BUSINESSES THAT THRIVE IN TURBULENT TIMES

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

“The scarcest resource in the world today is leadership talent capable of continuously transforming organizations to win in tomorrow’s world.” Noel Tichy

We all want our business to soar on a straight ever-upward trajectory. But experience has taught us that our course will meander because of changing circumstances – big and small, within and external to our firm. We also know that we must be prepared for these dangers and they can appear without much warning, i.e., the great recession blindsided most businesses and the government. If a CEO were asked: Do you need to put a plan in place to deal with the unexpected? All would answer affirmatively.

But the process of coping with a shifting landscape is emotional and intellectually complicated by seemingly contradictory objectives: focus on near-term survival or concern with the future. Leaders are all too often pressured to just tweak their short-term plans. Unfortunately, responding to unexpected adversity has a dismal track record, and one reason is many leaders are not rewarded for or skilled in dealing with unexpected risk.

Transformational or basic change is often led by people who have earned success in less turbulent circumstances. They often find it difficult to significantly shift their thinking, so while they know real change is required, the old ways feel comfortable and right. That’s why basic change often requires a shift in leadership, strategy, and process.

People who lead core change need to be both prepared for and excited about creating change in order to achieve a more successful future. People who led in relatively tranquil conditions are accustomed to systems that encourage and incentivize stability. That is especially the case in large organizations with a long history of success. One of the reasons why startups often upset the status quo is many people who join these fledgling organizations find disruptive change challenging and rewarding. Since organizations need to ensure effective leadership in unpredictable times without jeopardizing employee commitment, to identify the talent already in the ranks that responds positively to change and risk.

Tranquil and rapidly changing conditions require people with different reactions to risk. Since the ability and desire to make significant change will require different kind of decision making and that the relevant skills and personal qualities can be identified and measured, then the organization must uncover those who have the necessary personality and skill set. Instead of selecting high potential leaders who have done well in the more stable past, the organization must select a different cadre of leaders who find the fast pace of unpredictable change exhilarating.

THE THREE REQUIRED STEPS

There are three steps to select and prepare people who can successfully lead in turbulence:

  • First, a company needs to identify those individuals who are drawn to leading during disruptive times. We can measure many of the skills and driver’s necessary to succeed in turbulent times using both traditional performance appraisal techniques and psychological assessments.
  • Second, we need to position those selected into “crucible” situations where they have an opportunity to use their penchant for taking manageable risks and test their strategic and implementation skills. It is a simple paradigm: select those who have the highest probability of success and test their mettle. This requires a program to identify new, uncharted and meaningful assignments that will teach and test them.
  • The third step is to utilize experienced coaches to assist these potential leaders during these crucible assignments. The coach will provide support and, if necessary, guidance. In order to increase the odds in their favor and assure that this assignment is a learning experience. Under these circumstances the selected executives will discover and expand their personal strengths and become more skilled and confident that they can cope with multifaceted unexpected crisis. This process will be useful when the necessary changes are transformational or more modest.

This three-stage process is analogous to buying an insurance policy to assure that the company will thrive during difficult times. A policy that provides bench strength and proven, experienced talent can protect the organization against unanticipated disruptions. Having a strong bench is risk management; the good news is that it will pay dividends as well.

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