Developing leadership for change

Cynthia Stuckey
October 8, 2015

Change and uncertainty are the new norm in today’s global market. As economies become more connected and interdependent, major shake-ups such as the ongoing economic slowdown in China and the crisis in Greece can cause ripples across industries anywhere in the world.

In a world influenced by increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), countries like Australia, which for the last 20 years has built a strong economy centred on commodity exports primarily to China, for example, are highly vulnerable.

To survive and succeed in this VUCA world, Australian leaders need to focus on establishing people leadership capabilities and practices, creating clarity, building unity, supporting inclusion, and fostering agility to assist in grounding and focusing their people during times of change.

As the pace of change accelerates and the number of strategic projects proliferates, leaders need to focus on developing these four key elements within individuals and their teams to provide a solid base for strategic speed, which is the time in which a particular strategy is planned, implemented and returns positive results.

This requires both leaders and their people to be focused, committed, engaged, involved and flexible, all during a context of constant change.

Leadership capabilities and practices are hugely important for businesses dealing with transformation, as they are the key differentiators when it comes to implementing strategy or change. To ensure that each factor is developed effectively, it is important that leaders:

  • Not only create clarity, build unity (including inclusion) and foster agility within the team, but also throughout the business to provide stability across all levels.
  • Use a wide range of networks to monitor and finetune implementation of change efforts, to obtain feedback from all areas of the business.
  • Measure, monitor, reward and celebrate milestones, to know progress is being made and when implementation objectives have been achieved.
  • Create transition plans for themselves and their people, to provide a structured path to follow.
  • Build ownership for change at all levels, from top to bottom, to clarify roles and responsibilities.

But with so much going on, how can clarity, unity and agility be established across levels when an organisation is focusing on implementing change or a new strategy?

Use internal and social networks

The informal network or ‘grapevine’ is often a faster and more credible form of communication than formal systems, if kept in check. People who are well connected to this network are able to identify changes that are on the horizon and start to debate the upside and downside of the intended change, form their position or viewpoint and use this to influence others. These networks also pick up on new strategic initiatives and create a dialogue around options, value, process and effort.

Today, most organisations have the opportunity to use internal and social networks and online collaboration tools to support implementation of change or strategy and connect with a much larger audience earlier in the process as well as get real-time feedback. These networks and tools encourage people to ‘surf’ the proposed changes ahead of time and share their points of view and opinions as they consider or track implementation and impact.

Using collaborative communities and creating effective networks is also vital for leaders, as these informal relationships can be a powerful way of influencing change at a less formal level. People with these relationships are well connected, can help build strong momentum and achieve a tipping point for change through their ability to influence people who would otherwise have resisted change.

Extensive research done in the National Health Service in the UK, shows that these change agents are more successful in the following situations:

  • When they are strongly connected to the informal network regardless of their role or position in the organisation
  • When they match their type of network (connected or bridging) to the type of change they are pursuing
  • When they have close relationships with fence-sitters or people ambivalent about the change
  • When they support and believe in the change and have taken ownership to the change

Focus on what is most important

Today, people find themselves in transition more frequently and on a number of fronts, which can impact their ability to absorb and embed change and remain focused on their strategic goals and targets. Recent Forum research focusing on how leaders accelerate the execution of plans and strategies and sustain speed over time found that role transitions are only one of several types of transitions that impact strategic speed.

From our research, we also saw a disproportionate success rate of transitioning leaders who focus on doing certain things well. That is when leaders don’t stretch themselves too thin and instead focus on perfecting a few things, they reduce the time it takes them and their teams to add value to the organisation during their transitions, while at the same time increasing their execution success.

These leaders focus on:

  • Increasing clarity, by carefully considering the impact of their business situation on transition activities and using it to create a shared, clear understanding of the direction with their own manager and team.
  • Increasing unity, by being strategic about choosing with whom to collaborate to further their objectives and by skilfully building and maintaining alliances.
  • Increasing agility, by building their own and their team’s willingness and ability to turn and adapt quickly in ambiguous situations. This should include knowing what milestones to reach to monitor/measure progress and identifying risks to address them before they become issues.

As most employees, leaders and customers accommodate the changes they experience around them, they are in a state of perpetual transition. The focus now is not on the first 60 or 90 days but on having a leadership approach that will help leaders and their teams continue to be successful as they evaluate and accommodate a much more constant cycle of change.

Build ownership across the business

In order for clarity, unity and agility to be adopted across a business, ownership must be established at all levels by developing more discipline around cascading, connecting and prioritising initiatives.

Cascading refers to the sharing of responsibility through active involvement and commitment of leaders at all levels and the use of authentic dialogue to deliver key messages and affirm the change or strategy. Leaders need to focus on translating the message to each level of the business so it has relevance and meaning.

Connecting is the process of intertwining the change and strategy agenda across the business to show the bigger picture and helps individuals clarify their roles and contributions. This way employees of all levels understand their role in the broader context of overall business operation.

Prioritising is the important step of identifying initiatives that need the greatest or most urgent attention and discussing how to tackle them before moving on to other activities. In the ‘do more with less’ world we all operate in, it is essential to have a dialogue with stakeholders and not leave individuals to make sense of all the demands on their time. If leaders apply this discipline effectively, employees will become more proactive in owning the change effort, seeking/receiving feedback and become more adaptable.

As well as developing an adaptive process for change or strategy implementation, organisations also need to build individual adaptability into their people to cope and thrive in a VUCA context. Without it, the business world in which they operate will remain volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and not be conducive to productivity and progress.

By creating clarity, building unity and fostering agility across all levels of an organisation, business leaders can start to break down the barriers a VUCA world presents and provide a more stable work environment in which to prosper.

Author avatar
Cynthia Stuckey
Cynthia Stuckey is the managing director of The Forum Corporation in the Asia-Pacific. Forum is a recognised global leader in linking leadership development and sales effectiveness training to strategic business objectives.
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