In a completely new environment, even the most experienced leaders can be blindsided by surprise events, unexpected behaviours and unimagined actions. So how do leaders overcome their blindspots to respond to new realities?
Over the past several decades, the Australian business environment has been one of stability and growth. Even as other economies suffered during such events as the global financial crisis, the Australian business world sailed through, relatively unscathed.
In a time of stability and growth, leaders do not desire change. Such periods are not characterised by innovation or by fast-paced transformation. And why would they be? When organisations are flushed with success, when organic growth and long-term strategic plans are all that are needed to achieve lofty goals, why would a leader introduce the risk and uncertainty that is so often perceived to partner innovation and change?
And yet, we’re now in a period of dramatic change and powerful challenge. Our leaders may not be prepared for the new business reality. They likely have blind spots, gaps that must be filled to offer them the ability to lead effectively in a completely different environment.
Dave Ulrich, Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, partner at The RBL Group, and regular AHRI Virtual Masterclass provider, recommends leaders begin with a process of awareness around themselves and others.
AHRI, in partnership with RBL Group and the Michigan Ross School of Business, invite you to participate in the Human Resources Competency Study to benchmark your HR capabilities against the world.
Focus on empathy and learning
Most crises are selective in who is seriously affected. The difference with the current pandemic, Ulrich says, is it has directly or indirectly touched almost every individual in the world.
This means everybody, and importantly every staff member and customer of every organisation, has a story to tell.
“Empathy goes beyond listening to hearing these stories,” Ulrich says. “Seek to understand how your employees are feeling. Create a psychologically safe place to share, which may include one-on-one informal conversations, team huddles, social media forums, or town hall meetings. In these settings, show empathy by sharing personal stories and showing compassion for the feelings the crisis evokes in others.”
During tough times, it’s vital for leaders to become deeply familiar with how people are personally affected, then to figure out how the organisation can shift its processes, services or product offerings to support its staff, customers and communities.
Learning comes from listening, and also from a constant search to discover opportunity in threats, Ulrich says. A crisis is “a terrible thing to waste” and often creates a great need and opportunity for drastic change and innovation. In most organisations there are many areas that could benefit from change – whether it’s strategy, culture, customer relationships, customer experience, use of technology, employee experience, etc. Therefore, change represents opportunity.
“A leader must constantly ask what they and the organisation are learning from the current crisis, as well as focus on future opportunities,” says Ulrich.
If there have been few great learnings, and therefore few dramatic changes, that’s a sign of a serious problem.
Priorities drive actions
Never has the business world or, for that matter, the political world, required greater authenticity and clarity of leadership.
Authenticity comes from a leader having a deep understanding of their own strengths, passions, interests and values. Clarity comes from the ability to summarise the priorities, personal and organisational, that come from those passions, interests and values.
“Leaders help individuals and organisations clarify priorities by encouraging clarity about what those individuals and organisations want most,” says Ulrich.
That clarity, Ulrich says, must then lead to action, to what a business can do right now to move forward, grow, survive and make the most of new opportunities.
Clarity and action harness uncertainty, he says. Instead of being crippled by uncertainty, authenticity and clarity offer the business a clear pathway forward.
Build a framework around uncertainty
Of course, in such an environment uncertainty will always exist. A leader’s clarity around priorities will help create a pathway, but the market will still be characterised by uncertainty.
That’s fine, Ulrich says. That’s a perfectly acceptable business environment. It’s only a problem if it is not harnessed.
Consider various disciplines that have always operated in an environment of uncertainty – military bodies, investment businesses, hospital emergency departments, etc. They have established processes and frameworks, disciplines and agilities. Their uncertainty tolerance is high because they have developed an if-this-then-that response to every potential outcome or event, and their people are well schooled in these responses.
Develop a new leadership skills toolkit
Expert leadership in an environment of uncertainty comes from various principles and disciplines, says Ulrich, including:
- Becoming more mindful of the fear and anxiety created by uncertainty and instead channelling that energy towards calmness and curiosity
- Familiarising yourself with what future success looks like, including essential ingredients of the new reality such as working from home
- Defining realistic measures of success and celebrating them, on a personal and organisational level, to avoid a feeling of disappointment in what can seem a constant state of struggle
- Experimenting and exploring by taking risks and actions you’ve never taken before, including looking outside your industry for unique solutions
- Collaborating frequently with others in the business, outside the business and outside the industry, to share processes and insights.
- Old solutions don’t work in a new business environment. ‘Best practice’, which is inherently backwards focussing, now means little.
“By harnessing uncertainty through authenticity and clarity, leaders use their power to empower others, their strengths to strengthen others, and their abilities to enable others,” says Ulrich.
“Success in leadership comes from listening, learning, developing clarity and moving forward with conviction, collaboration and courage to experiment and innovate, so the next generation of leaders is even better than the current generation.”
Participate in the free Human Resources Competency Study and benchmark your HR capabilities against the world.