Lead to the future: leadership imperatives for success

By Kate Lee

You need to be the change that creates the mental shift within the organization and engenders organizational change.

As the COVID-19 crisis enveloped the globe, Eric J. McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard, and Leonard Marcus, founding co-director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard, wrote, “The coronavirus crisis, like every crisis, is unfolding over an arc of time with a beginning, middle, and end. It is useful to think what distinguishes what wasis, and will be. There was a past of relative stability and predictability. There now is chaos and disruption. There will be … a different state.” 

While “what will be” is not yet clear, what is clear is that the future of work will not be a return to the status quo. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced radical changes in how we work and where we work. A recent survey found that 67% of companies that implemented remote or hybrid work policies in response to the pandemic expect these policies to remain in place permanently or for the long-term. E-commerce has experienced 10 years’ growth in three months. Digital transformation has accelerated to the point of whiplash. Organizations have pivoted, innovated, and adopted a start-up mentality. Emerging leaders have been identified through their work to bring teams together, get the job done, and move organizations forward.

Unfrozen by the constraints of routine, habits, and norms, leaders have the opportunity to redefine, redesign, strengthen, and transform their organizations. To take advantage of this opportunity place focus on building agility, aligning the organization, operating as a team of teams, and developing your people.

Build Agility

2020 has been replete with inspiring stories of organizations acting quickly to address immediate needs. Breweries pivoted to making hand sanitizers. Retailers, grocery stores, and restaurants launched curbside pick-up. While it is easy to say these pivots were a result of agility, it is important to differentiate between “brilliant improvisation” and a repeatable capability. It is also important to differentiate between acting agile out of necessity and acting agile out of design.

In a “normal” environment, agile organizations, those that act agile out of design, have a competitive edge. In an environment that forces agility, such as the one we are in, organizational agility not only enables better management of crisis and uncertainty, but it also enables the organization to become more agile.

Agile is both a mindset and a process for improved performance and sustained change. Agile organizations encourage and reward learning and accelerate testing, innovation, and execution. Further, organizational agility engenders collective ownership within the leadership team and across the organization, enhances employee engagement, drives better decision-making, improves operating discipline, promotes individual leadership development, builds the capabilities of high-performing teams, and drives performance and profitability. 

Take the example of V12. When Andy Frawley took on the roles of Chief Executive Officer and Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors in July 2018, the company faced several challenges, including business inefficiencies stemming from a recent merger and inapt product and go-to-market strategies. We worked with Andy and his leadership team to build a high performing organization and transform the organization from a provider of data to a trusted partner that delivered marketing outcomes. At the core was building an agile organization – shifting mindsets, creating processes, and developing capabilities.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the US in March, V12 did not experience the disruption others in the industry did. The work Andy, the leadership team, and the entire V12 organization had done in the previous months had built agility, enabling it to be resilient and thrive.

“The powerful thing about the Brimstone methodology,” shares Andy, “is that it’s designed to be executed quickly and have the strategies be executed quickly. It allows the executive team to engage with associates through the whole organization, and that is powerful in terms of developing the strategy, but even more importantly in terms of communicating the strategy. We’ve built this into the regular cadence of our management process of the company. It is not a special project or something like that. It is just something we are doing constantly.”

Create Alignment

Think your organization is aligned? Think again. A 2020 study found that most leaders (84%) feel their vision for the future is aligned with the organization. By contrast, only 29% percent of employees say that their leader’s vision for the future always seems to be aligned with the organization’s.

When an organization is aligned, there is a shared vision. An aligned organization has a shared understanding of purpose, and of the strategies, goals, and tactics that will make the organization successful. Organizational alignment energizes the organization, enables people to take action, and empowers people to work towards a shared goal. Further, when there is alignment, people not only have the autonomy to make decisions by themselves, but they also trust each other to make the right decisions.

Research accentuates the important connection between an aligned organization and an organization’s sustained performance. Aligned organizations grow faster, are more profitable, and perform better on indicators, including customer retention, customer satisfaction, leadership effectiveness, and employee engagement, than unaligned organizations.

Develop a Team of Teams

Resilient organizations, ones that excel at change, operate as a team of teams.

Chris Fussell, former Navy SEAL, Senior Fellow for National Security at New America, partner at McChrystal Group, and co-author with General (retired) Stan McChrystal of the book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, describes how the Special Operations Forces (SOF) began working as a team of teams to transform the organization’s operating model for the post-9/11 world: “Instead of leading a top-down, highly efficient bureaucracy, we began to lead ourselves as a network. Our mandate was to scale the effectiveness of small, elite teams onto the enterprise level. Instead of many individual leaders running many individual teams, we began to connect ourselves as a broad network of units (or a team of teams, as we liked to call ourselves).”

Fussell then describes how they “took the organizational blinders off” and began pushing boundaries: “Where once units walled themselves off from one another, now our operations centers and ground units became a mix of intelligence civilians, special operators, and coalition partners. Where once our communications happened in a point-to-point fashion that mirrored our org chart, now our day began with a video teleconference where thousands from around the world would hear and share the latest information available.”

Operating as a team of teams engenders communication and trust, emphasizes purpose over procedure, improves decision-making, and aligns teams and organizations.

Focus on People

In an economic downturn, the top actions leaders typically take are to lay off employees and cut back on recruiting, company events, bonuses, and individual (e.g., coaching) and functional (e.g., computer skills) training. However, a 2008 survey of senior executives found that one of the most effective actions taken during the previous crisis and the action that strengthened employee commitment more than any other action taken is hiring high-performing employees from competitors. The survey also found that cutting back on company events, bonuses, and training is ineffective and negatively impacts employee commitment.

Another study analyzed the strategy selection and corporate performance of 4,700 public companies before, during, and after the past three global recessions. The study found that organizations that employed long-term thinking performed better than those that did not. These organizations did cut back but were extremely selective about when and where they did so. Most importantly, these organizations continued to make strategic investments.

Visionary leaders recognize they need to focus not only on the organization’s immediate needs but also on assessing their current situation, the changing competitive landscape, and the strengths and weaknesses of their organization. Without careful consideration of this larger set of factors, long-term strategic and operational opportunities may be missed. And above all, they recognize that getting the right people in the right place will enable an organization to navigate change and disruption and transform the organization.

In Good to Great, Collins writes, “The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, ‘Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.’” 

It Starts with You

To bring your organization through the crisis, leverage opportunities, and position your organization for the future, you need to change how you work so you can change how others work. As a leader, you need to be the change that creates the mental shift within the organization and engenders organizational change. Lead with empathy, communicate, place trust in your people, and ask questions.


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