Uncertainty, change, and ups and downs are the only constants in life. The same is true for business. Changes such as new competitors, new regulations, changes in customer tastes, and advancements in technology can be thought of as somewhat predictable changes that affect the market. This environment that many businesses and countless business leaders operate in can be characterized as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – sometimes referred to as a VUCA world.
Shocks such as a financial crash – or a pandemic – are examples not of predictable change but of turbulence – the kinds of changes that can lead to widespread chaos and lay waste to even the best-laid plans.
Effective leadership – in a VUCA world or otherwise – is known to be a key and critical component of business success, and this is no truer than for business leaders guiding their teams, departments, or businesses through turbulent times. The issue, however, is understanding the characteristics of a good leader and what the ask is for a given scenario.
Consider this – a simple list of good leadership qualities that all leaders should aspire to develop might look something like this:
1. Be transparent. Let your team know what’s going on and where things stand.
2. Listen, and don’t just give orders. Hear your people out.
3. Keep an open mind. There is no such thing as a bad idea.
4. Maintain open, honest, and regular communication with all stakeholders.
5. Set high expectations but work towards tangible results.
6. Honesty, accountability, and vision start at the top. Be an example your teams can follow. As the saying goes, a good example is the best sermon.
The issue is that developing these skills – and knowing what to do and when – is easier said than done. To illustrate this point, consider the following. Celebrated author Stephen King said that talent is great, but it won’t carry a quitter. Lou Holtz, a hall-of-fame football coach, said that it’s not the load that breaks you down, but the way you carry it. Albert Einstein said of himself that it wasn’t his intelligence but his willingness to stay with problems longer that set him apart from others. Finally, decorated WWII general George Patton said to accept challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory.
How are these characteristics different from the leadership qualities listed above?
What sets good leaders apart from great ones is their ability to identify the right actions, qualities, or actions that can turn a bad situation around. One can argue that a business leader who lacks strong communication skills, is not respected by his/her team, and/or does not communicate with his/her teams is not a very good leader, to begin with. However, what we want to know is what good leaders who already have all of the qualifiers of being a good leader can do to develop the winners that will make them great.
For that, we cannot use a simple list of skills or competencies that leaders should develop.
Instead, we need to use a framework for understanding how leaders should respond to market changes and turbulence in the most effective way.
The Leadership Action Framework
The first step is to break down the actions that leaders can be expected – and should be prepared – to take in any situation. We briefly outline each step below.
Be recognized as a leader. Guidance must come from the top, but people must be willing to listen. How can you become recognized and accepted as a leader? It is a combination of things. You need to give yourself visibility to others. You need to lead by example. You need to communicate, be empathetic, and be a good team player.
Businesses are built on – and are run by – many different stakeholders. You need to have a winning relationship with anyone and everyone who is part of your different business processes. Strong relationships will also give you insight into what’s going on in different parts of the business that you may otherwise not have information on.
Make Sense of the Clutter
During crises, leaders are often faced with a wide range of divergent perspectives and recommendations about what’s happening and what needs to be done. Leaders must be able to differentiate between noise and information and then take action – and share the plan with others – based on that information.
Once you have established your presence, made sense out of what is going on, and brought others into the fold of your plan, you are ready to take the action needed to respond to the changes you are facing.
In taking action, have end-goals and deliverables in mind – things you need to do for your teams, your collaborators, partners, stakeholders, and shareholders.
Above is the framework you need to follow, but taking action and delivering service – in other words, making good with respect to the last point above – can be hard. For that, we need an actionable list of tasks that leaders can follow irrespective of the changes or turbulence they face in their industry. We provide a task list below.
Diagnose the Issue
You cannot tackle a problem you do not understand. You need to identify what’s missing, how you are being impacted by a new change or development, what your organization needs to do in response, and where your business needs to go. You can create silos or verticals in areas such as performance, sales, HR, mentorship, growth, innovation, or otherwise, and measure your desired results versus results achieved to determine the issues that are most in need of remedy from the top.
Design and Develop Solutions
Next, you need to figure out how to get to where you need to be. What tools do you have at your disposal that can close the gaps identified in the step above? What kinds of interventions can you use? What competencies or skills are needed to implement the required changes? Do those competencies exist within the organization? Can resources that have them be hired? Can they be learned in time? Do you have the required approvals – and budget – needed to take action?
Deliver and Deploy
It’s now time to move into action. Here is where changes are implemented hands-on across the different organizational systems identified as needing restoration because of the turbulence you’re facing. You must ensure that you have the right success measurement and governance policies in place to help you track progress and gauge the efficacy of the changes you are implementing. Pivot and revisit verticals or issues whenever problems arise to reassess and then refine your approach.
During the delivery and deployment stage, you should intentionally keep your assessments of every aspect of your business ongoing. Continuously track impacts, reinforce positive changes, and develop clear plans and contingencies for critical business processes such as communications, growth, talent acquisition, innovation, and more – all of the processes that can be affected by turbulence.
Leadership is too broad a subject to summarize in a list of competencies that decisionmakers should strive to develop irrespective of what they do or how they do it. However, with the framework above in mind, leaders and decisionmakers – irrespective of industry, business size, or challenges faced – can come out on top by addressing business-critical changes and turbulence the right way.