms of results and executing, but also to address the need for innovation?

[David]  Senior leaders know in their heads that innovation is really important, and they talk talk the talk. But their leadership behavior is still often rooted in old habits of execution, quarterly demands and results. I think younger leaders probably feel whip-sawed…”you say one thing, but everything about this system and your leadership and what’s actually being rewarded is results and execution,” so it can be pretty confusing.

Corrie:  So what are your top clients doing right?

[Rob, laughing]  Hiring us!

[David, laughing]  That’s what I was going to say…

[Rob] I have a client who is committed to getting the senior team’s behaviors, practices, and values straight from an enterprise perspective, knowing that this will infiltrate down into the various divisions. So this CEO is very clear that his team needs to be a high performing team to run the enterprise, and this is having a beneficial effect throughout the organization.

What is he doing to create a high performing team?

[Rob]  He insists on only two things. The first is that “smelly fish” get put on the table. This is shorthand for ensuring that difficult topics are identified and addressed, which as you know makes people uncomfortable. The second is that he wants his team to feel responsible to the enterprise first, their division second. The team is always talking about “the two hat” concept, which refers to balancing their enterprise and divisional roles while recognizing the enterprise must be their “first team.’”

[David]  There’s more recognition that creating an environment where a discipline of disagreement is beneficial to decision-making. That requires high-level trust and skills related to how to encourage conflict, explore it and benefit from it.

Corrie:  What’s ahead for Organization Insight in 2013?

[David]  Wow. This is going to be a significant year. Like many of our clients, we are evaluating our own business model. We are challenging ourselves and committing to the idea of running our practice like a business instead of always thinking and acting like consultants.  It’s requiring us to think differently and identify skills that we may not yet have.

[Rob]  I love to practice the craft of our work, but David is right.  We challenge our clients a lot to think differently and act differently, but we don’t do that ourselves enough: we need to avoid being the cobbler whose children wore no shoes. It would be great at the end of 2013 to know we have succeeded at establishing a strategy that has gained us greater visibility in our geographical area, and perhaps grown beyond the “two caballeros.”