How To Lead In Turbulent Times

The times, they are a-changing--constantly. Luckily, the rulebook for leading in the midst of unpredictable change remains constant. Follow these 10 steps for great leadership no matter what happens.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing and the next best thing is the wrong thing--the worst thing you can do is nothing.--Theodore Roosevelt

Today’s global economy is characterized by rapid and unpredictable change. The challenge of such turbulent times can only be met by employing an appropriate blend of the leadership and management mindsets.

Leaders in all sectors--industry, government, the military, academia, and non-profits--are being challenged to do more with less to better utilize their people’s time, physical assets, and budget. Your first response to a shrinking budget might be to do more yourself. An alternative is to delegate more to team members either proportionally or by getting your high potentials to take on extra work. In the first case, you are likely to burn out and have insufficient time to lead. In the latter two cases, you burn out either everyone or just the best people on your team. There is a better way: eliminate low-value tasks.

Stefan, an associate director in a government agency, received a constant stream of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which by law must be addressed promptly. He lamented that answering the requests was making it virtually impossible for his people to perform their core mission; his thinking was rooted in ways that worked well for him in the past. Doing everything that was asked was one of Stefan’s core values and a source of pride for him. We asked him to consider other approaches he could use to process the FOIA requests. Stefan met with his boss and asked her to assign some of them to her staff. A few hours later, she agreed that her staff would handle the more controversial requests because they involved policy issues. The impossible became possible, and his team continued to excel at their core mission.

Budget limitations are often less of a barrier than executives make them out to be. One private sector client, Adrienne, desperately needed additional funds to finish a priority project by the year’s end. We encouraged her to contact her peers to see if any of them had funds remaining in the current budget year that could be transferred. It turned out one of them had just cancelled a project, and funds were indeed available. After brief negotiations with the CFO’s office, the budget authority was transferred, and a vital project was completed on time--within the existing overall budget.

The core lesson in these two stories is to think broadly in your definition of your team--it is more than just you and your direct reports. It includes everyone who has a stake in your success. Look for alliances that can dramatically expand the capabilities, resources, and reach of your team. A second lesson to understand is that when you do not ask a question, you are really the one who is saying no. When you ask questions, you tap into others’ knowledge so as to create new possibilities. The boundaries of your possible actions are no longer what you know, but rather what the organization and community know and can do.

At the end of the day, only action produces results. Building relationships, developing others, and making decisions lead to more effective actions; but it is the actions of you and your team along with the outcomes they produce that will build your reputation as a great leader.

Ten Ways To Practice Great Leadership In Taking Action

1. Choose action or inaction wisely. Deciding when to take action is a basic leadership choice. You can lead your people into action quickly or let the energy build while they prepare for what must be done. Both approaches are appropriate at times.

2. Make teamwork a priority. Even high potentials must perform as a team to be successful. Conflicting actions or complaints about difficulties in getting agreement are symptoms of poor teamwork. Fix the teamwork issues first, and other challenges will be easier.

3. Hold planning conversations. The time you spend in up-front conversations will be less than the time you otherwise would spend correcting the unintended and costly consequences of poorly planned and misaligned actions.

4. Ensure that the plan is understood. Ask high potentials, especially those who did not participate in planning, to describe your organization’s goals and strategies. If their answers are accurate, congratulate yourself. If they are not, improve the methods you use to communicate the strategic plan to your people.

5. Plan obsolescence. Look at the products and services you offer today. Which will be irrelevant three years from now? Are you developing the next generation of offerings? Whether you are or not, someone else is.

6. Create a people strategy. Invest as much in creating the people strategy for your next major change as in developing new processes and systems. People will accept change when they feel it is necessary, when their inputs are heard, and when they believe that the process of change is fair.

7. Learn from success. Looking back, would you say you learned more from your failures than from your successes? If you said yes, spend more time examining your recent successes to determine how you can repeat and expand them.

8. Stretch the comfort zone. Think about your team’s biggest achievement last year. What have you learned since then that could have made it bigger? Push your people into the uncomfortable learning zone and coach them to higher levels of success.

9. Confirm alignment. Next time you finish a key meeting, ask each person what he or she plans to do--especially to support each other. Agreement is real only if all parties share the agreements, the actions to be taken, and the expected results.

10. Get comfortable with silence. Silence can be the prelude to a big decision or decisive action. Use silence in your conversations as thinking and reflecting time.

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Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, Leadership Conversations: Challenging High Potential Managers to Become Great Leaders from by Alan S. Berson and Richard G. Stieglitz. Copyright 2013.

Alan S. Berson is an executive coach, leadership consultant, speaker, and a Learning Director at Wharton Executive Education teaching leadership and communications. He is an owner of PulsePoint Consulting, whose clients include NASA, the National Cancer Institute, LexisNexis, KPMG, and others. Previously, he held leadership and marketing roles at Fortune 500 firms including Gillette, Bausch & Lomb, and Marriott. As a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business he taught leadership and change management in the EML and Global Executive MBA programs and in Booz Allen's Change Management Advanced Practitioner Program.

Richard G. Stieglitz is a business consultant and speaker. He was the principal of RGS associates. Previously, he served in the U.S. Navy and worked in software and aerospace.

[Image: Flickr user kevin dooley]

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4 Comments

  • Patricia Lotich

    Interesting thoughts on this.  #4 "Ensure the plan is understand" was particularly interesting.  All too often we make plans without the involvement of those people who will be implementing the plan.  When that happens there is a major disconnect and plans are either executed incorrectly or not executed at all!  Employees like being part of the planning process, especially when they will be part of the plan execution!

    Great insight!

    Thank you.

  • Alan Berson

    Patricia, thanks for your response.  In the book you will be able to see the link from building relationships to developing others to making decisions and then taking action, which is the subject of this article. We often get stuck in the management mindset of just trying to get things done without engaging our leadership mindset to incorporate the people and vision side of the conversation.  Make sure every person engaged in the carrying out of the plan execution has a personalized image of what they, and the company, are trying to achieve!

    Alan Berson, Co-Author

  • Paul Woerpel

    #3 Hold Planning Conversations
    I can't think of a better way to say it. The best planning is a series of conversations. The challenge is how to create a collaborative leadership context for these conversations to occur so they leverage the combined talent, experience and perspective of individual executive team members. When these conversations are rigorous and systematic they produce actionable insight and foresight. These conversations also enhance strategic sensing capabilities, strengthen organizational fitness and foster shared accountability.

  • Alan Berson

    Paul, thank you.

    That's why we call the book: Leadership Conversations.  Conversations take Leadership vision and principles through engagement to connection, to alignment and then spur cooperation.  The conversations must focus on 3 perspectives: 1) what is important for you to say, 2) what you must hear and understand and then 3) what else do we need to know, what's the big picture?  When this is done, you not only engage the best from everyone in the conversation, but you also make sure you are having the entire big-picture conversation as well.  The trick - be curious learners!

    Alan Berson, Co-Author