I’ve recently been working with many leaders who are grappling with change, uncertainty, and disruption. Some are just battening down the hatches and hoping all that change stops soon. But that’s wishful thinking! If anything, we’ll seen even more change in the future, and you need new skills to survive and thrive in your leadership journey.
Some people say we need to be ‘future proof’, but that’s not right. It’s not like making something fireproof or waterproof, where you’re protecting it against damage. We can’t – and shouldn’t – protect ourselves from the future. But we can be future-ready.
When dealing with change and disruption, we all go through three stages: crisis, recovery, and growth. How you cope, perform, and thrive depend on how you respond at each stage.
As you work through these stages, keep in mind they apply to everybody individually. The pandemic threw entire industries and organisations into crisis, but even if you were lucky and escaped the crisis, you might still have some people in your team who were (and maybe still are) in crisis.
When a crisis hits (like, say, oh, I don’t know – a global pandemic?), you become reactive and focus on survival.
In this stage, you do whatever it takes to respond to the crisis. You throw your long-term planning out of the window and don’t consider any long-term vision until after you have dealt with the immediate impact of the crisis. Even when you have the time to pause, take a breath, and start thinking ahead, you’ll probably discover your old plan is no longer relevant anyway.
As a leader, you need two things when leading your team in a crisis:
- Empathy: Everybody reacts differently to a crisis. Getting up is harder than falling down, and people need the time and space to adjust to their situation before they adapt to it.
- Clarity: In a crisis, you can’t promise your team certainty and safety (nobody can) but you can give them confidence and clarity to move ahead despite the uncertainty.
When you have dealt with the immediate crisis and you start on the road to recovery, you draft a new plan.
In this stage, you can be more responsive and measured, but because you are still operating in a volatile environment, it’s tempting to think only about small goals and short-term plans – because that’s as far ahead as you can see. But that leaves you too vulnerable to external changes. Some organisations get stuck here, lurching from month to month with short- term plans that are continually revised or discarded. It’s not a sustainable long-term strategy, and you will eventually break down.
As a leader, you need these two things to lead through recovery:
- Trust: You can’t necessarily rely on the systems, processes, hierarchy, and operating procedures you used in the past. So you need to empower your team members so you can trust them (and they can trust you).
- Action: Moving beyond crisis means you plan and act in uncertainty, choosing a path to follow but also staying flexible enough to change direction if circumstances change.
Eventually, you’ll come to a point where you’ve recovered enough to think about growth again. The world isn’t the same as it was before, but at least you’re ready to tackle the ‘new now’.
To move to growth, be proactive in uncertainty.
You start planning further into the future, not because you can see it clearly, but despite the fact you can’t. You map out multiple external scenarios, choose the most plausible path, and design your strategy to follow that path. At the same time, you remain flexible enough to switch to an alternative strategy if circumstances change.
As a leader, you need these three things now:
- Team: For knowledge workers in particular, COVID-19 created the world’s biggest working-from-home experiment. And for everybody else, it encouraged people to think about the role of work in their life. As a result, it gives us the opportunity to reimagine the workplace of the future.
- Vision: A crisis makes it easier for disruptors to gain a foothold, so it’s more important than ever to create a compelling vision for your future.
- Digital: The panedemic accelerated digital change, and compressed years of work into a few months. Digital transformation has been a leadership priority for years, and the pandemic only accelerated it. But be digital only if it helps you serve people better.
Are YOU a future-ready leader?
How well do you rate yourself on these future-ready leadership skills? Are you able to deal with people who are still in crisis? Can you lead your team through recovery? And do you have what it takes to be proactive and push for growth?
A crisis doesn’t create leaders; it amplifies them.
In ‘normal’ times, many organisations tolerate mediocre leaders. But in a crisis, those leaders are ruthlessly exposed. They lack the emotional intelligence to lead people who are stressed and anxious, struggle to focus on the right business objectives, and don’t know how to balance those two competing priorities.
Whether you’re a leader in a board room, meeting room, or family room, it’s time to step up!
Join My Future-Ready Leaders Program
My next Future-Ready Leaders program is starting in September.