Leadership in VUCA?

The non-negotiables of transition, in a world of Faster, Further, Higher, More

Leadership in VUCA?

The time frame for success and gains is tighter than ever. In a world of accelerating demands, we cannot resist the big urge to what it means peak performance, aspirations, achievement, and excellence. We continue to raise the bar for ourselves, for our teams and companies: move faster, go further, jump higher, and achieve more.

The overwhelming speed of events, with various problems added, seems not to let us always have a systematic leadership approach. If we want structure, it demands awareness and conscious effort, because the firefighting mode is on most of the time. And it is not getting anywhere easier, especially if you just took a new job, changed city or country, or just had significant changes in your personal life.

This is what most of us live in: personal, company, and industry turmoil. It became the new normal: expansions, acquisitions, reorganizations, or restructuring, with modifications in the legislation, sustainability and social responsibility requests, mistrust from workers, or criticism of the work councils.

When I moved from a Finance and Administration Management position into General Plant Management, back in 2011, I had to acquire critical technical skills in a short time: how to increase productivity, decrease stocks, lower the turnover, and improve quality. More importantly, I also needed to know how to convince and motivate those people to help me, to change their way of doing things. Overnight, I became responsible for the lives of nearly five hundred people. I was thirty years old, with a six-month-old child who was not making my nights very restful.

In the mornings, I often had moments of hesitation before pulling up to the big metal door of the production area, taking a deep breath, and pushing myself through. I knew it was going to follow a whack-a-mole game with all the problems in production, quality, workers council, deliveries, receptions, and safety. There is just so much to focus on that you don’t know where to start. So many things are continually showing up that you believe speed and dexterity are the primary skills to improve.

In the quiet afternoons, once everyone had left, I was spending hours alone in the production area, sitting on a chair and wondering: “Where am I going wrong? What can I do? How should I do it?” In the middle of the machines, it was my peaceful moment, my meditation time. Somehow like a ritual, I was asking for help: to the walls, to the materials, to the machines. It seemed clear what I should do the next day differently; the plan was written. However, there appeared to be an invisible Production God, with different rules, who had other plans for me and threw me other challenges the following morning.

I had the impression of being always in a tornado. What I discovered later with my clients, or in the interviews I’ve done, is that there are some common metaphors to refer to the internal and external situation: the tornado image, the sinking waters, the earthquakes, and the shaky ground. Those were as common for them as it was for me. Twisters, waters, and quakes seem to leave us all out of control, not knowing what is going to come.

Research shows that uncertainty constitutes a powerful stressor. The lack of experience and familiarity with a subject or insufficiently strong confidence in an initial guess are factors that impact different people. Several studies have demonstrated that under conditions of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety, individuals decrease information processing, form quick judgments, and make simple decisions.

Also, coping with uncertainty depletes mental energy. It is not “Change” itself that impacts us like in the case of natural catastrophes. It is our perception of loss of control in front of … VUCA.

We would all like, when taking a new job, to sit and talk, and understand, and do the traditional inductions and visits, but reality doesn’t wait. I discussed the topic, in the interviews with other Plant Managers, HR, or Finance Managers after the « Onboarding and integrating new leaders » survey in 2018. Here is what most of them mentioned:

« Today to do more with less became the new normal »
« We are working today in a highly competitive, very volatile area, where the markets are disrupted. »
« We have many changes in this dynamic and shaken world, constant restructuring, and reshaping.»
«The ground under our feet is moving all the time. »
« The client is the boss more than ever. »
« And we all know “fast” became the “word of today” in the context of a desire among customers for personalized products and services, and relevant customer experience.»
« And all this while on the table we have restructurings and social plans, analyses for threats from the market, a need for employees that you cannot find, and plans of 30% future increase of production and no candidates. »
« We cannot set processes that have coherence. We only respond to this madness. »
« We are mostly blocked in areas of micromanagement. »
« The speed at which the events in the last period and rapid growth do not let us have a systematic approach: most of the managers act on a firefighting level. »

What is VUCA

You may have heard about VUCA, an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
In the early nineties, a war term was going to reflect the entire environment. The business environment adopted it to picture the battle of survival in front of the Technological, Economic, Social, and Environmental challenges, the state of constant change in customer psychology, employee behavior and requests, and the brand values. All this increased under digital pressure.

What does VUCA mean, and how do you know if it affects you? We have found in recent years much information from Forbes and Harvard Business Review to Wikipedia giving frameworks for understanding VUCA. The luckiest of us had the chance to learn some more in master or advanced programs and training.

  • Volatility refers to sudden changes, without warning, in the environment and situations, or a higher magnitude and frequency of change.
  • Uncertainty is the incapacity of predicting future developments and the inability to forecast events based solely on the past.
  • Complexity introduces the increased interconnectivity and interdependence of multiple factors, in front of our struggle and confusion to grasp and understand the influencing elements.
  • Ambiguity brings out the difficulty of making decisions on quantitative information, with potential for misreads and confusion.

According to a recent Korn Ferry survey of 12,857 upper-level managerial professionals (VP and above),
61.3 percent “view themselves as going through revolutions, whereas just 19 percent view themselves as being in stable environments.”

“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives, but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” 

(Leon C. Megginson about Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species)

How is this impacting you?

Change impacts us as individuals in our personal lives and our leadership role. Our capacity to cope with change, to anticipate challenges to come, as well as our ability to influence and motivate others will make a difference in future leaders. Are leaders going to undergo and react in front of the evidence of a mutating world, or will they be able to anticipate and be proactive?

For traditional training or team building today, we have countless books, internet resources, videos, articles, workshops, and conferences available to us. According to a recent McKinsey Fortune survey, only 7 percent of CEOs believe their companies are building effective global leaders, and just 10 percent said that their leadership-development initiatives have a clear business impact. Moreover, you need 40 Key actions to gain certainty of 80 percent chances of success.

Darwin spotted that the capacity to adapt and adjust in the changing environment are the skills that will make organizations survive and thrive. Turnover of upper management and the chances of failure in transitions raises the following questions: What do leaders need to do to face this vortex? Do they have the skills required to make decisions and drive change under VUCA? How can they acquire them? Whose responsibility is it to teach them?

What are the solutions?

What is certain is that the model of leadership should be questioned. What is also apparent is that there is no silver-bullet to those problems. We have searched, combined, and analyzed multiple models proposed and leadership qualities to focus on: Vision, Understanding, Coaching, Agility, Humility, and Courage. Research indicates that specific leader behaviors—the ability to motivate, communicate, and build teams—are predictors of successful implementation of organizational change.

The increased interconnectivity and technological overwhelm will raise the requests from new Leadership models. The non-negotiables during transitions, from our point of view, will be:

1. Balance: To navigate successfully through change, the future leader must be prepared to keep balance during a transition: personal and professional. Not too much or too little while taking both sides of apparently different choices: Both Technical, and Emotional, Both Vision, and Detailed structure, Both Strategy, and Execution, Both Confidence, and Humility, Both Speed, and Patience. And this can be learned in some simple steps.

2. Growth mindset: The newly appointed leaders, to face all this constant change, must genuinely love to learn, be open to explore their beliefs, and change their perspectives. They must consider growing at the core of the “to do” list. Consider every failure as a learning experience and move on. Beyond aiming for resilience and robustness in front of uncertainty, we must learn how to benefit from stress, disorder, and grow to become what Nicolas Taleb calls “Antifragile” .

3. Emotional intelligence: It is more important than ever that leaders develop their emotional intelligence. This will help leaders connect and integrate into the new team, drive change, gain credibility and trust, share a vision, and be seen as a mentor to develop others. It is maintaining the state during the storm and the quakes. During frenzied times, his team must know that they can count on stable emotional landmarks.

4. Coaching skills and tools: Whether we talk about being able to work with your team or about peer-coaching, it will provide practical tools to have meaningful, purposeful, and intentional dialogues rather than talks and increase the feeling of safety and trust. Knowing how to give and receive feedback are critical skills in the first months of a new job to avoid failure.

If you fail, or if it takes you longer than the average transition period to adjust, the company will either not be able to capture all the value expected, or worse, they lose money, creating negative value. Your career can be impacted in the long-term as well.

Looking back to my experience, here is what I think it guaranteed my success when I took over the General Management position:

1. I did manage to balance the short-term focus on results and future vision. I wanted and needed to prove that the results were maintained and even more improved. I needed trust from my team and headquarters. I had a vision about how this was about to look: a lean culture. And I had a dream: if my product could talk, I wanted only positive things to say; a beautiful place, with smiling people and positive energy. Very important, I had both a professional and personal support system.

2. I always loved to learn and grow. Yet, this was the moment when I began to search for answers and apply what I learned in my personal development. I challenged my role model of leadership. And I started to work on mindset. I had a lean coach/trainer coming once per week, and we spent one entire day together. He asked me once, “What would it be like if you became the plant manager, you always wanted to have?” From there on, I started to craft and shape the new me: values, thoughts, and behaviors.

3. I understood I could not do it alone; neither would succeed in the ways I was used. I hired this lean consultant/trainer. I knew the tools from the past, yet I was amazed by his mastery and personal approach. He guided me into discovering the right beats for my team and me. With him, with NLP training and much work, results started to come, first within me, then with my team.

4. I understood that I would be just as successful as my team would grow. And for this, I needed the appropriate tools. Coaching offered me the technique of discovery, listening, and giving “feed-forward” . I wouldn’t have made it, of course, without the great people in that factory. I was in the plant from morning to evening, getting to know them, asking questions, and learning everything both about the products and their problems.

And yes, I made many mistakes that might explain why leaders fail. I doubted that I could successfully make it sometimes, yet I never gave up. In the end, this quest brought me the inside calmness in the storm. Because this is what we search, we wouldn’t mind change as long as it is not stressful.

Alexandra Claes

Alexandra Claes

Developping targeted solutions to guide businesses & leadership in transition, to exceed expectations in performance and growth.

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Stress in a job transition is also due to our perception of loss of control and lack of flexibility. We don’t know what or how exactly to do it. We think old ways will work. We either have any or too many tools and get lost.

If you fail, or if it takes you longer than the average transition period to adjust, the company will either not be able to capture all the value expected, or worse, they lose money, creating negative value. Your career can be impacted in the long-term as well.
It can be even easier to navigate through change and succeed in a new role by having a clear and Structured Roadmap from the beginning.

Mastering the Technical Side of Transition: Strategy, Result is only one part of the equation.
Equally important are the Emotional Mastery Practices we use to establish acceptance, drive change, gain credibility and trust, connect and integrate into the new team, share a vision, and be regarded as a mentor to develop others.
How do you ensure you inspire ingenuity and innovation? How do you ensure results that will improve your expert image even further?

Today, you have Leaders Transition Booster, developing targeted solutions to guide businesses & leadership in transition, to exceed expectations in performance and growth.
We help you, the new manager, or your newly hired leader, if you’re a company, to get you through a job change successfully and make sure you don’t skip the most important steps:

1. Scan and Position. Make a proper evaluation of the new environment. Listen, watch, observe, learn. Assess SWOTs: both yours and your new company’s. Know where you are. Identify where you want to go and why.
2. Develop a strategy to get there. Define what is commonly accepted by all stakeholders for reaching those goals.
3. Define and build your plan. Integrate your resources, both human and material, and negotiate the deadlines.
4. Manage performance in execution. Launch quickly, get early feedback, and adjust rapidly. Establish corrective actions and get your quick wins.

During the transition process, we show you how to reinforce your credibility factors: gain trust, prove expertise and inspire with your vision and mindset.

Do you have any thoughts to share hope for leaders in transition, in the world of the Faster, Further, better, More?

We’d love to hear from you. Let us know your opinions, challenges, and successes in the comments below or email: alexandra@alexandraclaes.com.

Alexandra Claes is Associated Certified Coach, ACC ICF, grounded with experience in Business and Leadership. She has more than 15 Years of Business and Industry Background, Coaching Methodology and Leadership development experience. Trainer NLP, Certified in Emotional Intelligence EQI2.0, trained in Neuroscience for Brain Heath and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Practitioner. Founder or Claes Consulting, a consulting company that teaches leaders practical, evidence-based strategies for maximising performance. Contact Alexandra HERE.

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