Ten Rules for Succeeding as a Leader in an Age of Turbulent Change
The future ain’t what it used to be.
Known for his pithy and often mangled quotations, New York Yankees catcher and manager Yogi Berra nevertheless ended up making poignant observations. In this instance, the future keeps materializing in typically different form than what “experts” have predicted. We tend to think that today’s society is under an onslaught of change. Indeed it is. However, huge change faced people living in Great Britain and Europe during the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 1700s. The same with the late 1800s.
Rather than compare past change events during different periods over the past few hundred years, what’s more relevant is to talk about change adaptability. In this post I’ll present 10 rules for successful personal leadership in the age of turbulence. I hope they’ll assist you in your personal learning and leadership journey.
Rule #1: Commit to Your Job.
There’s a saying that people don’t quit their jobs but rather their bosses. Fair enough. However, there comes a time when commitment to our work and employers must be reconciled with the propensity to leave jobs when we become frustrated and fed up. I learned some years ago that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. What may appear to be Eden often turns out to be a worse situation – from the frying pan into the fire, as the expression goes.
This prompts a sidebar comment: if you’re in a position of hiring staff, whether as a manager or business owner, the worst thing you can do is make empty promises to attract new employees. My maxim with customer service is always under-promise but over-deliver. I would argue that this is what those who engage in hiring should practice; over-deliver by providing excellent leadership and an engaging workplace.
To commit to your job means aligning yourself with your organization’s mission (why it exists as an entity), understanding who are the customers or clients, and determine where you add value. If you find that you’re not adding value, then some personal reflection is needed.
I recall something that management guru Tom Peters said many years ago. He stated that you should only take on work that adds to your resume. Now this may startle some people, with the response: “Yeah right, I’ll tell my boss that I’m not going to do a certain task because it’s useless.” What Peters is actually suggesting is that we need to continually seek to learn and improve ourselves; his statement, in typical Peters’ fashion, was aimed to be provocative.
Committing to our jobs does have the element of an opposing tension to look after our own self interest. However, being only half present at work because we’re day-dreaming or commiserating in our self-perceived sorrow helps no one, certainly not our personal growth and career development.
Rule #2: Adapt Quickly to Change
When a big change hits your organization, emulate Superman by quickly shedding your old corporate duds for the new approach. If you can’t find a phone booth, any office will do. But the key point here is to understand that your organization is about to go through some whitewater change (e.g., merger, acquisition, downsizing, or new technology introduction) and management won’t have all the answers. However, by adapting quickly to the change, you’ll significantly reduce your stress while simultaneously showing management that you can be counted upon when the going gets tough and ambiguity is the daily challenge.
Rule #3: Learn to Focus and Go for Quality, Not Quantity
Okay, I admit to being a multitasker. It’s now out in the open. How about yourself? When in the elevator at work or waiting in the coffee line, are you texting and checking emails on your wireless, while attempting to acknowledge coworkers and friends at the same time?
What about while driving? Are you checking for emails or text messages while at the traffic light?
I’ve seen people reading books while driving on the highway, or juggling a cell phone, coffee and a cigarette. My favorite story is from the Ontario Provincial Police who pulled over a motorist who was doing the ultimate in multitasking. His crime? He had a Coleman propane stove on the passenger seat and was cooking bacon and eggs. Now that’s commitment to multitasking.
All joking aside, multitasking performed while driving or walking across an intersection can have disastrous consequences. In the context of organizational work, multitasking has the negative effect of valuing the superficial and mediocrity. In what has been labeled the knowledge age, in which employees are supposedly knowledge workers, my view is that multitasking is dumbing down organizations, in particular those individuals in managerial leadership positions who parade around with Blackberries stuck to the sides of their heads.
A key competitive asset resident in Canada and the United States is their well-educated populations. If our economies are to evolve to respond to the sweeping effects of globalization, it’s vital that people are engaged to use their brains in meaningful ways in order to stimulate creativity and innovation. Go for quality, not quantity. Strive for the deeper solutions (see Rule #8).
When it comes to leading people, being present is a vital element of effective leadership. If you’re trying to multitask while speaking to one of your staff who’s dropped by your office, you send out the message loud and clear that the individual is not important. Focus on what your colleague is saying; at that moment he or she is the center of your attention.
Rule #4: Be a Promise Keeper
One of my admitted pet peeves is people who make promises only to break them. None of us are perfect, especially yours truly; however, I’ve always made an effort to fulfill promises or commitments to others. No, my batting average is not 1000, but it’s pretty high.
With that said up front, keeping promises to others–whether at home, to friends or workers, or in our community–is an essential part of who we are as leaders.
Over my 35-year working career I’ve seen too many promises broken, and I’m not even referring to those that people broke to me. It never ceased to amaze me how, for example, a manager could make a string of promises to staff, only to not fulfill them. On too many occasions I moved in to manage a unit whose manager had left, for whatever reason, leaving the carnage of poor morale among staff because of broken promises. It’s not a pleasant situation to be in as a manager.
When you keep your promises and commitments to your co-workers, staff and bosses, including those with whom you interact in your community, you’re viewed as someone with integrity and whose word is gold. And when the occasional situation arises where you’re unable to keep a promise, then it’s essential to take the time to explain what happened to the person or people who were affected. Refrain from making up excuses; just be up front and people will be much more likely to be understanding. They may even respect you more when they see you admitting a mistake and acknowledging that you’re human.
Rule #5: Embrace Uncertainty and Ambiguity–Ride the Wave
Trying to resist the onslaught of whitewater change is futile. The metaphor of learning to ride the wave is very apt here, one that creates a positive and energetic outlook. Throughout history since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 1700s, people have fretted about the introduction of new technologies and how work is performed. They adapted quickly, however, moving forward to create new inventions or adaptations of existing technologies.
At the organizational level the effects of globalization–characterized by most work being capable of being done anywhere around the world, thanks largely to communications technology–are having profound effects on workers. Depending on what you read and from what vantage point, the offshoring of work is viewed as ranging from being a pernicious practice imposed on North American workers to improving the distribution of wealth globally.
What’s important to keep at the forefront is not who’s right on the job distribution issue, but rather to identify what YOU control and do NOT control. You control your morale, willingness to learn and adapt, and desire to seek out new opportunities.
By assuming the identify of a change master, you’ll greatly reduce the stress that’s generated when your organization goes through the gyrations of major changes. And you’ll signal to senior management that you’re equipped and ready to contribute to helping the organization meet its new challenges.
Rule #6: Be a sponge for learning–and then SYNTHESIZE
The amount of information is growing exponentially every day. It’s no doubt overwhelming with the massive onslaught of information we must try to absorb. As much as it’s important to keep learning (as the mantra goes) and to expose ourselves to new ideas and perspectives, my view is that the critical skill to acquire is how to synthesize this data overload. This is my personal daily challenge, being a voracious reader and keen observer of geo-political events.
The opposing tension to developing your synthesis skills is the superficiality created from multi-tasking (see Rule #3). Again, this is part of my personal daily challenge. Go for the deep perspective–find your a-ha! moment, when you discover that gem of wisdom or burning idea that catapults you to another level. Ensure that you take time to reflect and explore possibilities.
I have Max, my Labrador Retriever to thank. Every morning we go for a 40 minute walk, which includes enjoying some wooded areas. These morning walks help slow down my thinking, which tends to race, and enable me to look at solutions to problems I may be facing or what I should write about in my next blog post.
Rule #7: Own your attitude and behavior
When I was doing my Masters in leadership residency back in 1998, we spent a lot of time in action learning teams. This was one of the more profound learning experiences of my long working career. As with any team there are sometimes dysfunctional people. What became apparent as my cohort of 55 mid-career learners went through the first of two residencies was that several of the 10 teams encountered serious problems.
My team was no exception. Fortunately, as we realized that one of the male learners on our team was imposing his baggage upon us, a female team member who was well acquainted with this type of behavior stepped up to the plate and called him on it. Her many years of working as a social worker in maximum security prisons had sensitized her to manipulative behavior. We got through our action learning project in better shape than other teams, due largely to her intervention. But I never forgot her words: “You have to own your own shit.” Crude, but true.
How often have you seen bosses or co-workers trying to dump their problems on others? What was the effect? Did anyone call the individual on it? What was the response from management?
When behavior like this occurs it can have a corrosive effect on the team and even more broadly on the organization. Don’t turn a blind eye when you see it happening. Speak up and empower yourself to help correct the behavior. Lead by example.
Rule #8: Be a problem solver. Not finger pointer
It’s really easy to identify problems and complain about them. Some people excel at this. The bigger challenge is exploring solutions to problems, and especially doing so in a collaborative manner. When you approach your work from this perspective you automatically start adding value to your organization. Avoid the finger pointers; instead seek out people who want to be part of finding effective solutions for organizational issues and problems. You’ll be seen as the person who makes things happen, who fixes problems and, especially, adds value to your organization.
Rule #9: Practice what you preach
Treat people as how you like to be treated, whether it’s responding to a request for information from another unit in the organization or serving a customer, client and supplier. When others see that you act consistently in accordance with what emanates from your mouth, they’ll take you more seriously and respect you for your judgement and views. Aligning what you espouse and what you actually practice is a cornerstone to leadership integrity, one essential to creating a loyal followership.
Rule#10: Become a barrier buster
Avoid becoming entrapped in silo thinking, in which people hoard information, reject ideas from other parts of the organization (as well as from outside) and attempt to protect their turf. Rise above this and get known for being a barrier buster who openly shares information, connects people and communicates effectively across organizational boundaries. You’ll get noticed by management as someone who understands the bigger picture and is contributing to the organization’s mission and vision.
Of course this is not a definitive list of ways to cope effectively with change. These 10 rules are merely my interpretation of how people can approach change, based on my experiences. Each of us has acquired our own knowledge of ways to adapt. Therefore, please take a moment to add your own rule for being a successful leader.
To change and to improve are two different things.
– German proverb)
Photo by J. Taggart (San Diego)
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