Executive Coaching Connections, LLC

Which leadership features will help you and your teams thrive through the next crisis/challenges?

What should you focus on now, to lead even better then?

Here are a few things I learnt from my interactions with CEOs recently confronted with severe crisis.

Imagine a 'perfect storm' at sea. It's pitch-dark, huge waves are rocking the ship, spindrifts are continuously blinding the navigation bridge windows, propellers have lost most of their power, water is leaking inside the store-room, crew-members are running frantically around, feeling this might be the end of the World. Yesterday the boat was cruising swiftly on a calm ocean; overnight a typhoon unexpectedly changed route and unleashed its terrifying force on and around the ship.

How to prepare your team-members to effectively adapt to unexpected turbulence?

Whether or not the boat and crew make it safely to a haven depends a lot about what the Captain did before the storm to prepare crew-members to effectively adapt to unexpected turbulence.

The planned itinerary is useless, usual quick-fixes are insufficient, the Captain is as clueless as the crew about how the typhoon evolves next, any too-slow decision or uncontrolled risk may cost lives. And perhaps the Captain has been injured by the boom and is temporarily unconscious.

What surely won't help... 

  • grand strategic plans 
  • usual short-term fixes (cost-cutting, tightened controls, restructuring plans...) 
  • authoritative certainty/top-down leadership 
  • long-decision processes 
  • ill-assessed risk-taking 

Research from Cambridge-Leadership Associates has suggested that organizations need an 'adaptive' style of leadership that yields more...

  1. Agility (adaptability from staff-in continuing uncertainty and controllable changes, and speed in decision-making) 
  2. Leadership at all levels of the Organization 
  3. Trust amongst co-workers
  4. Diversity 
  5. Robust Anticipation and better Calculated Risk-Taking 

How can leaders help progress those features in their organizations and enable their people to continuously adjust to an ever-changing environment where (even) they don't always know the best-way ahead?

Here are 5 of the themes I have worked on with CEOs wishing to enable their organization to turn the next crisis into an opportunity to enhance their competitive advantage.


Theme #1 - Stretch people continuously, though not too much  

Obviously, an adaptive leader should nurture the belief that 'together we can win' at all times, and pay constant attention to the improvement of employees' confidence-level, assertiveness, effectiveness at priorities management, problem-solving skills and creativity. Yet that's far from enough. 

To get people comfortable at work in constant disequilibrium, leaders should stretch them continuously, to keep them willing to change, but not so stretched that they fight, flee, or freeze. Very much like coaches stretch athletes or your personal trainer stretches you at the gym. 


Theme #2 - Generate leaders at all levels

It is also critical to generate leaders at all levels of the organization. It helps to:

  • empower and delegate as many decisions as it is reasonable to 
  • value and reward courage (in particular the courage to disagree with them) 
  • give opportunities to lead experiments without punishing failures (in line with the motto "here, people only get killed for not trying") 
  • encourage productive conflicts


Theme #3 - Build interpersonal trust, to enable productive conflicts 

Productive conflicts require trust between parties, so ground-work for trust-building is critically important. It requires leaders to role-model integrity, reliability, caring, openness and fairness. 


Theme #4 - Favor and leverage diversity 

Leveraging diversity is a no-brainer; yet is your company doing its best? For example, are women significantly represented in your Executive Committee? A McKinsey study (dated October 2009) showed that companies with 3 or more women in top-management did significantly better than companies with no women in top-management, on all performance criteria, particularly leadership and motivation. 


Theme #5 - Demand more robust anticipation

Prompting more robust anticipation from your managers is another tough endeavor. We are all familiar with optimistic budget-drafts, 'rosy' market-forecasts or too soft "worse case scenario" in a business plan, only to find out they don't withstand even the first round of our probing questions. 

To facilitate more robust anticipation-work, the first step is a step-back in order to confront reality and what can go wrong, with uncompromising objectivity. It also helps to educate staff about 'calculated risk-taking' and empower them to experiment.


Now what?

May I invite you to now take a moment and identify which leadership features will help you in your specific context to prepare your organization to thrive through the next crisis? 

Draw a 3-column table, list those leadership features you need in the left-column, and then assess yourself as a role-model on scale from 1 (under-par) to 4 (world-class). Finally, decide which one of those leadership features you want to take to the next level, and plan actions to make this happen and stick.

Former US President Quincy J. Adams once said If you can inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then you are a Leader.

Nowadays, he would probably add “adapt more”… for change isn’t the ‘only constant left’ anymore. It is accelerating and ‘crisis-proof’ leaders that are enabling their organizations to leverage that acceleration to their competitive advantage.