Adaptive leadership for the VUCA world: A case study of two managers (Part 2)


By Nwaodu Lawrence Chukwuemeka

WED, NOVEMBER 30 2016-Continuing our business tale that started last week; we were discussing reactions to environmental factors that tips decisions and actions in business and organisational circumstances. In these times of turbulence, both locally and globally; —the rapid rate of changes— is swirling around many of us, tipping us this way and that, as we attempt to navigate a safe passage through it all.

How companies and employees cope with the dynamism and rapid unpredictable changes that defines the VUCA world over the last few years is a paramount fascination to our personal guide to escape, survival, sustainability and success, both as an organisation and individuals; hence this study and the privilege of the offer of this unique window on how these two different managers reacted to environmental and organisational dynamism and the effect.

Last week we relayed the tale of the first manager, his stands, convictions, reactions and overall result; we are going to talk about that of the second manager and his own fate and story

To the case study now –

…while Checking One’s Ego… –

Contrast the case study of the first manager with that of another manager of others at the same organisation whose essential ability and willingness to adapt has had a much different and more beneficial outcome for the organisation and its employees. This manager, who had nearly 15 years of management experience under his belt, had actually held a leading position in the organisation for several years before stepping aside four years ago to address some personal needs and then shifting to a lower-level management position. For some months, as could be expected, there was scepticism elsewhere in the organisation that this “experiment” would work; as well as “office cooler“ predictions that this person’s ego or legacy from managing at a higher level would quickly get in the way. There was also doubt that this person, as an “older dog,” could “learn the new tricks” it would take to perform across the much more demanding level of skills that the organisation’s new leader was requiring.

But from the get-go in the new mode, this manager plunged into the world of adaptability and essentially re-tooled himself for a business model that required at least 4X the skill set bandwidth and another 4X the span of control, compared with before the COO had joined. It seemed like slow-going at first, largely due to the drag coefficient associated with concerns about the person’s ability to “step down” from his previous role. However, this masked a determination by the manager to find a way to refit into the organisation and to leverage the new dynamics introduced by the COO as the vehicle.

So, what did this manager do to adapt to leading in a VUCA world? –

First, and perhaps most important to becoming an adaptive leader in turbulent times, he has been able to let go of a lot of what defined success in prior roles and organisational models, essentially shedding the impact of years of performance reinforcement and standards and getting set to measure up to new ones. Second, and related, was an ability to keep his ego in check—an enormously difficult challenge for a seasoned performer who had risen to higher heights only to shift backwards. A third was the keen desire to keep learning, and the ability to see the new leadership and new organisation as an escalator to on-boarding a whole new set of skills. A fourth was to adopt an “open-to-everyone-in-the-organization” stance, indeed, even to those who initially were doubters or detractors as well as to new employees. Finally, a fifth was the ability to work with the contradictions and paradoxes that increasingly come with navigating the VUCA world, rather than railing against them. Indeed, many organisations are finding themselves living in the world of “both, and” instead of “either, or;” those most affected by the VUCA world face them more frequently and more often surrounded by uncertainty and ambiguity, to boot.

Countering VUCA: VUCA Prime –

“We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve, to a world of dilemmas, which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement of uncertainty.”

Countering VUCA requires –

Vision – an intent that seeks to create a future

Understanding – the ability to stop, look, and listen

Clarity – the ability to help make sense of the chaos

Agility – organisations where ”wirearchy” (collaboration) is rewarded over hierarchy.

One might posit that these are traits of good leadership in any situation, not just for the VUCA world. I agree, but I think they are particularly valuable in turbulent times, where so much of what is traditionally available for leaders to judge themselves upon falls away or is dangerously outmoded. Perhaps at the heart of this leader’s success in adapting has been his growing sense of self-awareness over the last several years. Known as someone who had very carefully guarded his life and reactions, this leader took the opportunity of the position change and new organisational direction to re-examine some core values and re-align career goals, shifting flexibly within the avenues for each that the increasing turbulence offered. Grounding one’s self in who one really is in this world and what one wants to stand for as a leader are also even more essential to leading in a VUCA world, where one’s moorings need to be as steady as a buoy, especially in stormy waters.

…led to an Engaged and Impactful Leader –

So, what have been the results of this leader’s adaptation? Being able to let go of many past measures of success has allowed the leader to be open faster and more agnostically to new performance imperatives from both the client base and from within the organization. While this manager still has some business growth goals to meet, he has re-oriented much of his portfolio growth strategy toward more complex and risky, but more lucrative, potential client engagements—the kind that are the future of the business. He has also steadily embraced new performance measures by trying to put personal insecurities aside and bring humility to his development. Similarly, his ability to embrace working with the contradictions and paradoxes that often accompany uncertainty and ambiguity has helped him keep his team fully engaged in the organization’s vision and strategy.

Keeping his ego in check in the face of an extraordinary career move and demonstrating a keen desire to keep learning has gradually earned him newfound respect from others in the organisation—a crucial characteristic for VUCA times when employees are constantly looking for leaders who can acknowledge their own imperfections and willingness to try to address them. Moreover, the active learning “gene” has helped the manager get the new skill sets under his belt as well as to be a role model, first for his team, and gradually for others. Indeed, the ability to embrace learning, “un-learning,” and “re-learning” is critical for leaders in the VUCA world, where many bodies of knowledge are changing so fast and information and insight becomes irrelevant quickly.

Finally, this leader’s ability to remain open and welcoming to everyone in the organization—another practice that is grounded in humility and self-awareness—has resulted in the gradual gaining of trust and a spread of this manager’s influence with many employees, peers, and bosses. This, too, has been critically important to the organisations overall leadership posture in VUCA times, as employees look for leaders to be available and to communicate often and honestly; as peers look to each other for ideas, support, and easy collaboration; and as senior leaders look for ideas, honest feedback, and clear input into, and loyalty toward, the vision, mission, and strategy.

This leader has some distance yet to go in adapting his leadership for VUCA times—no question—and he admits to it. Goals include further enhancement of some critical skill sets that essentially require facing up to longstanding insecurities about innate abilities, as well as continued shaping of his communication style toward more “straight-shooting” and away from the kind of “sugar-coating” that has, in the past, left some to doubt the intent and value of his comments. Leaders who hold back out of fear and whose words are discounted or interpretable are in danger of being rip-tided in VUCA times.

Still, this leader has made enormous strides toward adapting to VUCA times, and is increasingly making a positive impact on the business and organisational culture, with their attendant personal rewards.

As we go further in this discourse, I will like remind everyone of the all important entrepreneurship and wealth creation training, that is coming up on the 14th and 15th of May 2016 at Sabo – Yaba, Lagos. It will be an intensive, participatory and interactive entrepreneurship and wealth creation business training programme, really life transforming. You will do well to get in touch with us for details and plan to attend.

Addressing the Challenges of Adaptability –

The need for humans to adapt is nothing new and, indeed, those who point out that humankind has faced even more dramatic adaptation imperatives in the past are no doubt right. That said, we are where we are in the history of human development and in the scope and pace of dynamic change in the marketplace and in our organisations. A failure to meet the challenges will leave many companies behind and the human capital potential of their employees unfulfilled.

At IDEAS Exchange Consulting, we work with globally focused companies and organisations from many industries and fields of endeavour to help their leaders develop or further enhance their ability to adapt to turbulent times. We help leaders become more comfortable and agile with ambiguous and seemingly contradictory demands through focusing on managing paradoxes. We focus on the skills and mindsets that it takes to move nimbly and often without specific authority in making fast decisions through influencing and networking. We address the need for speed and for bringing all applicable resources to bear for impact in collaborating across silos. And, we focus on the self-awareness, reflection, and the need for quick recovery from failure in sessions on resiliency. Above all, we help leaders embrace a mindset of change that is so critical in navigating the turbulent times of the VUCA world that we all live in now, especially in our beloved country.

Some observers downplay the concept of VUCA, claiming that there is no way of knowing whether or not these times are any more turbulent than many in the past. Researches has pointed out that from 1980 to 2010, companies faced an increasingly rapid rate of change that was more dynamic, taking place more often, and long lasting than has ever occurred in any other time.

In retrospect, this act pointed to a predisposition to the kind of adaptability it would take to thrive and lead in an organisation facing a VUCA world and the paradoxes that characterise organisational balance in the VUCA world. As well as how in VUCA World, Maximizing Business Results with the Strategic Performance Framework and Cultural Orientations Guide works.x

As we end this discourse, I will like remind everyone of the all important entrepreneurship and wealth creation training, that is coming up on the 14th and 15th of May 2016 at Sabo – Yaba, Lagos. It will be an intensive, participatory and interactive entrepreneurship and wealth creation business training programme, really life transforming. You will do well to get in touch with us for details and plan to attend.

Nwaodu Lawrence Chukwuemeka (Ideas Exchange Consulting).  (07066375847).

DCSL 90X780