Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of speaking at the 13th CEO & Chair Symposium in Hobart. I had been asked to provide my thoughts on how leaders of associations can juggle the duties of transformation and Business as Usual (BAU). In thinking this through, it struck me that none of the change frameworks and models are suitable for this purpose. It really just comes down to qualities that serve the leader best. In a nutshell, here’s the five qualities that I think make all the difference and a podcast of the talk if you want to hear more. Heads up – a very annoying 2 second audio glitch around the 20 minute mark that I can’t fix. I’m saving you contacting me to let me know 😉
The first quality is courage.
Often when we think about bravery and courage we think about big acts of courage. Leaving the abusive partner, running into a house burning down to save a child. Leaving a well paying job of 20 years to do something new. It requires extraordinary energy. And people marvel – Oh you were brave.
But what I am talking about here is micro moments of courage. Small acts of courage.
The courage to be decisive knowing that some people you respect will not be happy with you – as it means for a period of time they will be in a position of loss. Juggling the various positions on the change you are leading is exhausting. And while you remain in a state of consensus or collective decision making you continually have balls in the air.
The courage to let others around you step up and do the things that you would normally do. A redistribution of power and control. If you are used to controlling everything, then empowering others is quite courageous.
The courage to reprioritise and put some of the things your organisation does on hold. To let go of previous agendas and focus on what needs to be done. This can be considered an act of great courage.
Juggling becomes unsustainable when you have too much on your plate. It is courageous to acknowledge as leader of change that you can’t do it all, you need to refine what is to be done and who does it. This is bravery of an institutional kind.
Many of you will be familiar with the metaphor of the burning platform shared by Daryl Conner in his book the Speed of Change. Many of you might think you need to create a fire before you can get people to change. It turns out that’s not what the metaphor is about – it’s about courage and commitment. In 1988 Conner was watching a news story of the Alpha Piper oil rig disaster in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. 166 crew members and 2 rescuers lost their lives. One of the surviving crew members was Andy Mochan, a superintendent on the rig. On the new show he described the courage and commitment it required to jump off the platform which would mean facing probable death. The freezing water was littered with burning oil and steel shards. At that temperature he had only 20 minutes in the water to stay alive. Staying on the platform meant certain death. And in that moment, watching the show Conner recognized that mindset and behaviour as what he was seeing in business leaders who were being successful in change.
Don’t let it get to the point where you are faced with a decision between certain death and probably death. A series of small acts of courage will help you avoid that.
The next quality that helps you move beyond juggling in change is vulnerability
As renowned research and author Brene Brown said in her now famous Tedx Talk – The power of vulnerability – Vulnerability is the birth place of innovation, creativity and change.
Like courage, vulnerability is one of those qualities where many people associated with BIG things. When you lose your job, your business, you feel vulnerable and then and only then you will make that vulnerability public and ask for help.
But the power in vulnerability in change is not waiting until it all goes pear shaped.
If the changes that are happening with your association or organisation make you feel uncomfortable, uneasy, anxious – share this with your leadership team. Share this with your employees. Share this with your members. Because you know what? That opening and up and being real is what creates followers. And you will need followers if you are to be successful with change.
Armoring up, chest out, chin out and you could end up like the John Maxwell quote: “He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk”
Neuroscience studies tell us that our brains are constantly making assessments on whether the person we are talking to us are “like us” or not like us. In primal terms – are you part of my tribe, or are you a threat?
Letting the cracks show gives people around you the opportunity to identify with you and relate to you. You can lead the tribe. If you seem unrelateable your employees will perceive you as a threat.
Your tribe will help. Your tribe will step up with problem solving.
And while we’re flirting with neuroscience – its timely to raise the third quality that will assist.
An ability to practice mindfulness on a daily basis activates what’s known as the direct experience neural network. And when that is engaged the default network (which is responsible for ruminating, imagination, and planning) becomes disengaged.
Part of the experience of juggling is trying to manage the temporal concerns – disappointment and cynicism born of the past, anxiety and hope about the future (so very much the default circuit in your brain.
A commitment to mindfulness asks us to focus on what it means to lead change today. The here and now.
Moments of meditation, breathing, relaxing muscles that have tensed during the day assist the you to experience the sensory aspect of change.
When you are grounded in the sensory experience of change and transformation you hold off the constant looping of thoughts, ideas, anxieties in your brain that you are trying to juggle. It allows you to sense and respond.
The fourth quality is embracing uncertainty.
What I know now is that anytime I am faced with a situation that is highly uncertain, I am faced with a situation that is abundant in possibilities. Now embracing uncertainty isn’t just about having a positive attitude – you go girl! There’s a couple of things that makes embracing uncertainty easier.
One – is actively build a diverse network. This means you don’t become dependent on a single source of information (which may not be correct)
In 1984, Philip Tetlock who is a psychologist and professor of leadership, studied the accuracy of expert predictions. He found these experts fell into two main groups that he called foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs who know one big thing. Foxes draw on many ideas and sources of information and are quite tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. Hedgehogs are the right fighters of the world. They tend to stick to a single view of the world and will back that to the hilt. You can’t change the mind of the hedgehog. Foxes often acknowledge when they make mistakes and course correct.
Tetlock’s research found that experts were not that great at making good predictions. There was clear evidence that foxes make better predictions than hedgehogs for the access to their diverse networks.
Second, good change leadership doesn’t seek to lock everything down. Good change leadership means to employ more agile practices in our decision making.
Experiment with ideas and short feedback loops. Let your feedback be your guide as to whether you are on the right path.
Build the practice of deining the smallest possible experiment that will determine which way to go. Run multiple experiments at the same time.
Borrow from Eric Ries’ “Lean Start Up” and build / measure / learn. You cannot have change and transformation without risk.
It just doesn’t work to say we want to do something innovative but some-one needs to have done it before and got good results for us to try it. But you can de-risk uncertainty with small cycles of experiments and feedback.
And finally, the fifth quality is power of curiosity
Curiosity is the great enabler of change and transformation
It offers us tools to find better ways, quicker pathers, easier efforts
What change is needed
What is the vision for the future
What should not be altered
What behaviours need to be changed? Modified? Kept the same?
What performance indicators will show success?
By deploying a curious mindset to what you have on your plate, you move into exploration of how to do things better and easier. The curious mind seeks out new platforms, new skills sets, new opportunities. It acts as a circuit breaker to premature judgment.
Leaders who foster curiosity enable a shift in view, one that can be more empathetic to employees or customers
We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing things because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney
Now here is the extra steak knives bonus of this talk…. If you focus on these 5 qualities, they will not only make you better at leading your organisation through transformation, but also BETTER at leading the business as usual.
You will be able to make your BAU continuously adapting, more innovative and responsive to what is going on around you. It’s not an either or with leading BAU and transformation. If you’re doing it well, it shouldn’t be differentiated.