All change: new leadership and management skills for new challenges
‘Change’ is something to which we are becoming accustomed and while its pace is debatable, its existence is not. Change is having a particular impact on the way we do business, the way we run our organisations and, most importantly, the way we lead and manage people. The leadership and management landscape is now more complex, more interconnected, less predictable and the psychological contract between an organisation and its people has changed significantly. What are the skills needed, therefore, to develop leadership and management to achieve high performance in such a changing environment?
What has changed?
Business is more global. Businesses work with international partners and outsource work to other countries. We have clients and customers all over the world, which present both cross-cultural and logistical challenges. And, at a level beyond business, we have little choice but to consider issues such as climate change, famine and immigration which propel us to work more closely and innovatively together.
We also have to think globally within our organisations and develop a better understanding of the connections between people, functions and roles. For example, there is a wider mix of ages in the workforce than ever before; there are multiple stakeholders and constituencies and we are more likely to have employees from all parts of the world.
Business is more complex and less predictable.
For example, we have to focus on both the short and the long term – today’s share price as well as long term sustainability of the organisation. We need to balance profitability with the wellbeing of people. And we are increasingly coming to understand that the impact of our decisions can be far reaching and that every business decision sets in motion a chain of reactions and consequences.
We have rapid shifts in political and economic circumstances. One of our clients had to completely overhaul a relatively new strategic three-year plan when it realised that its current structure and operations would not support a new overseas market. With exponential developments in technology, everything is happening faster and this means leaders need to be even more agile and responsive.
Business needs a new leadership and management style. Our expectations of leaders and mangers are changing. We are more cynical and less trusting of leaders than we have been in the past. We are less likely to be impressed by formal power or authority. Instead, we are influenced by personal attributes of authenticity, being human or by them doing what they said they would. We now expect a different style of leadership and management – we want to be listened to, to be understood, to be involved, to be heard. And yet, at the same time, we feel vulnerable ourselves in this changing landscape, so we still look to leaders to provide us with clarity, safety and security.
These issues result in a difficult operating environment for leaders. What would help is to see the issues that leaders and mangers face today as ‘wicked’ problems – challenges defined by their unique nature.
Some problems are those which can be solved by the application of reliable analysis and looking at the facts with determination, intelligence and commitment. These are often described as ‘tame’ problems. ‘Wicked’ problems, by contrast, have not been faced before. They may be socially complex, and each stakeholder may have a different approach, understanding and desired outcome. They are often ambiguous, often with no clear sense of what the problem actually is – or will become. In ‘solving’ the problem we can create a different problem. There may even be no solution at all, but rather better or worse developments.
‘Wicked’ problems have always existed – any major organisational change programme could be seen in this way – but, given what we have said above, leadership problems are generally understood to be more wicked than tame. Therefore, the ongoing leadership and management qualities now necessary to deal with their challenges need to be considered.
What do leaders need to solve these wicked problems?
- The ability to see the big picture
For complex issues, leaders need to be able to see how things connect together and the implications. Research found that star performers had great ‘pattern recognition’: this skill allows them to pick out the meaningful trends from the welter of information around them and to think strategically and holistically. We need to develop in leaders and mangers the ability to see the patterns that they cannot see when they’re stuck in the frenetic, chaotic and narrow focus of daily organisational life. This sometimes comes with age and experience but we need to accelerate this to enable some of our emerging leaders to develop this ability more quickly and increase the chances of them finding their way through their ‘wicked’ problems.
- The ability to use intuition
With so much unpredictability and complexity, a traditional fact-based approach to making decisions may no longer be viable. The challenge of ‘wicked’ problems is that you can’t analyse your way through them, use data or reliable methods to get to some answers. Instead, it is gut and intuition that we need to listen to help us make better decisions. For many leaders and managers today, this is counterintuitive, trained as we are in method-based approaches to our work. For most people, there is work to be done in helping them access and then trust intuition, their own as well as others, as a valuable decision-making tool.
- The ability to create a ‘leaderful’ organisation
The days of a ‘command and control’ leadership style being the most appropriate are long gone, as is the ‘heroic’ model of one leader, at the top of the organisation, who knows what to do and who will make the decisions.
This is because organisations and ‘wicked’ organisational issues are too complex for just one person to lead. It is now more appropriate that the leadership function is shared among those with relevant skills or experience, that we develop leadership teams, and develop leadership abilities at all levels in an organisation. In such a scenario, the formal leader becomes a conductor of an orchestra, harnessing the collective power of a range of people to create a high performing organisation. Leaders and managers need to draw on and develop their abilities as collaborative problem solvers, building broad-based involvement, engaging people in participation and offering structure and process, rather than providing directions and answers.
- The ability to develop mastery
It’s your leadership skills and not your technical skills that you’ll need to rely on in this changing landscape.
Most of us who have leadership and management roles in organisations have never received much formal development for that role. The adage is that sports people spend 99% of their time practicing and 1% of their time performing. For leaders and managers, it’s the other way around. We know that the role of leadership in creating a high performing organisation is unquestionably the most important element.
Research shows there is a direct correlation between the quality of your leadership and management and the results you produce. So, if you achieve the results you do with the leadership you currently have, just consider what results you could achieve if you actively developed your leaders and managers, equipped them with skills, behaviours, beliefs that were directly linked to creating high performance.
A conscious choice to commit to developing mastery in your leadership and management can make an enormous difference. When organisations decide to develop their leadership bench strength, and when each leader makes a conscious choice to become the best they can be, then the ROI will be self-evident.