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How Leaders Find Opportunity In Uncertainty


How Leaders Find Opportunity In Uncertainty

As we plan for businesses to reopen, leaders are faced with one of the most critical moments in their career. How they lead through the reintegration process and throughout the next 18 – 24  months of uncertainty could set their organizations on a path to greater organizational performance and stronger stakeholder value, or create a situation of workforce resentment, anger and disconnection that could cost them everything.

This is the place where leadership legends are made. The tools of the legends will be compassion, clarity, transparency and accountability.

If you are in a leadership position, read on.

Those who lead with fear, insist on “getting back” to normal, or that working harder will make life better for us all will likely find their organizations struggling to meet performance expectations, or, worse yet, becoming the latest corporate “love to hate” target on social media as their focus on profits above all will clearly be seen through the illusion of their unrealized corporate values and purpose.

The Opportunity

There is a call for workers to “get back to work” to “get the economy going again.” And, while we all agree we want a strong economy and work that allows us to support our families, the notion of “getting back” to things as they were seems impossible.

Workers have been through a traumatic experience and they are not the same. The way they show-up and contribute will be affected. What they need and what they can provide has changed. And the way they are reintegrated and managed over the next 18 months will leave them with a deeply felt sense of whether they belong or not, whether the work they perform is valued or not and whether they feel a sense of fulfillment through their work, or not.

Every disruption is about death and rebirth, things we need to let go and things that are about to emerge. Workers are already experiencing this. Suddenly, we can work from home. And, at least 50% of the meetings we thought were critical weren’t necessary. Also, extended time with family may ignite a desire for reduced work hours.

If we let go of everything that is not essential, what is left?

What has died for each individual and what longs to be birthed is deeply personal. However, this time of reflection, letting go and emergence can be harnessed to inspire innovative organizational change that can supercharge organization performance.

If we examine the transformation model developed by MIT Senior Lecturer, Otto Scharmer, Theory U, we can gain a deeper understanding of the importance of this moment.

Theory U Model

Scharmer calls the “U,” part of the model, “Leading from the Emerging Future.” According to Scharmer, the first step in any transformation is to stop the “downloading” patterns from the past. This is the notion of stopping doing things the way we’ve always done them, whether we have the outcome intended or not. Downloading brings us conditions such as siloed decision making, unproductive “turf” wars, and disjointed, inconsistent client experiences. When we stop downloading, we create space for change. The Covid-19 pandemic, social distancing, and the resulting economic challenges have ushered in a form of “forced downloading.” We have already taken step one.

The second step is “waking up.” Waking up to the choice that each leader must make — how will you lead through this moment? According to Scharmer,

“You can respond by turning away, or by turning toward. Turning away means closing your mind, heart, and will — in other words, acting from ignorancehate, and fear. Turning toward means opening your mind, heart, and will — acting from curiositycompassion, and courage.

This is where we are now.

Leaders who turn away (the top part of the model) and lead from fear, will quickly bring workers back, send an inspiration email, perhaps with a video of the CEO, welcoming them back, declaring victory and encouraging them to work harder for the sake of the economy and their jobs. And, while this may get things going again, it will not usher in the type of transformation that will align the organization to provide value to all stakeholders. It will leave the workers feeling unseen, devalued and disconnected. The opportunity for true innovation and transformation will be lost.

Leaders who turn toward (the bottom part of the model) and act from curiosity, compassion and courage will recognize the importance of a thoughtful employee experience during this time of uncertainty. They will listen and engage workers in the process of letting go and reimagining a new future.

Harnessing The Opportunity

To harness the opportunity that is available with a skillful worker reintegration program and successfully navigate this volatile and uncertain time, we suggest the following key steps which comprise The Blake Project’s Business Alignment: Thriving In Uncertainty program.

Thriving in Uncertainty Framework

Compassionate Leadership

Times of uncertainty can lead each of us down a path of stress. For some this may manifest as avoidance, for others it may be harsh words, or less than health indulgences like overeating or too much alcohol. When an entire organization is stressed, productivity becomes a casualty. While you can’t control the external environment, you can rely on compassionate leadership as a way to keep your teams focused and your workers feeling connected and valued. Compassionate leaders:

  • Take care of themselves first
  • Acknowledge the uncertainty
  • Encourage self-compassion
  • Ask people what they need
  • Focus on what they control
  • Encourage and model self-care

Emotional Steadiness

Research has shown that that “when people don’t acknowledge and address their emotions, they display lower wellbeing and more physical symptoms of stress, like headaches. There is a high cost to avoiding our feelings. On the flip side, having the right vocabulary allows us to see the real issue at hand–to take a messy experience, understand it more clearly, and build a roadmap to address the problem.” I’ve used the techniques developed at the Harvard/McLean Institute of coaching for years and know they will help bring emotional steadiness, even as we navigate the long-term impact of a global pandemic. Emotional steadiness includes:

  • Expanding your emotional vocabulary
  • Quantifying your emotion’s intensity
  • Writing your story

Strategic Clarity

One thing is certain, we are in a shared state of “strategic ambiguity.” The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic pause and almost certain recession mean it isn’t clear where we’re going and we’re not sure when we’ll get there. As leaders, we must help our organizations move out of strategic ambiguity and into clarity as quickly as possible. There is no way of knowing where we’ll be in 12 months or even six months, however, we can provide clarity around the next 30 or 45 days. The key is to engage your teams and managers in developing immediate priorities and longer-term strategies.

Focused Teams

Once teams are aligned around immediate priorities and the longer-term strategy, use the following steps to keep teams focused.

  1. Operate in sprints: Embrace short-term strategies
  2. Learn fast
  3. Empower front-line workers to make brand-values based decisions
  4. Exploit surprise wins
  5. Reward team performance

Business Alignment

“Perceptions about the authenticity of an organization brand are determined by the alignment between the words and deeds of the people who stand behind the brand.” ~  Mona Amodeo, Beyond Sizzle, The Next Evolution of Branding

In times of uncertainty a strong business with a powerful shared purpose will help workers and ecosystem partners stay inspired and focused. Business values will guide decision makers as the pace of decision making increases and becomes more dispersed and the implications carry more weight. And, the business core of image, culture and vision, will signal to all stakeholders that the organization is part of the solution.

As noted in the Harvard Business Review,If your company culture is aligned and integrated with that identity, your employees are more likely to make decisions and take actions that deliver on your brand promise.

However, before leaning more deeply into the business, it is important evaluate whether any elements of the business core need to be refined to meet the challenges of the current situation. By using an evaluation process that includes all stakeholders, your workers, customers and ecosystem partners will all have an opportunity to renew their commitment to the business purpose, mission, vision and values.

The Blake Project’s business alignment process will:

  1. Ensure key voices are heard as we learn from successes, uncover collective strengths and discover components of the organization’s identity that are still relevant and reveal newly emerging themes.
  2. Collaboratively assemble and share emerging themes and stories that represent the business’s positive core in this new environment.
  3. Reinforce business values as they define the behaviors of the organization, particularly around stakeholder (customer, employee and ecosystem) experience and front-line decision making.
  4. Assess current business core (image, culture and vision) and develop an action plan for realignment, if needed.
  5. Drive c-suite collaboration and organizational alignment around business strategy.

What Kind Of Leader Will You Be?

The Blake Project’s Business Alignment: Thriving In Uncertainty program is designed to help you take advantage of the opportunity that is available to your organization during this time of volatility and uncertainty. Please email us for more.

At The Blake Project we are helping clients from around the world, in all stages of development, redefine and articulate what makes them competitive and valuable at critical moments of change.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project.

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