10 Tips on how to Lead in Flux

  1. Make your vision and direction of travel very long-term

Frankly, no-one can be certain what will happen in the next 6 or 12 months – and if they tell you they are, they’re probably kidding themselves. What we can say with some degree of certainty is where we intend to be in 15 or 20 years’ time. Setting a much longer-term vision allows you to deal with fluctuations, market forces and other influencing factors, while still heading in your preferred direction.

  1. Keep everyone up to speed

As a leader, you are usually privy to information and conversations that even your middle managers don’t know about. Uncertainty and insecurity are enemies of engagement and innovation, so help everyone to feel that they know what is happening and are aware of the factors that can influence a need to swerve from time to time. If they don’t know, they’ll just think you have misled them or don’t know what you’re doing. Unwise and unhelpful.

  1. Understand VUCA and teach others about it

The concept of VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – started out as a military term, but the thinking behind it has been adopted by major organisations in recent years. It is a recognition that the speed of change has accelerated beyond our traditional thinking and structures. V says that things will change very rapidly and in unforeseen ways, U tells us that we can’t be at all sure what will happen from day to day. C tells us that, in this global and connected world, things are so interconnected that ripples from an event or decision can have huge effects thousands of miles away. It also shows that our traditional drive to simplify, regulate and quantify, formed over decades, is doomed to fail in the years to come. Finally, A says that we cannot tell whether something will have a positive or negative effect or even what something really means. This is the backdrop to operations in the 21st century and leaders need to be clear about it and think how they will respond.

  1. Don’t think compliance, think agility and intelligence

Decades of policy, rules, process and procedure have perhaps fooled us into believing that we have everything under control. Given what I just said about VUCA, we obviously don’t and never will again. This world requires very sophisticated thinking at a very strategic level. Our traditional approaches, systems, structures and attitudes need to be brought into the light and evaluated against their suitability for a VUCA world. We need to be able to change very quickly and we need people at the sharp-end to be well-enough trained and capable to make decisions and act upon them. Many years of de-skilling to reduce costs leave us poorly placed to achieve this in many sectors. Too often, the very ‘scaffolding’ of systems and practices we have erected to protect us actually prevents us from achieving this agility. We need to think and talk about this now and act quickly.

  1. Make no mistake, Culture eats Process for breakfast

As many leading thinkers will tell you, culture is the single biggest influence over attitudes and performance. It shapes engagement, drives activity, sets standards and assimilates everyone. Make sure yours is suited to this new world and if it isn’t, plan to shift it. Soon.

  1. Make sure you have the Intelligence

I mean this in both senses. You have to keep abreast of every development, piece of information and coming trend and for that you need a rapid flow of latest information. You also need the level of thinking and decision-making that can make best use of this information. Driving down wages has often also led us to drive down the intellectual capability and thinking skills of many of our people. A failure to train and educate and damaging beliefs about developing our people (too expensive, too time-consuming, not ‘necessary’) has created many workforces that are ill-equipped to deal with the rapid change and skilled navigation needed to sail such challenging seas. Change it now. Train, educate and develop and especially develop your leaders at every level (including the top).

  1. Set much longer-term goals for every team

Too many organisations and too many leaders have for too long used easy, quantifiable targets and incentives to motivate people and teams and to deliver performance. Carrot and stick still prevail as motivation techniques in many organisations – even the ones who think they are ‘better than that’. If our direction needs to be longer term, so do our plans and targets. Goals should be for whole teams to fuel collaboration, not just for individuals to fuel self-interest.

  1. Qualitative ahead of Quantitative

A lot of the drive for numerical targets is because they are easier to represent, track and understand. In a VUCA world, that simply isn’t good enough. Too often we use spurious measures that can be shown in a graph or spreadsheet – when we really want to measure something else. Think how we measure quality of work – often by lost time, defect rates, complaints or costs. All measures of getting it wrong, when we should be measuring something positive that inspires and encourages people. Leaders need to know how good the work of their teams is and how well individuals are performing. That takes more than a spreadsheet or pie chart, it takes real engagement and interaction and the building of real relationships so that a leader knows how engaged, committed and capable each person and team is and how much potential they have to progress. That isn’t the same as knowing how many of something they did, how compliant they are and whether they’ve met a minimum standard.

  1. Have high Expectations

Good people tend to rise to a challenge. If you set the bar at a moderately high level, you will usually get moderately high performance. Is that enough? Probably not. Set it higher and help people to jump it, and you can move to a different level. VUCA will demand this. Those who can’t or won’t jump the hurdle as it gets higher, will disappear.

  1. Think about VUCA All the Time

It affects everything. Your organisational structure, people’s job roles, team composition, every product, service and process. It’s all-encompassing and requires – potentially at least – a complete re-think of the way an organisation operates and behaves. This has to come from leaders. Get on with it.

Written by Nigel Girling, Programmes Director and Director of the National Centre for Strategic Leadership at Babington. Nigel is also a founder member of the Guru Group supporting the Government’s Task Force on Engagement. He has acted as chair of two task force working groups and writes extensively on leadership subjects. He promotes leadership in his roles as subject matter expert for the Chartered Management Institute and Director of the National Centre for Strategic Leadership. He leads post-graduate and doctoral programmes and mentors hundreds of senior leaders.

Please note, the views expressed by the original article author are theirs alone and do not necessarily represent those of Washingtondowling Associates Ltd or The SHE Show and therefore we take no responsibility for the content or accuracy of this post.