Finding Your Leadership Fit in a VUCA World

Years ago, I was working in a small ad-hoc group of peers on a project. We were tasked with collaborating to brainstorm ideas and present them to an approval authority. Gathering in a small windowless room for our first session, things quickly got painful. We were floundering, paralyzed by a lack of direction and process! There was uncertainty and ambiguity around who was in charge as we attempted to tackle a complex problem. Then, I mistakenly added volatility to the already fragile situation by attempting to lead the group. Understand, I was mostly a “heroic style” leader at the time, and having successfully led teams my whole life, felt it was my duty to sweep in and save this gaggle from itself!

The challenge was…this was predominantly a group of women, of various ethnicities and backgrounds very different from my own, and more importantly, many of whom were far more competent than me on the topic. Within minutes of my attempt to “provide leadership,” it dawned on me—this group is not interested in me leading it! More notably, I was not the right person to lead this group to begin with. To be absolutely clear. That’s not to say that a white man can’t or shouldn’t lead diverse groups of women, (or vice versa)! Only that, there were several others who were more qualified and passionate about the topic. Others who had invested in key relationships and who had far greater influence based on this group’s dynamics. In stepping aside and becoming a role player, I became more effective, and helped the group to be more effective as it eventually sorted out how we would work together.

This experience was insightful and liberating. We are taught that leadership is good…We should be doing more of it! Yet, not every situation is a good fit for you to lead. There are situations where you are uniquely more qualified to lead more so than others. Key to your success, especially in a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and Complexity (VUCA), is to identify your leadership skills which align with your environment. So, how does one understand where they could, and should provide leadership in the world?

In my previous articles on the VUCA Proof© leader, I offered that leaders exist to extinguish the status quo, envision a superior outcome, and align actions towards producing new results. To be effective towards this purpose in a VUCA world, leaders must overcome their learned tendency to display heroic leadership, and instead focus on being more passionatebold, and mindful. Once you’ve built a strong foundation in these behaviors at the individual level, you can apply them at the team and organizational level. That’s because these behaviors intersect with one another to form three critical practices for effective leadership in a VUCA environment: Alignment, Activation, and Attunement.

Thus, critical to understanding your leadership fitis being more mindful and passionate as a leader. Yet, being different is pointless if we don’t do things differently as well. We must merry up our thoughts and our actions. Specifically, there are three key activities you can do to practice Aligned leadership.

The process of alignment starts with assessing the environment around you for real and perceived gaps in performance/results. This will require you to pick your head up from the day-to-day grind and do some strategic reflection. What problems gain and hold your attention? Our VUCA world changes often, where can you anticipate future challenges? Where does change need to happen? Just brainstorm at this point and get all your ideas out on the table.

Next, determine where you are the best fit to provide leadership. Narrow down your potential ideas to those that really fire you up. When things get tough, and they always do in our VUCA world, where will you be a source of boundless energy for others to feed off of? Now, why are you the right person to be of service to others? Passion alone is not enough; what skills, experience, and insight do you bring to the table? Competency is the price of admission to be a leader. How will you prove you are worthy to lead and why should followers trust you?

Finally, it’s time to take action and take a stand in the world. Getting noticed in a VUCA world can be difficult and you need to find a way to rise above the noise/distractions. Yet, as Loa Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” You need to attract a small core following and then build momentum. Perhaps you start by making a formal request to a Sr. Manager (a potential ally) to take on a new initiative for your organization. Or maybe, you volunteer to take on a more active role in your community. Whatever you goal, you need to secure a credible platform from which to exude influence.

Assessing, Fitting, and Committing are the activities that ensure we are practicing Aligned leadership. In my next few articles, I will address how we can practice both Activated and Attuned leadership as well, all of which are essential to moving away from a heroic leadership style, and towards a more effective VUCA Proof© style.

Would you like to learn more? You can download my whitepaper here. Interested in training your executive team to adopt a more VUCA Proof© leadership style? Download the VUCA Proof© 1-day Executive Workshop Brochure here.

Example_15.png(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. Get a copy of his new book, “Growing Leaders: 20 Articles to Challenge, Inspire, and Amplify Your Leadership” by clicking here.

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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.

The Leadership Equation

Part of West Point’s academic curriculum requires every cadet to study the natural sciences, advanced mathematics classes, and an engineering discipline of choice. While I often struggled in these challenging courses as a cadet, it was likely here that I developed my fondness for logic and healthy respect for a sound equation. A well proven equation really is a thing of beauty. In a concise set of symbols, one can communicate volumes of information and help to explain the world around us. For example, Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence equation (E=mc2) is considered pure genius because it unlocked one of the greatest mysteries of the universe in just five simple characters. I share this with you because equations can similarly help us to explain the inner workings of organizational life and help develop us as leaders.

In fact, there is one equation in particular that continuously guides me as a leadership development professional. It stems from the work of organizational development scholar & practitioner Kurt Lewin and is as relevant today as when he first theorized it back in 1943. While not an actual mathematical equation representing quantifiable relationships, it is a heuristic formula that accurately explains one of the biggest challenges of leadership and it’s as simple as this:

Lewin’s formula states that behavior (B) is a function of the person (P) and his or her environment (E). Thus, if you are seeking to change an individual’s behavior, you must influence one of two variables (or preferably both for maximum effect). Leadership, at its heart, is often about moving individuals and organizations through change and Lewin’s formula gives us a practical way of organizing our efforts. Looking at your own team as an example, perhaps there are behavioral tendencies that are negatively impacting performance and you would like to see change for the better. Let’s first work with the idea of shifting behavior by focusing on the individual person.

It’s important to note that you can never really change another person, they have to change themselves. Attempting to force behavioral change on another individual is likely to incite resistance and is ultimately unsustainable. Yet, often this is the norm as managers leverage their proverbial carrots and sticks to shape organizational outcomes. The real leadership challenge at hand is how does one inspire an individual to want to learn to behave differently and better align with the team’s goals? Well, much of that inspirational ability stems from your own behavior and example as a leader. Are you a person of character, competence, and credibility? Are you demonstrating an authentic empathy with those you are leading? Do you own your vulnerabilities and have you established a track record of personal accountability? These are just some of the leadership behaviors that are a prerequisite for inspiring another person to change their behavior. It comes down to this — do followers admire and respect you enough as a leader to make the difficult process of changing themselves an imperative.

Now let’s look at how the environment impacts behavior and performance outcomes. Are your team’s behavioral challenges isolated to a few individuals or is there evidence of a systemic issue? If the latter is true, exercising leadership now becomes more about addressing environmental factors like values, mission, vision, structure, relationships, technologies, and reward mechanisms that are not producing the desired behavior. Perhaps your organization’s structure is fostering competition over collaboration and promoting selfishness. Or maybe there is a values disconnect between what executives are communicating as the priority and what front line workers are expected to deliver on. Whatever the environmental challenge, the savvy leader understands that changing the organization’s environment is a much larger undertaking and should be approached with caution. There is risk in championing change to the organizational environment as every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it gets. There will undoubtedly be stakeholders that have a vested interest in keeping things exactly how they are. One will need to build a strong case for change and create alliances with organizational authority that can help generate movement.

In summary, the B=ƒ(P,E) formula gives us a simple yet powerful way to determine things we can do to improve individual, team and organizational performance. Leadership is about facilitating change and behavior is how we can tangibly interpret progress towards desired change. When seeking to move the needle in a positive direction, a leader can look to influence the individual directly and/or seek to shift environmental factors that are impacting outcomes. Regardless of the point of influence you choose, it’s essential that you are personally practicing the leadership behaviors you are seeking from others. No individual or system will adopt your vision for change if they do not see you first being the example.

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What If We Have This Whole Leadership Thing All Wrong?

Upsidedown Eagle

Imagine that you just read an article on how your competition is steadily stealing your market share. This is nothing new to you, they have been out innovating you for some time now and it’s now apparent that your current products or services are inferior. Slowly you’ve seen your talent leave for greener pastures as rumors of downsizing abound. There is a fear permeating the organization as people wonder what the future holds. What’s needed is a real leader! Someone who can come in and make things right again. We’ve seen this scenario play out time and again. The Board will likely remove the C-Suite and bring in a leadership savior. Yet, what if we have got this whole leadership thing all wrong? What if the very essence of how we define leadership is no longer serving us?

We can’t really fault why we seek a leadership savior in these scenarios. It’s engrained in our DNA! The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009) explains that since the dawn of time we have engaged in a social contract within groups. Essentially when a group member emerged to offer us much needed direction, protection and order, we in turn granted them authority over us. As long as this person kept their side of the bargain, we continue to reward them with increased power. At some point we started calling this authority figure our Leader, Chief, or King which anointed them with title and elevated social status as well. The key distinction to make here is that we started associating the exercising of authority with leadership. This is a huge mistake as leadership is totally different.

Given the above scenario, direction, protection and order is exactly what we crave. We want a new direction and our new leadership should have the ability to see what we cannot. We require protection from our competitors and the threat they present. We desire order as a power vacuum emerges from the loss of key talent. Yet, what if instead of providing the direction we need to go, leadership helped us to figure out where we collectively want to go together? What if instead of sheltering us from our competitor’s threats, leadership exposed the reality that we faced and challenged us to be more? What if instead of returning us to a calm and comfortable place, leadership taught us to embrace the chaos of change and to value living on the edge of constant learning? In short, what might happen if instead of exercising authority, our leadership actually led us?

Intuitively, we get this. While management is an important aspect of a productive society, deep down inside we all want to be led more so than managed. When we experience true leadership we feel empowered to grow to our full potential. Outside of experiencing love, there is perhaps no greater feeling than pushing yourself to be more than you thought you could be. Yet, with the pleasure of growth we often experience loss and pain. We have to let go of a part of ourselves and learn to be something new. Learning then becomes a series of failures until we ultimately get it right. This can be a very disappointing and humbling process. Thus, true leadership requires us to disappoint our followers at a rate that they can tolerate.

This is the very reason why we see more authority rather than leadership being exercised in our world. There is a real art to establishing enough trust with followers so that they allow you to disappoint them. Disappoint them too much and you will soon be looking for a new job. Yet, it’s important to note that if you disappoint them too little, as when exercising pure authority, and you will also be looking for a new job! Exercising authority will not promote the learning needed for organizational growth, and thus results will be the same over time. With consistently poor to average results, you will eventually be replaced as your organization seeks out new “leadership.” Thus, the next time you feel the pull to provide direction, protection and order to your team, take a step back and try to recognize what is really needed in this moment. Start practicing leadership rather than authority and watch your organization begin to flourish.

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Engineering Effective Change

As a manager in an engineering firm, you’re a smart and practical problem solver who inspires trust in your team. All is going smoothly until one day you realize the need to promote or reassign a few team members. Or maybe it’s something more substantial like implementing a new information technology system. No problem. You will handle this like any other problem you face: acquiring data, analyzing options, designing solutions, and, finally, implementing the change. It all seems logical and you are confident the process will yield success! Then it doesn’t. In fact, you encounter stiff resistance as people drag their feet to adopt your change initiative. What went wrong here?

You might find it comforting to know that you are not alone, as more than 70% of all organizational change efforts fail. While these failures occur for many reasons, consistent themes include attempting to solve adaptive challenges through technical problem solving and the common assumption that change can be managed to fruition. Engineering professionals often embrace these conventions when attempting to manifest change as they tend to value linear and systematic processes that enable a sense of control. Yet, changing human systems is habitually messy and unpredictable by nature. Is it realistic to think that a formulaic change process might work? An analytically minded person myself, I have struggled with this question for years. My conclusion is that while a prescribed change framework might not be feasible, there are several key principles that every change agent should take into account. Specifically, one must be mindful of: 1. Preparing the system for change, 2. Initiating the change using “soft energy”, and 3. Sustaining the change through “hard energy.”

Preparing a system for change is an often overlooked but critical change principle. Before engaging in change, one needs to understand where the system is starting from. What is the current state? Who are the key stakeholders? How might cultural norms and belief systems impact a proposed change? What is the perceived sense of urgency for change? These are just a few of the questions – leaders must ask themselves. Yet, perhaps the most important preparatory question is “who stands to lose the most from this change?” People don’t resist change, they resist loss. In particular, those who believe they may lose power and influence are the ones most likely to resist. Having thought through these questions and developed a compelling case for change, the savvy change agent will then secure buy-in from the highest sources of power in the system. Executive support helps in generating key alliances and centers of power to move the system in the desired direction.

Now that you have organizational muscle behind you, do the unexpected. Rather than imposing your change plan on the system, initiate the change by using “soft energy.” Soft energy is about acknowledging the difficulty of change and disrupting compassionately. This is also the energy of possibilities and emergence. Start by inviting all the key stakeholders into the change conversation and give them a voice. This process is often messy and unscripted. Facilitate the conversation and avoid directing it, while allowing for needs and concerns to be heard. Control must be abandoned in favor of faith. The more the group owns the change process, the more likely they are to take action. Soft energy also means understanding that change creates anxiety in the system and your role as the change agent should be to transform that angst. This is often accomplished by helping the system transition from fear to curiosity. Once a plan for change is agreed upon, constant and transparent communication of the vision is imperative for transformation to occur. When people “see” where they are going, they feel more in control and less anxious.

Finally, soft energy is not enough, we also must implement a “hard energy” if we desire sustained change. Hard energy is challenging, focused, calculated, and persistent. This is the energy of driving towards closure. This does not mean that we forcefully coerce the system to change; rather this is about avoiding distractions and measuring performance. Organizations are what they measure and the same principle applies to a change initiative. Thus, identify the metrics associated with change success early and monitor progress. Challenge the system to meet goals and objectives while utilizing social pressure to pull the organization forward. Finally, reward early adopters accordingly and share examples of group success whenever possible.

While there may not be a way to truly “engineer” effective change, there are key principles that can increase your chances for change success. By first preparing the system for change, one ensures an understanding of the politics, potential losses, and centers of power needed to generate momentum. By initiating the change through use of soft energy, one disarms opponents with empathy and involves the system in determining its own solution. By using hard energy, one helps the group stay focused and on track as it embodies the change over time. As an engineering professional, I invite you to master these tools of organizational change and lead your team to new heights of achievement.

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(Originally featured in the July 14 issue of Professional Engineers Magazine PE Magazine-Engineering Effective Change-David Spungin)

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