Leading people through volatile times | Main Region | UB

Leading people through volatile times

two colleagues talking\
If you come across an article on the internet about leading in turbulent times, which is dated from 2018 or 2019, you have to chuckle to yourself and say in your best Crocodile Dundee voice, “that’s not turbulent times, THIS is turbulent times…”
Those pre-COVID days seems almost naïve now and the last four years have produced more change than probably the previous 20. 
As Randall S. Peterson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Academic Director of the Leadership Institute, London Business School, says “the ‘five-year plan’ that used to be a staple of corporate life, now only rarely sees its 5th birthday. Plans get made but are often shelved in response to significant external change.”1

The threat-rigidity effect

Those external changes – even post-COVID - include massive political, climate and technology changes that make the world a far more unpredictable place. 
The danger for business in these times of volatility is to be conservative and do what feels safe and familiar. Professor Peterson calls it the ‘threat-rigidity effect’.1 Creativity and risk-taking become far less common as fear grips an organisation. And is Professor Peterson adds “people tend to become less innovative just when they need it most!”1

Australia and New Zealand doing it tough

In Australia, you can add bushfires and floods to the list of disruptive events. In New Zealand the floods and extreme weather has also affected business. According to a recent Business Conditions and Sentiments report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around a third of businesses in Australia have staffing issues, almost 50 per cent face increased operating expenses and just over 40 per cent are experiencing supply chain disruptions.2 New Zealand is even more vulnerable to supply chain problems.
Leadership consultants Maxime Fern and Dr Michael Johnstone argue that in such volatile times, flexible leaders are needed who can bring the best out of staff.
“In a time filled with unpredictable trends that can hugely impact business, the best leaders are those who can manage the tension between preparing their business for tomorrow, next year and in five years, and who can work with uncertainty, navigating and responding to what is emerging, not what is,” says Johnstone.2
It’s one thing to talk the talk and another to walk the walk, though. Johnstone cites a 2020 McKinsey survey of decision making at the beginning of COVID-19 which found that while three in four executives believed the pandemic introduced big opportunities for growth, less than a third were prepared to do anything about it.
“Typically, most companies will hunker down during uncertainty, continuing to do what they know best,” he says. “Those that survive and thrive are the ones asking hard questions about which parts of their business to carry forward, and what to let go so they have the resources to focus on future-performing products and customers.”2

The paradox of flexibility

Further afield, research conducted by Harvard Business Review, also in the early stages of COVID, showed that many leaders were overwhelmed and struggled with fast-paced change. Versatile leaders were able to guide their organisations so that they could continue to function through the troubled times.
It goes on to state that it is flexibility that is valued more than any other quality in times of turbulence. Paradoxically, a leader with flexibility can often provide the stability that a business needs to thrive in times of turbulence.
Further Harvard research indicates that this flexibility is also even more important now than it was during COVID times stating that “the correlations between versatility and a variety of leadership outcomes — employee engagement, team agility, business unit productivity, and overall effectiveness — have gotten stronger.”3

How to become more flexible

But what if flexibility doesn’t come naturally. Is it something you can add to your skills? And if so, what are some of the pillars to take on board?
  1. Embrace change: Learn to enjoy the changing nature of things and have acceptance that things will change – because they always will.
  2. Get feedback: Many rigid people tend to avoid feedback because of sensitivity issues. All feedback is good as it helps us change for the better much quicker.
  3. Always be curious: Never be complacent when it comes to knowledge, keep looking and learning.
  4. Create a plan B, C and D: And be happy if Plan A isn’t spot on, because you have contingencies waiting to go.
  5. Work on your soft skills: Flexibility is all about soft skills – agility, problem-solving, emotional intelligence… and yes, you can train yourself to be better at them.
  6. Try to be less rigid: It’s the crux of flexibility. Have a list and a plan, but don’t be a slave to it. Read the room and know when you need to deviate from the straight path.
It’s becoming clear that the rate of change in world events and business is not going to slow down any time soon, and so leaders need to change just as quickly. Agility and flexibility will become even more important as leadership qualities if companies want to keep pace with an ever-changing world.


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