Executives from various industries are racing to claim a title in these VUCA times: C-levels from the energy and chemicals industries claim to be in the biggest transformation phase and face the biggest uncertainty for themselves, their people, their operating model — basically everything. At the same time, top-level leaders from banking, retail, manufacturing and many other industries are convinced that they find themselves at the peak of the unknown, incomparable to other industries. It’s hard to judge which industry as of today, given the global economic and health challenges, deserves the trophy of “Most Uncertainty.”
They all face the same troubles — but not all have the right leaders to solve them. The beauty of volatile, uncertain times is sometimes hard to find, especially for leaders since industrial age mindsets and leadership approaches work only partially, if at all. Therefore, a leadership transition is also necessary in these transformative times.
Seven Tips To Help Navigate Uncertainty
Based on discussions and joint projects with hundreds of my clients across the globe from startups to corporate executives, there is always a combination of the same seven things that make a difference in navigating uncertainty successfully.
1. Core Values
If the future is unclear and unpredictable based on old planning models, the only thing leaders can rely on is their history and their experience, as well as the core values that are their foundation and that serve as the glue for their organization as well. Core values and a succinct purpose provide guidance and direction when even well-defined plans don’t help much anymore.
It’s no surprise that talking to people is more essential in difficult times. Going with Watzlawick’s famous quote of “you cannot not communicate,” leaders need to sharpen their awareness on what they communicate and which channel they use for which target audience. For example, sometimes taking time for one-on-one conversation turns out to be the most rewarding and success-inspiring measure a leader can do. Keep in mind what message you as a leader may send when you say nothing at all.
Leaders need to be able to say a short but very important sentence: “I don’t know.” Without this awareness, leaders remain in solution mode. Why? Because they’ve been rewarded and promoted over the last decades for finding solutions based on their experience, sometimes pretending to know even if they didn’t. The nature of holding leadership is to go first and define the route due to their own knowledge and experience. But in times of uncertainty, telling doesn’t get you or the organization very far. Thus, learning to say “I don’t know,” can shift a leader’s mindset from delegating to listening to find a solution.
To cut through the chaos and focus themselves as well as their team members on the true priorities, leaders should try to zoom out and paint a big picture that everybody understands and can relate to. Sometimes getting too “in the weeds” can make it difficult to broaden your perspective, so taking a moment to back away from the nitty-gritty issues could make all the difference.
Handling complex problems is different than handling complicated ones. Most leaders solve complicated problems with a “more” mentality: resources, money, time, production capacity or some combination of these. But complex business challenges have constantly changing variables, making it even harder to pin down and evaluate. The first step to leading through complexity is awareness of whether the challenge is indeed complex. Once a leader can answer that, it’s important to switch to an “I can manage this” mindset. Making room for open minds and common sense will get you closer to solving a complex problem than the “more” mentality.
When everything feels like it’s accelerating, it’s important to slow down and take a breath. It might sound counterintuitive to take the time to reflect — for leaders, their direct reports and individual team members — while the calendars and meeting schedules are piling up to unseen heights. But reflecting brings back clarity and allows everyone to recharge and address the problem with fresh minds.
Last but not least, there is one thing that leaders should never, especially in uncertain times, forget to remember: Good company gets you further. Especially in volatile times, leaders shouldn’t play superhero and try to solve everything by themselves. Lean on your peers and find a good verbal sparring partner you can bounce ideas off of and count on in darker days. Remember, when things work out well despite uncertainty, it’s the exact same company that will help you celebrate success.
Has leadership been an easier task in the past? Probably not. Will leadership be easier in the future? Also unlikely. The only thing that remains constant is that the human skills in our leaders are being called on more and more, and we need to acknowledge this and then act accordingly — as leaders for our own healthy, high performance but also as servant leaders, caring for all the people we feel responsible for.
(published on FORBES.com / Nov 2021 / https://bit.ly/3H0BqJ7)