Embracing disruption with courage and compassion
At this moment, the business environment is changing rapidly
Agility is fundamental to leading a team through times of change. – Sandra E. Peterson
You’ve heard it more than once…the ability to lead through change is critical for an organization’s long-term success. And if there is one characteristic that distinguishes the organizations that can adapt, learn from mistakes, and succeed within the complexities of the rapidly changing, ambiguous and turbulent world we live in, it’s agility.
Most leaders understand the importance of agility, but few actually prioritize the development of this crucial skill. Yet for others, it comes naturally.
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta is the world’s busiest with over 104 million passengers annually. Outside of the airport sits a rock quarry, along with a concrete and construction debris recycling business. Stephens Industries, now part of Luck Companies, helped build the airport. It provided the materials for the airport runways and recycles the used concrete. The former owner, Mr. Stephens, saw an opportunity and jumped on it. He was a natural change agent – open to trends in the market and adapting to meet them. Today, the current VP of Luck’s Southeast Region, Joe Carnahan, has not lost sight of that spirit of risk taking and experimentation.
Not surprisingly, Joe’s leadership aligns with InnerWill’s belief about our own business: Experiment, learn from the experiment, and then innovate.
So how did you balance the very real costs of experimentation and risk taking with necessary operational efficiencies?
Organizational agility means taking a calculated risk, most likely making some mistakes, and then applying lessons learned to add value to the business. Rather than being paralyzed or waiting for the perfect solution, organizational agility requires experimenting in small ways, before making the big bets.
But just as consistency can become rigidity, agility can become a lack of focus when it isn’t tempered by stability — and in extreme cases cause organizations to fall into chaos. Agility is not incompatible with stability—quite the contrary. Agility requires stability in order to provide a consistent and reliable product or service. As a leader you must manage that tension between the need to innovate, change and rapidly adapt with the need to be efficient, consistent and meet revenue goals. And it’s also your challenge to find the sweet spot between agility and efficiency.
As a leader, it’s up to you to create the kind of environment where people are willing to try new things and an environment where people can learn from mistakes. If it’s never okay to fail, you’ll fail to do anything new for employees, customers, and the community at large. Agility is the only way organizations can thrive in rapidly changing and ambiguous marketplaces.
Five Ways You Can Strengthen Your Organization’s Agility
- Get curious about developments in your community or marketplace. Get outside of your own walls on a regular basis, talking to customers and stakeholders and even unrelated organizations with the intent to learn everything you can and apply the lessons.
- Look inside your own house. Ask, “What are my strengths and opportunities?” Know that it’s often easier to focus within your organization than outside of it—although there are lessons to be learned in both places.
- Experiment, take risks, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. These things require courage. Acknowledge that your concerns might be valid, but engage resistance and communicate the value of trying something new.
- Establish a safe environment to take risk – one where people feel secure and encouraged to experiment. You may have to look in the mirror and ask what you are doing that makes it safe for others to try something new or what you are doing that shuts that behavior down.
- Pause and reflect. Look back at what you’ve learned from those experiments and then apply those lessons going forward.
Cultivate these behaviors and you will build the leadership horsepower that is better equipped to overcome the obstacles to organizational agility. And is also less likely to face those obstacles in the first place.
I recently had the opportunity to speak about the transformative impact of Values Based Leadership at the 2020 Tugboat Institute Summit. For the first time since the summit has taken place, the annual gathering of CEOs transitioned to a virtual experience. Over the course of two days, business leaders from around the country shared stories of innovation in the face of adversity, a commitment to be of service – to their employees, their customers, their suppliers, and their communities, and the importance of leadership. Folks were left inspired by the grace and grit that characterized the group – and it’s that grace and grit that exemplify resilience.
Resiliency is quickly becoming another one of the many business buzzwords, but there is a reason for that. Many organizations, especially those who have not been around for decades, are struggling with upstream thinking and building resiliency for the future in this VUCA world. In some ways, building resiliency is even more critical than long-term planning, because as we all know the best-laid plans can be turned upside down — especially when navigating the inevitable obstacles that require organizational change.
Organizational resiliency is much like personal resiliency. It’s about being forward-facing – anticipating, preparing for, responding and adapting to change. It’s about not just surviving but thriving. Resilience allows a business to take measured risks with confidence. So, how do you build resiliency into an organization? Like almost everything, it starts with leadership. Resilient organizations have strong leadership at all levels who are optimistic and infuse their organizations with a sense of hope and a belief that tomorrow will be better than today.
Secondly, they have a foundation of meaningful core values that all employees believe deeply in supported by aligned behaviors and processes. The culture is imbued with a sense that we’re all in this together that’s reinforced by supportive relationships built on trust and accountability. They break down silos and anything else that gets in the way of moving forward together. Resilient organizations invest in leadership development so that leaders are empowered to make decisions and execute.
Finally, it’s about building the organization’s adaptability and its ability to cope with failure and setbacks. Our ability as leaders must be to adapt in rapidly changing, complex environments. Consider the principles of innovation. If we want to innovate, we must experiment a lot, fail fast, and continue to iterate and improve. Failure is just a part of the process. Building organizational resiliency is similar. We must ask ourselves:
- What can we learn from our failures?
- Can we use what we’ve learned as fuel to move forward and flourish?
How are you building resiliency into your organization?
We often speak in our workshops about leadership being a choice and how a starting point for that choice is leading ourselves. It may sound easy, but it requires high self-awareness, thoughtful reflection and a commitment to act in alignment with what is most important to us as we serve others.
This is an unprecedented time in our world. The uncertainty and ambiguity during this pandemic have the potential to take us down unhealthy paths, not just physically but emotionally. I noticed in these last few weeks that although I seemed to feel fine on the surface, I was pushing down my anxiety, which slowly began to surface. It showed up in a variety of ways: fitful sleep, an inability to focus on a task, being distracted by all the things swirling in my mind, a physical fidgety-ness, and a subtle melancholy. I had a hard time articulating what was happening. I felt disappointed in myself and I knew I was stuck. I had to look in the mirror and name those things driving my fears and frustrations.
While sharing with my husband my struggle of feeling ineffective and a little lost, he asked me what questions I would have for a client who was experiencing what I was feeling. Then, he suggested that it might be useful for me to journal.
The next morning, I was awake with the birds, found a journal and started to write about everything that was on my mind. I also used this time for reading and prayer. Almost immediately, I felt lighter and more energized. Taking time to think, write and reflect allowed me to be more in touch with what was going on in my mind and heart – I began to feel a positive shift!
My husband and son have a love of flying and will often have conversations about different aircraft. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is about the impact that G-forces have on our vision. Apparently, when the force of gravity increases, the blood in the body will move from the head toward the feet. In fact, if the gravitational pull increases or continues, several things may occur – loss of color vision, loss of peripheral vision, or a complete loss of vision while retaining consciousness. I believe this is a picture of how the pressures of this unusual time can cause us to lose our ability to see things clearly and may impact our behaviors and our effectiveness.
The arbitrary changes and challenges we are experiencing in our daily lives can push us to our limits and cause us to lose focus on what we hold most dear. But it doesn’t have to be that way! We have a choice with how we handle the pressure, the uncertainty and the ambiguity. Try asking yourself these questions:
• What are some things you can do to connect to what you value most?
• Can you carve out some space for thoughtful reflection?
• Is there a trusted friend with whom you can think out loud, gain perspective from, and who can ask the hard questions?
Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself some grace. Lead yourself down a learning path and ask for the help you need.
We really are all in this together.
We’re in an unprecedented time — the world is trying to get its arms around the Coronavirus, the economy has taken a hit,and people are suffering. Leadership is important when things are good, but when things are troubled and uncertain leadership is vital. In times of crisis, others need to know who you are and what you stand for. Your consistency of character can bring comfort to others—they will have one more thing they can predict, and one less thing to worry over. Keep in mind: Your values are the rudder that will guide you through these rough seas and uncharted waters.
When times are turbulent, volatile, and difficult, it can be challenging to know the right path, but using the Five Practices of Values Based Leadership (VBL) as a compass enables leaders to see their true north.
The first practice—Building Awareness—is about seeking feedback and keeping the mirror close. When we are making decisions quickly, trying to act on fast moving events, it is easy to forget what we stand for. The more strain and stress you and your team experience, the more you are at risk of acting out of character or even damaging your trust and credibility. Take a moment and ask yourself, how aware are you right now of the impact your words and actions have on others? Awareness ensures that you’re not snapping at the people you care about most or secluding yourself when you need to be out in present.
The second practice—Realizing Potential—is primarily focused on our purpose and becoming the best version of ourselves. Don’t forget that even in the hardest times, there are opportunities. Keep your mind open to what’s possible. Perhaps you have a team that’s always struggled using technology and now they’re being forced to become digitally savvy and are thriving, or you might discover a new product or a new niche that you’d never before considered in your business. It’s not all going to be puppies and kittens, but exclusively focusing on the downside and the negativity is not going to move us forward.
The third practice—Developing Relationships—is critical in times of uncertainty. People need each other right now, and unfortunately our communities have been severed and we’re at real risk of being isolated. Stay connected even at a distance. Digitally check in with people and see how they’re doing. Make sure they feel connected and cared for. Having a sense of normalcy, connection and community is just as important now as it ever is.
The fourth practice—Taking Action, means leading with courage. There are challenging choices ahead and some tough calls that will have to be made. In times of crisis, the worst thing you can do is spend too much time planning behind closed doors in hopes of finding the magic bullet. It is better to act, and adjust as you go, then to wait for the perfect solution. Chances are, there is no perfect solution, and something is better than nothing.
And then finally, the fifth practice—Practicing Reflection, means pausing to learn. This current climate of ambiguity and adversity is going to teach us a lot about ourselves, our organizations, and our society. Once we have weathered the storm—because no storms are forever—we will have the opportunity to learn from our choices, to look back and ask:
- Did my choices align with my values?
- Did I have the impact I wanted to have?
- Did I move closer to my purpose, even through this time of difficulty?
- What have I learned, and how will I apply those lessons in the future?
Give yourself grace and consider this time as a chance to grow and develop as a human and as a leader.
The new year is upon us, and with it often comes unexpected changes: new jobs, new partners, new friends, surprises and unexpected challenges. Change happens to us as individuals and to our organizations. The most effective leaders embrace change as a reality and prepare their organizations for it.
As a leader, you should assume a certain amount of change in your business, strategy, culture and people. From a leadership perspective, you want to build your employees’ capacity to be able to adapt to change. When leaders proactively and routinely prepare for change, the result is a strong organization ready to deal with change whenever it comes. Waiting to deal with the change until it actually occurs can be incredibly challenging — even for the best leaders.
At its heart, change is unpredictable.
Make sure the leaders you have in place are comfortable with ambiguity, are looking ahead and reading the horizon, and are resilient enough to get back up when they get knocked down. Create some breathing space in your organization that allows people the extra time or energy necessary to acclimate to unexpected challenges. The places we go wrong when it comes to leading through change is not leading around it at all or expecting that change isn’t going to happen. Your role as a leader is to plan for what you can and prepare for what you can’t.
When InnerWill works with an organization, it’s often to facilitate change – be it a culture change or a strategic change. We help organizations plan for that change and think about how they can influence and ensure employees are confident to follow them as they travel on this new journey. We also help leaders build the skills they need to deal with unexpected surprises and adjust their vision to successfully navigate through change.
Many of our clients are trying to get their arms wrapped around change.
Change is happening at an exponentially faster pace than ever before, and the sooner you can start communicating and influencing the better. The sooner you can make employees aware that change is coming and get them thinking about how to tackle it, the better. Everybody in your organization needs to understand broadly what the change is and how it’s going to potentially affect them.
Often when we stumble or make a mistake, we don’t bring people in soon enough and we don’t empower them enough to take part of the process. Seize the opportunity now engage employees in the process and get their input, encourage buy in, lead with a vision, and build organizational momentum for the change. Have the courage to be honest about the future while providing high-direction and inspiring success. Be positive about what’s possible but be realistic too. And if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask.
How will you embrace the change the new year brings?
Most of us can easily name three, five, or maybe even ten things that we need to improve on personally, in our teams, or in our organizations. And, just in case you’re at a loss, there are countless assessments available to help you identify improvement opportunities. Don’t get me wrong, assessments like 360-degree feedback (when provided by colleagues committed to your development) can be invaluable tools to help us understand ourselves, how we are perceived, and how we impact others.
In one assessment that we find particularly valuable, the quantitative survey questions are followed by a couple of open-ended questions, including “Where can improve and what would be the payoffs if they made these improvements?” What a great question! Each of us will always have areas we can improve. For example, as a person who tends to approach information from an analytical or logic-based perspective, I have received feedback that I could benefit from showing more emotion when presenting information. I also have a strong desire to delve deeply into several interesting new areas that could benefit my organization. But what would be the impact of committing myself to either of those things? If I’m struggling to connect with my audience or influence my peers, perhaps learning to connect emotionally rather than simply laying out the logical case would open up new possibilities for me. Or, if I’m looking to expand my responsibilities or opportunities within my team or organization, those interesting new topics may require my attention.
The context for these improvements is critical to understanding the impact they may have, especially when we have a limited amount of time and attention to give. Consider these questions as you assess potential improvements:
- How do they align to my values, my purpose, and my vision for myself or my team/organization? We are most motivated to make changes that take us in the direction we want to go, and those changes often come more easily. When we pursue goals that are out of alignment, it creates a sense of friction that slows progress.
- How big is the gap between current state and where I/we need to be? While it can be the right choice to take on an improvement that you know is a “big lift,” it’s important to understand the size of the undertaking and the amount of energy and focus that will be required to be successful.
- What would be the impact if I/we were able to make these changes in myself or my team/organization? Visualize the outcome when you are successful with this change. What is different as a result? Like question #1, this question helps you to consider whether the outcome you seek is aligned to your vision and purpose, and also the degree to which your work will influence the outcome.
It is difficult to make significant changes in the course of our busy lives; it is almost impossible to do it without focus and intention. Assessing your opportunities for improvement and determining which changes will have the greatest impact is a way to maximize focus.
For me, I’ll continue to look for those opportunities to experiment and challenge myself to connect with people emotionally. But my focus for now is on ensuring the success of the start up organization I’m part of – an organization whose work aligns strongly with my own sense of personal purpose. I believe our success is best served by my deep attention to learning new ways to grow, scale, and measure our work. Because I consider learning new things a strength, the gap doesn’t feel huge, but there is a lot to learn and try, and learn some more. This is where I can get the most impact from improving right now.
Where do you want to choose to focus your time and energy?
It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. – Charles Darwin
The most successful companies are agile and embrace change as part of their culture to stay ahead of the competition. Yet many of us fall woefully short when it comes to successfully leading through change.
It’s not that people hate change. We just have multiple responses to it. Some people get excited about it. Others get scared or angry. And some people even look forward to it.
In fact, if you look at the course of human beings’ lives, people choose to change, gleefully so, all the time. They get married. They have babies. They move.
We choose to change all the time. Where we start to get wiggy is when we don’t have a say in or any control over that change.
Fear of Change
People tend to fear change when they don’t know where it’s going to take them or are forced into a change they are not excited about.
These types of changes can occur in all facets of our lives. But we often have the most difficulty adapting to those at work. Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. These increased levels of job stress have been attributed to the perception of having little control but lots of demands in a rapidly changing environment.
As leaders, we can’t be okay with this.
It’s our responsibility to make sure people don’t fear change, but instead see the possibilities change can bring for a better future. It’s our responsibility to help our employees wrap their head around what change means and to grasp it firmly. Then, it’s up to us to empower our work forces to regain a sense of control and a voice in those changes.
Leading with Courage
As leadership attributes go, courage is a big one. Where does courage come from? You’re not born with it. You develop it through experience. It comes from facing and overcoming fear. And the reward for that effort is huge.
When you’re leading with courage around change it means that you’re giving feedback and having tough conversations. You’re being honest about what the future is while providing high direction.
You must be courageous enough to empower people and to trust that they’re going to do a good job. And it’s about holding people accountable to change. You must set clear goals. Envision a better way, a better solution, a better product – and approach it with determination and an open mind, knowing that it will be messy and that a mid-course correction may be necessary.
Remember that you need to bring people along the change process for them to truly adapt to change.
Leading with Compassion
Resistance to change cannot be bulldozed, it cannot be persuaded, and it certainly cannot be ignored.
Instead, it should be dealt with sympathetically and positively. Only when you get to the bottom of why resistance is happening, can you truly empathize and help to move individuals along the path to change, in a way that engages them and makes them comfortable. This is at the heart of compassionate leadership.
It’s about your ability to empathize with people and care about them and understand what they’re going through. Have meaningful conversations. Really listen to what they’re saying.
Remember, as a leader you often have an advantage.
You may have more information or have been a part of the decision-making process that brought the change about. You might even have more say and control in what that change looks and feels like. And so, you must keep in mind that other people might being seeing things from a very different perspective than your own.
Don’t take it personally if they do. And don’t neglect to give people the information they need to understand why the change is happening. Because without it, people will fill in the blanks with the wrong or worst case scenario information.
Change is Here to Stay
Back in the day, CEOs and their senior leadership teams would talk about change as if it was all planned.
Simply unfreeze the organization. Make a bunch of changes. Then refreeze it back in place.
That is not how change works. The world is moving way too fast for that. Our ability as leaders must be to adapt in rapidly changing, complex environments.
Organizations are not doing a great job building leadership capacity to be able to adapt to those environments. And as we’re teaching people how to lead through change, we’re still treating it change as if it’s a concrete thing that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that’s just not the case.
Like death and taxes, change is a sure thing.
It’s not going anywhere. In that spirit, the work it takes to adapt to and lead through change is ongoing. It has to be, because the environments that organizations operate in are constantly changing.
So, the next time you’re dealing with the day-to-day challenges that change can bring at your own organization:
Be nimble. Stay focused. Find patience.
And lead with your values.
When you do, change can bring growth, innovation, and incredible impact.
Values are the lifeblood of thriving families, communities, and organizations.
Values drive our behaviors.
They reveal and reinforce what is truly important to each of us.
At an organizational level, values clarify what it means for everyone to be on the same page. When properly leveraged, values tell a powerful story for an organization. One that inspires people and creates a beautiful sense of who we are – our culture.
The role of leadership is a display of how values reveal purpose.
Leaders who boldly live their values serve as both a mirror and map. A leader’s mirror and map are like two sides of a leadership coin:
The leader’s mirror is about self-reflection and self-awareness.
The leader’s map is about attention toward others.
One Side of the Coin: The Leader’s Mirror
With a mirror, the reflective leader is aware of how one’s values are revealed in their daily behavior and how they affect others.
While there are many notable attributes we might “see in the mirror,” there’s one that shows a commitment to both humility and personal development: changing your mind.
How open are you to changing your mind? Not occasionally, but as a daily posture? This isn’t about indecisiveness or poor decision-making. It’s about the deep-rooted pursuit of the life-long learner.
Sometimes you change your mind as the result of new information and learning. Expanded understanding can lead toward positive change. Other times, a change comes as the result of discovering a new vantage point.
Whether in the moment or at a later time, do you ever notice something you missed in a meeting or conversation? Or do you recognize you made an assumption that you need to investigate?
The effectiveness of a mirror increases with the precision of your observations. The more open you are to see what is happening around you the more likely you are to recognize what you previously missed.
A leader recognizes that there are always options in how something or someone can be understood. Perspective is seen as a choice.
Sometimes, to maintain our values, we must reorient our behavior to reflect an expanded perspective of how our values are best expressed.
The Other Side of the Coin: The Leader’s Map
The map is the other side of the leadership coin.
When you look across the landscape of your organization’s hopes and dreams, what do you see? Not the specifics per se, but the climate.
How do you hold the tension between hope and failure?
Some leaders tend to avoid this tension, opting to internalize the struggle and put on the best face possible so that others stay positive. For others the tendency is to criticize and ruthlessly eliminate failure as an option. Still others are eternal optimists. They’ll go so far as to constantly suggest, “we’re knocking it out of the park.” As if life is a metaphorical game, and we’re all superstar sluggers.
Understanding the feelings and needs of others begins with acceptance.
What if you accepted the tension of unequivocal hope and failure?
Acceptance can be sobering and powerful. Most importantly it is the first step for any leader to inspire courage and exploration.
For leaders, holding the tension of hope and failure begins in one’s own life.
It is impossible to be the principal guide of a flourishing organization without accepting your own hopes and failures without judgment. Yet it is not natural to accept our own flaws and failures. It also seems difficult for us to believe we are worthy of our hopes and to pursue them.
As a leader you have the choice to accept that your failure and hope is a sacredly held tension. If you make that choice to hold this tension you become a lighthouse for acceptance in others.
Organizations with these kinds of leaders create cultures that attract the right people with the best talent.
Building the Value of Your Leadership Coin
As you continue to write the story of 2018, what’s one thing you can do to increase your self-awareness or the quality of your attention concerning others?
Is there a word of intention that can serve as a reminder to you throughout the coming weeks and months?
Finally, is there someone with whom you can share your intention?