Are You a “VUCA Proof” Leader?

Attention all leaders out there. It’s a new year and I imagine you have some audacious goals already lined up for you and your team. You probably have a strategic plan by now, and you intuitively know that exercising leadership will be imperative to getting things accomplished. In this light, I have an important question to ask you….

After 20+ years of studying leadership, personally leading teams, and helping Fortune 500 leaders to effectively do the same, I’ve come to a few of my own conclusions that I’d like to share with you.

First, I should highlight that the words management and leadership often are conflated together. The purpose of management is clear, to increase efficiency through enhancing control over one’s environment. The purpose of leadership, however, is more up for debate. I believe leadership exists to disrupt one’s environment for the better. In this regard, the purpose of leadership then is to extinguish the status quo, envision a superior outcome, and align actions towards producing new results.

Yet, given this purpose, there has never been a more difficult time to be a leader. Today’s executives must learn to compassionately disrupt in an already highly Volatile, Complex, Uncertain, and Ambiguous (VUCA) business environment. We’re talking about leading change in a world where predictability and control are limited. Pushing individuals outside their comfort zones and taking them to their edge when they are already overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. Leaders today must learn to challenge followers to the highest levels of performance without breaking them (or being broken by them). For many years now, we’ve relied on a heroic leadership model to do this work, yet times are clearly changing.

So how should one adapt to effectively lead today? While no one approach works for every leader in every environment, there’s been a shift in the last several decades from heroic, authoritative, command and control approaches to more collaborative and adaptive methods. This hasn’t been some egalitarian impulse by leaders to more fully empower their people as some might argue, but rather a product of necessity. To be effective today, leaders realize that they need to be more strategic, flexible, and balanced. In essence, they’re learning to VUCA Proof© their leadership style.

What then does it take to VUCA Proof© one’s leadership style? It starts with critically looking at yourself and then building greater individual capacity in three critical behaviors: being more passionate, bold, and mindful.

1.      Be Passionate – Inspiring change requires a transfer of energy, and if one is to transfer inspirational energy to others, they must be inspired themselves. The more passionate the leader, the more inspirational they become to others who share similar ideals.

2.      Be Bold – As Nelson Mandela once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Leadership requires us to boldly challenge followers by walking with them to edge of possibility, and acknowledging our own vulnerabilities along the way.

3.      Be Mindful – Most people practicing leadership are in positions of authority, and with authority one can easily become self-absorbed. Effective leaders today must practice empathy and compassion to a greater extent than in the past, constantly seeking out ways to serve others before self.

Once you’ve built a strong foundation in these behaviors, then you can apply them at the team and organizational level. Importantly, these behaviors intersect with one another, to form three critical competencies for effective leadership in a VUCA environment: Alignment, Activation, and Attunement.

1.      Passion + Mindfulness = Alignment – An Aligned leader understands themselves and how they may best serve their environment. By being aware of what they stand for, what their value is, and where they fit in the world, they are more prepared to communicate their vision and make decisions in a turbulent VUCA world.

2.      Passion + Boldness = Activation – In a constantly changing VUCA world, being too comfortable can lead to a rapid demise (here’s 30 examples of companies struggling with VUCA who may disappear in 2017). An Activated leader abhors mediocrity, avoids safety, and inspires others with challenges. They know what it will take to achieve their leadership purpose, and they help others to boldly push beyond the boundaries of what is possible.

3.      Mindfulness + Boldness = Attunement – Perhaps the biggest shift leaders must make from a heroic leadership style is towards greater attunement. An Attuned leader recognizes the emotional impact of new initiatives on followers and others. They “feel” where there are pain points and opportunities to strengthen relationships. Most importantly, they care enough to make bold acts of compassion that keep people motivated during adversity.

So the question now becomes…how VUCA Proof© are you? Truth be told, when I first started leading, it was mostly a command and control world and I was a heroic style leader. My own transformation to a more VUCA Proof© style was born out of necessity, in order to meet the needs of the changing world around me. If you or your team is interested in walking a similar path, contact me directly at dspungin@leadergrowthgroup.com to learn more about VUCA Proof© team training and personal coaching programs.

(David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces.)

*All Rights Reserved. Reproduction, publication, and all other use of any and all of this content is prohibited without authorized consent of the author.

Help!!! My Team Needs More Accountability

Help!!! My Team Needs More Accountability

As a leadership development professional, I am always astonished by the number of questions I get on “how can I hold others more accountable for their performance?” This is consistently a hot topic for managers as they seek out the next best practice for driving better performance results. Unfortunately, managers typically don’t like what I have to offer them on this subject as my standard response is…

“I can help, but it will require you to first examine where you may have failed as a leader.”

To which their reply is something to the effect of…

“But that’s not what I’m looking for! I want to focus on where others are screwing up and how we can better hold their feet to the fire.”

Like it or not, the first rule of leadership is everything is your fault. While for many this may sound just a bit harsh, it’s not far from the truth. As a leader, you are responsible for all your team does or fails to do. This is because leaders not only set the purpose and direction for the team, they also manage the culture that dictates execution. Thus, when mistakes happen, regardless if you are the one personally making them, you absolutely had something to do with it! Accountability is then fully owning your responsibilities and consistently communicating this ownership to others. Leaders demonstrate their accountability by assessing performance challenges as opportunities for growth and learning rather than failures to be explained, excused or avoided. In short, when mistakes happen, the leader looks inward vs. blaming outward.

Herein lies the greatest challenge most managers face when seeking greater accountability within their team or organization—can you set your ego aside, be vulnerable with your team members, and work towards tangible solutions rather than playing the blame game? This can be a challenging leadership behavior for anyone to exhibit and is infinitely more difficult when experiencing the stresses of a failure (or potential failure). The key to developing this leadership behavior is threefold: 1) The leader should learn to identify his or her own reactivity and defense mechanisms, 2) The leader should understand how accountable leaders choose to behave, 3) The leader should practice the accountable leadership behavior until it becomes his or her new instinctual response.

Let’s take a closer look at these three components of development and how one can leverage them to increase personal accountability.

1. Recognizing Reactivity and Defense Mechanisms

Think of the last time you failed at something in which others were depending on you. Perhaps it was a job related performance goal you failed to deliver on. Or maybe it was a failure on the home front in which you missed a spouse’s expectation entirely. Whatever the situation, try to take yourself back to that challenging incident. Now search inside for that moment of apprehension when you realized there was no way to save the day; you were simply going to fail. You likely felt embarrassed, disappointed, worried, discouraged, and/or insecure. On a physical level your muscles probably tightened, your heartbeat and respiratory rate increased, and you may have even started to perspire. Mentally, it’s likely your mind started racing, alternating between beating yourself up for the mistake and searching for ways to avoid the inevitable consequences. Welcome to survival mode! What you were experiencing is the body’s fight-or-flight stress response and most people will do just about anything to avoid this discomfort, often through offering excuses or blaming others. This shows up in organizations in what many have come to label as “The Organizational Blame Game.”

Leaders must recognize that this instinctual response to avoid accountability lives in their DNA; one can’t avoid it! Rather than attempting to circumvent this natural hard-wiring, it is best to bring awareness to it. Leaders see their reactivity, own it, and then prevent it from hijacking their thinking any further. In that moment of pause, leaders then choose to react differently.

2. The Inspirational Leader’s Response

Exercising personal accountability for mistakes is going against one’s self-preservation instincts, which takes both courage and humility. This is very difficult for many to do, which is why accountability is uncommon. So when it does happen, we really take notice and it leaves a lasting impact on us. We may not be happy with a mistake that’s been made, yet we recognize accountable behavior as honorable and, thus, respect the leader’s exemplary character. This is counter-intuitive, so I offer that you pause for a moment to really let this sink in.

The practice of demonstrating personal accountability rather than playing the blame game is even more powerful when the leader assumes responsibility for what are clearly other team member’s personal failures. Your subordinates have the same reaction to failure that you do. They feel embarrassed, disappointed, worried, discouraged, and insecure. When you take some of that burden off their shoulders, you lighten their emotional load and free them to work with you towards solutions rather than focusing on problems. This can be very inspirational and produces deep loyalty to the leader.

3. Making Accountability Instinctual

Adopting any new behavior is a challenging undertaking, so start with a single day. Try to go an entire day without offering a single excuse for anything or blaming anyone for your challenges. To be successful, you have to really pay attention to your inner dialogue. Note when things are not going how you would like them to go and how your mind is rationalizing the outcomes. Pay attention to any feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, worry, discouragement, and insecurity. This is when you are most susceptible to offer excuses and/or blame others. When you notice your instincts beginning to kick-in, override them with a single question..

“How have I personally contributed to this situation?”

Pause and reflect. Realize your contribution and own it. When you can complete a full day without offering excuses or blaming others, up the ante to an entire week. If successful, try to go an entire month. If you can go a full month excuse and blame free, you will have implemented a new habit of seeking accountability first. This will serve you well when you next face real adversity.

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

Free ACTIONABLE! Leadership eBook

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The Key to Your Future Leadership

Hand the Keys

“Do you know anything about starting a vehicle?” An older women’s voice called out from across the post office parking lot. “Uhhhhmmm yes, a little” I replied, not wanting to admit that I am not the most mechanically gifted individual.

As I walked over to the women’s vehicle to help, I witnessed a parade of older gentlemen standing around with puzzled looks on their faces. “What seems to be the problem?” I asked….”Is it turning over?” “It just won’t start” said a man sitting in the driver’s seat. We’ve tried everything!” “It’s a rental” cried another man, followed by “it’s these keys…they don’t work!”

He then handed me his set of “car keys” that were admittedly unlike most car keys I am familiar with. They were the newer kind, no metal key to be found, just a plastic mechanism that is inserted where a traditional key might fit.  I placed the key fob into it’s not so obvious receptor and turned the ignition. Walla! The engine came roaring to life to the amazement of the senior crowd huddled around me. “Thank you!” cried the woman. “You have no idea how long we have been stranded here!” Feeling somewhat like a hero, I responded with “No problem at all; have a wonderful day” and then walked back to my vehicle.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, it dawned on me. Oh No! That’s going to be me one day! There will come a time when the world around me has changed to such an extent, that I no longer will be able to identify what I don’t know. Sure, I have my current blind spots, yet I do a decent enough job of actively seeking them out and recognizing where I am consciously incompetent. This is different though. Like the elderly people who couldn’t see the car “key” in their hands (no matter how they tried), there will come a day where I will have done things a certain way for so long, that my realm of possibilities will be limited. This will hamper my problem solving abilities, and thus, likely inhibit my ability to lead a team, much less an organization.

This same dynamic is unfolding everyday throughout businesses globally. The speed of change is so rapid that product/service relevance is often fleeting and any chance of sustained market domination is mostly a pipe dream. In fact, “Comparing the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 to the Fortune 500 in 2014, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists. In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 59 years later in 2014, and almost 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged, or still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues).”¹ Why has there been such turnover? While there are many factors that led to each of these company’s demise, I believe there is likely one overarching theme among them all…insufficient innovation stemming from poor succession planning and training.

Innovation is often a young man’s game — the result of abundant energy, a fresh set of eyes, and driving ambition. Thus, if organizations desire greater innovation, it makes sense they would purposefully empower the next generation of leaders. Unfortunately, many organizational bureaucracies make it hard for bright young minds to wield any real power. While it is the Millennial who is likely more in touch with the current technology and latest trends, it is still the Boomer or Gen X’er who is making the strategic decisions. Moreover, it’s my experience that companies invest very little (comparatively) in the next generation of leaders versus focusing on the development of the current crop of executives. Many HR Departments balk at the idea of training an entire front line management team in leadership fundamentals, and instead see greater value in focusing those resources on services like senior executive coaching. As a result, it’s the ambitious Millennial manager (now averaging 4 or more direct reports²) who finds herself struggling to lead effectively. With upwards of 75% of the workforce projected to be Millennials by 2030, here are a few ways you can prepare your organization now for the inevitable transition of leadership ahead.

1. Train Managers to be Leaders Early in their Career – Most companies consider leadership fundamentals to either be “a given” or something to be learned on the job over time. Yet, I’ve been privy to work with some outstanding companies that saw the value in training their frontline managers with robust leadership development programs and have witnessed the results of doing so firsthand. It’s about identity. Formal title or position may give someone authority to manage, but learning to lead is a different set of skills. A well designed program (that’s aligned with the organization’s culture) gives the new manager license to try out new behaviors that inspire. Then, by the time they are in a middle management role, they are well practiced at creating an engaged team and they can focus on more complex skill-sets like cross-functional networking and influencing without authority.

2. Coach to the Middle – Why wait until someone is an “executive” to enroll them in executive coaching? I understand there are often budget constraints and most companies don’t have the resources to provide everyone with coaching, yet my experience is that even middle managers identified as “high potentials” are rarely given the opportunity to work with an executive coach. This is puzzling because one-to-one leadership coaching is the single greatest way to increase a person’s leadership capacity. In addition, a 2011 “global survey of coaching clients by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Association Resource Center concluded that the mean ROI for companies investing in coaching was 7 times the initial investment, with over a quarter reporting an ROI of 10 to 49 times.”³ Setting aside coaching dollars for the next generation of executives just makes sense (plus there are plenty of talented executive coaches willing to work for less than “executive” fees)

3. Create a Culture of Coaching – Speaking of coaching…External executive coaches can do wonderful things for your organization, but training your management team to be great internal coaches is even better. When senior leaders have deep industry experience, an existing positive relationship, and sound coaching skills — young leaders flourish in their development. Yet, many Boomers and Gen X’rs grew up at a time when the skills of professional coaching were still being identified and developed. They may understand giving feedback, performance counseling and mentorship. Yet, the competencies of deep listening vs. offering advice, asking powerful questions that encourage new perspectives, and promoting action and accountability are often foreign to them. All is not lost though. With just a few training workshops and some practice, most senior leaders pick up on these skill-sets quickly.

8 Beliefs That Increase Your Leadership Potential (Part 2)

8 Beliefs That Increase Your Leadership Potential (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, we explored how our values, beliefs, and personal stories drive our behavior through the road trip story. After running out of gas, each team member played a pivotal role in getting them back on the road. The story demonstrated how certain beliefs open up possibilities, ensure priorities are maintained, and invite greatness.

The next four beliefs presented should further enhance your leadership potential. As you read through them, I offer that you check in with yourself and ask if they are congruent with your own system of beliefs. If you assess these beliefs as your own, to what extent are you living them in your day-to-day actions?

1. With issues of integrity, there is a clear right and wrong path – A leader’s reputation is intimately linked with his or her decision-making ability. Yet, in our often fast-paced and volatile world, making good decisions has become more complex. As a result, today’s leaders are becoming more comfortable with making decisions in “gray areas,” where there is no clear right answer. However, when it comes to issues of integrity, there are no “gray areas,” there is simply right and wrong. The basics of integrity may seem overly fundamental…of course leaders shouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal! Yet, if you inventory the greatest leadership failures in recent memory, they almost always are a failure of character. In the U.S. alone, we can look at Bernie Madoff, Bill Clinton, Mark Hurd, or Joe Paterno as prime examples. All were clearly competent in their leadership positions and very successful before they started to make small choices that ultimately led them down a dangerous path of self-delusion. As William James once said, “It’s the small choices that bear us irresistibly towards our destiny.” Leaders know their values, exercise self-control, and choose the harder right—every time, all the time.

2. A leader’s primary role is to manage culture – When you think of a great leader, what comes to mind? For many, this question conjures up images of the visionary who sees what we cannot, and then sets the strategy to get there. For others, they respect the tactical genius who gets things done where others cannot, the one who enables flawless execution and delivers results. Yet, the best leaders believe their most important role is not to set the strategy or even sustain execution, but to manage the organization’s culture. Why? Strategy can shift with the wind. Execution, while undoubtedly important, is likely already the primary focus of the entire management team. Yet, who is looking after the culture? Whose job is it to communicate the values? Who will teach us the rituals, share stories and legends, hold ceremonies, and shape our daily operating assumptions? All of which will determine how well we execute on our strategy! Who will answer this call? Leaders will.

3. Sometimes great leadership is being a good follower – Those who are in positions of organizational authority are also the ones we expect to most often exercise leadership. Thus, one of the most difficult things for a manager to do is to simply get out of the way. Just because one may have power, title, or positional authority does not mean they are the most qualified to lead every time. Perhaps there are team members with expert knowledge or experiences which make them better suited to determine a path or outcome. Or maybe, there are team members that need to grow, and the manager’s leadership is stifling that growth. For example, when I’m training a large group of equally amazing leaders in a workshop and they embark on a team challenge together, not everyone can be a leader. In these scenarios, great leadership is often recognizing when one is hindering the process rather than adding value to it. I find it inspiring to watch an often dominant and influential leader recognize this truth, and then step aside to make space for others. For an experienced manager, it may not be easy to let others take the lead. Yet, ironically, it can also be masterful leadership.

4. 80% of success is simply showing up – You’ve probably heard it before as this is a staple comment of most sales training programs. Yet, when it comes to leadership, your presence cannot be underestimated. Like the back of a raffle ticket, you must be present to win! Your physical presence as a leader is a service to those you lead as it enables accessibility and facilitates critical communication. More importantly, how you spend your time is the single greatest indicator of what is important to you. If you are constantly buried in the office because those emails must be answered, you are telling followers that is what you most care about. You are communicating, my needs come first. Yet, every time you make a consistent effort to check in with your people, ask what their challenges are, what resources they need, and how you may be of service, you are demonstrating a commitment to putting your follower’s needs first. People understand that managers get really busy, and that’s exactly why making a deliberate effort to create a more human connection with your presence will inspire greater loyalty and motivation.

Hopefully, these beliefs personally resonate with you and your leadership experiences. If so, you are likely already fulfilling much of your leadership potential. If not, remember that our beliefs, values, and personal stories are not fixed, we can change them. While not a simple undertaking, it is always a worthwhile endeavor to strive for greater leadership capacity. The world needs your leadership. Choose to reach your full potential.

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