Women over 55 will solve your wicked problems

Published at 00:01 AM on 18 May 2015


·Businesses face a stark shortfall of strategic leaders able to deliver successful transformation

·Solving ‘wicked’ problems is beyond most high-achieving operational managers in public and private sectors

· Only 8% of senior managers have Strategist attributes required to affect change

·Largest proportion of Strategist leaders are found to be women and in the over 55 group

·PwC outlines 10 ways to get more Strategist leaders into organisations and keep them there.


Companies are struggling to solve their most difficult problems because they don’t identify and empower the leaders with the right capabilities and attributes to solve them, says PwC in a report published by its Consulting practice today.

‘The hidden talent: Ten ways to identify and retain transformational leaders,’

shows how – even while organisations are grappling with rapid technological change, stalled growth, global restructuring and the need for forward-thinking – less than one in 10 have the capabilities, attributes and mind sets to lead transformational change and solve wicked problems.

Jessica Leitch, a consultant at PwC People & Organisation team, said:

‘Tame problems are easily understood, and there’s usually broad agreement on how to solve them using tried and tested procedures. Critical problems resemble crisis situations where control need to be asserted.

‘Wicked problems, however, directly challenge business-as-usual thinking and even the business model itself.’

An example of a wicked problem might be a nimble competitor entering the market and offering a service at half the traditional market cost through a clever use of technology. Because the highest performing operational managers believe that they (or someone else) have the answers, solutions to wicked problems often confound them.

Professor Bill Torrbert who designed the first diagnostic tools to deal with the dearth of strategic leadership in business, says that the ‘Achiever-logic’ common to successful operations managers also promotes an associated disinterest in reflective practice or diversity of views. Strategist leaders, meanwhile, are likely to have wider experience of settings, people

, and also of failure. This engenders a humility of perspective and resilience, so that they know what to do when things don’t work.

Mark Dawson, PwC partner in People & Change, said:

‘Industries including retail, banking and healthcare have wicked problems knocking on their doors right now. How successfully they deal with these will largely depend on how well they can harness and retain Strategist leadership talent within their ranks.’

The research behind the report, conducted through a survey of 6000 European professionals’ leadership capabilities by psychometric specialists Harthill Consulting, finds that only 8% currently have Strategist leadership capabilities. The good news is that leaders develop thorough distinct stages, or types, towards becoming true strategists.

·Strategists (8%) generate organisational and personal transformation. They are often shaped by different experiences to their peers and see the world differently to conventional leaders. As a result, they have developed a particular type of ‘action logic’ or leadership style that enables them to lead organisations through the most complex transformations.

·Individualists (33%) interweave personal and company logic, bridge gaps between strategy and performance and are often effective in consulting roles.

·Achievers (52%) juggle management duties and market demands. They are both action and goal orientated.

·Experts (7%) rule by logic and expertise. They seek rational efficiency and are good as individual contributors.

The work of Strategists, the report proposes, is underpinned by inquiry-based experimentation. They see both the vision and detail, employ positive language and exercise power courageously. They also understand the complexity of the environment in which they’re working and are able to employ passionate detachment. Though Strategists reside in every grouping, the largest proportion of ‘Strategist’ leaders are found in women over 55.

The number of Strategists remains stubbornly low, comprising just 7% of the sample when a similar study was carried out ten years ago. Some organisations have recognised they have a skills gap when it comes to Strategist leader and have sought to recruit consultants with the attributes and capabilities needed to drive transformation. But while advisers have a role to play, successful and lasting change is almost always led by someone within the organisation.

Sadly though, traditional organisations are not always the most comfortable places for Strategist leaders, the report finds. The necessary questions Strategists ask, and the structures they question, often ruffle feathers, particularly in traditional businesses that rely on hierarchical management.

David Lancefield, PwC partner, Strategy and Economics, said;

‘Strategist leaders can fill the aspiration gap CEOs refer to when it comes to transformation. But the way many companies attract, retain and empower them requires an overhaul.

‘Businesses must work hard to attract and retain Strategists because they hold the keys to transformation and, in some cases, survival.’

PwC has developed a diagnostic tool, delivered in partnership with social change agency OSCA, that helps leaders understand their current stage of development (action logic) and how to progress to further stages. The report also features case studies of businesses that have successfully managed and cultivated Strategist leaders, including a Dutch nursing organisation, a US innovation consultancy, an Australian airline and an international natural food supermarket.

Jessica Leitch, of PwC People & Organisation, said:

‘Empowering Strategists is not about finding a successful operational manager and giving them a job title with the world ‘strategic’ in it. It’s about finding people who can think and work outside the existing system, who can see what needs to change and are able to persuade or inspire others to follow them.

‘Clearly, the incumbent operational management cohort will find some of that threatening, or at least uncomfortable. The challenge for organisations is to create the right environment so that distinctive voices become more common across the whole of the organisation. This is one of the ways to grow and retain the leaders organisations need to survive.’

David Rooke, Director, Harthill, said:

‘It's striking that despite the rhetoric of transformation in recent years, our organisations are still failing to create the kind of leaders who can lead in this way.’

‘The good news is that the overall trend in leadership development is heading in the right direction. The bad news is that our institutions are still not places that cultivate the kinds of leaders that will deliver the transformations they all say they now need: Strategists.’



Notes to editors

1. Professor Torrbet has taught at Harvard and Carroll in Boston. 



2.  Wicked problems is a term used particularly in the public sector.  It is used to describe those problems that are particularly challenging to solve because they are so complicated and often require that a large number of stakeholders work together.

3. Harthill Consulting run psychometric assessments and own the data in the report. Harthill have been collecting this profiling data since 1994.

4. The methodology for the data collection is sentence completion. Once the leader completes the form, Harthill Analysts allocate them to an Action Logic stage based on a database of responses.

5. Only a little more than half of all respondents — 54 percent — say change initiatives at their companies are adopted and sustained. Culture’s role in enabling organizational change, Strategy&, 2013

6. Harthill Consulting Data 2005 – 2015 sample size 6,000

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About OSCA

OSCA is a consultancy working to increase social impact.  They do this through organisational design, participation, impact research and thought leadership. Visit OSCA at




About Harthill

Harthill works with leaders and organisations in the pursuit of effective performance, positive change and a better sustainable world. Harthill’s work is rooted in Action Inquiry as it enables the testing of assumptions, beliefs and behaviours and enables active experimentation and innovation, all of which expand possibilities. Visit Harthill at




Andrew Smith

PwC | Communications
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About PwC

At PwC, our purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems. We’re a network of firms in 157 countries with more than 208,000 people who are committed to delivering quality in assurance, advisory and tax services. Find out more and tell us what matters to you by visiting us at www.pwc.com.

PwC refers to the PwC network and/or one or more of its member firms, each of which is a separate legal entity. Please see www.pwc.com/structure for further details. © 2016 PwC. All rights reserved

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