The 4 critical shifts for success in the 21st Century

These days most leaders struggle to find time to focus; time to think things through.  The background noise of news outlets combined with the relentless production of social media is creating a chronic sense of [ ‘Read more . . .‘] overwhelm and then there is the daily tsunami of email. 

Leadership is all about making decisions and wise decision-making requires a combination of logic and intuition.  We need to study the necessary data and acknowledge the subtle connections our brain can make by ‘reading between the lines’.  However, I have recently spoken to many leaders who find it difficult to block ‘Thinking Time’ into their diary.  It’s as if that would just be too weird and I hear them say “What if someone questions it?”.  The funny thing is that they are usually the most senior person in the business or department!  Who is actually going to question them?  It is simply their own fears getting at them – it’s so easy to become addicted to the adrenalin rush of busyness and ticking something off the To-Do List.  There is an underlying anxiety that they won’t be ‘productive’.  The real questions for leaders are “What are you really paid to do?  How can you add the most value?” 

Stuck in doing 

When a business is in start-up mode it is clear that the founders are ‘doing’ a lot, but once there is some positive cashflow the leaders need to delegate as much and as quickly as possible.   This frees up precious thinking time.  There are far too many businesses that struggle to expand because the founders and leaders can’t let go and they stay stuck in the detail, missing strategic growth opportunities.  This also happens a lot when Supervisors get promoted to Managers or Managers get promoted to Directors.  They stay in their comfort zone of ‘doing’ because it is a very plausible excuse for not doing the really difficult bit – thinking and making wise decisions.  

The more senior you become the more you need to think and effective thinking is a very delicate process that requires the development of new skills.  The cacophony of information bombarding us makes it very difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.  Everything is urgent.  Everything is a priority.  So what is the solution? 

The courage to think 

I’m now practicing with the discipline of carving out some time in my diary where I can switch off my phone and my email and silence all other apps.  It takes quite a lot of courage to know that I won’t miss any vital bit of information that might just need my immediate response.  When I’m with clients all day I can do this easily but when I’m in the office it is far more challenging.  It is a discipline and it takes effort, but  it can be done!  

So once you have created some time to think what is the most important thing to think about?  Well this depends on your situation but here are some of my suggestions. 

Our VUCA World 

As mentioned above, the world feels like it is becoming more frantic.  We are now more interconnected than ever before.  Things that are far beyond our control can have a direct impact on profitability.  For example, the other day Francois Holland, the president of France, made a remark that the UK will “pay the price” for choosing a hard Brexit.  This was picked up by a news channel and reported online.  An automated algorithm with artificial intelligence scanning all news data started a chain reaction that created a crash of the pound sterling and it dropped 8% in just 90 seconds.  While it did bounce back a bit, it has fallen steadily since the UK referendum on the EU and many of my hospitality clients are feeling the pinch.  They purchase a lot of their food and wine from the EU and this means that their costs have increased by up to 20%.  This is having a significant impact on tight margins. 

There is now a term for this state of the world: VUCA.  It sounds contagious and in many ways it is.  It is like a virus that undermines our ability to think and plan. 

VUCA stands for the following:

  • Volatility – the speed of change. 

If you think back a few years it was not that long ago that your phone did only a few things like make and receive calls, store contacts, perhaps play a simple game or send a text.  Now we have in our pockets a computer that is more powerful than the NASA super-computers that put the first men on the moon.  Driverless cars will be trialled on the streets of London next year and new disruptive businesses are starting up every day.  Is one of them thinking about entering your market space? 

  • Uncertainty – the lack of predictability

National elections and referenda can now shift geopolitical stability.  The UK voted to leave the EU and 27 other countries are now having to radically rethink their economic policies and in the case of Ireland their national border.  The implications are massive and we all need to think about how it will affect business because we don’t know how people will react.  Then there are the upcoming elections in the US, France and Germany that could all have a significant impact on different groups of people from customers or suppliers to potential employees.  How vulnerable is your business model to all of this? 

  • Complexity – the intricacy of globalisation

Automated markets, political upheaval and disruptive technology are becoming the norm.  Everything is becoming more interconnected and interdependent.  While we can now easily connect with friends, family and customers globally, we are also inundated with information from around the world and need to sort, sift and make meaning of the most relevant bits.  This takes a lot of mental effort.  As businesses and organisations grow they become more complex and leaders need to make time to step back to see the bigger picture.  How skilled are you at zooming in and zooming out to get the right perspective for the decisions you need to make? 

  • Ambiguity – the potential to misread a situation

We are now entering a phase where there are four generations in the workplace, each with their own values, expectations, judgements and ethics.  Many of my clients also have many different nationalities working for them so there are lots of ways that things can be misunderstood.  One size can no longer fit all.  This also applies to customers.  Whether listening to feedback or giving out a message leaders need to think about the way it is being communicated and how it will be received.  How unified and consistent are the key messages your leadership team are communicating to your people and to your customers?  What do they really think about you and your business? 

As you consider the above you can see that there is always a lot to think about and it is important to remember that the area of our brain where we do all our thinking, the prefrontal cortex, can get exhausted very quickly.  This vital part of our brain which is only 4% of its total mass consumes most of the available energy.  If it is not given plenty of rest and just the right amount of glucose and oxygen, your ability to understand, memorise, recall, decide and inhibit are significantly compromised.  Inhibition is particularly important in leadership.  You need to be able to inhibit your natural biases and the addiction to action.  Thinking takes effort and strategic thinking that incorporates VUCA takes significant effort. 

However there is an antidote to VUCA and it involves making some shifts in thinking. 

Shifting your thinking

It is very easy to make excuses and bemoan the state of the economy, the value of the pound or the lack of good people applying for jobs.  But as leaders we can’t afford the luxury of making excuses.  We are responsible for our own success and need to use our wisdom to make the best choices given the current situation we are in. 

Here are some suggested shifts in thinking to address the VUCA nature of business in the 21st Century. 

  • The shift from Volatility to Vision

People want a leader who has a clear vision and is optimistic about achieving it.  What is your vision for your business?  If you don’t articulate a clear vision people are not going to follow you. If no one is following you, you are not a leader.  The volatility of the economy can make many leaders complain that it is impossible to know what the future looks like.  However, you can break your vision down to the short, medium and long term.  There is also an increasing need for leaders to be visionary in order to solve the problems the business has and for staff to be visionary in order to solve the problems that your customers have.  Explore and find some role models who have achieved great things in your sector or read up on leaders from other sectors who have achieved great results.  Then think about how you could you apply and adapt their ideas to your situation.  How effectively are you communicating and reiterating your vision to your people? 

  • The shift from Uncertainty to Understanding

Understanding is one of the key executive functions of your pre-frontal cortex so it is vital that you maintain a healthy state of mind.  This means developing a good exercise regimen, a balanced diet and getting enough sleep.  There are also many different approaches to becoming more mindful and self-aware so it is possible to find one that works for you.  This could be regular meditation, taking a walk in nature or making time to play with your kids so you can see the world from their perspective.  All of the latest thinking in Leadership is about increasing self-awareness because it is difficult to understand others if you don’t understand yourself.  By increasing your understanding of your own strengths and biases you can surround yourself with people who have complimentary skills and different perspectives.  Two brains are always better than one so increase the diversity in your thinking and approach by getting others involved.  This increases flexibility and your ability to make sense of the world.  I invite you to consider about how you could raise your levels of self-awareness and increase the diversity of your thinking. 

  • The shift from Complexity to Clarity

These days if you produce inconsistent products or give inconsistent service you can face a severe social media backlash.  When United Airlines refused to pay for the cost of a damaged guitar the owner Dave Carroll composed a little song “United Breaks Guitars” that went viral on YouTube®.  It is estimated that it caused the company several million dollars in sales due to the global damage to their reputation.   How are you managing the increasing complexity of your business? How are you ensuring that your values are being communicated and that managers are role models at every level of your business?  How clear are you being about the standards you want your people to meet?  How are you ensuring that your managers are consistently motivating and engaging your people in a way that inspires each individual?  It requires some serious thinking to develop a communication strategy and a HR strategy that can recruit, develop and retain the best people in a very tight multi-cultural labour market.  

  • The shift from Ambiguity to Agility

There are many mixed messages in the media depending on the political preferences of the proprietors.  This means that relying on one source can mean you end up with a rather biased view.  Agile leaders ensure that they get both sides of the story; this may mean reading up on differing views and stepping into the shoes of customers, suppliers and competitors to see things from their perspective.  Agility also means being able to focus on a given situation, being quick to respond and flexible in your approach.  Collaboration is key and many businesses are now specialising and creating joint ventures to address complex problems for the customers they have in common.  Agility is also about rapid and continuous learning.  Mistakes are inevitable but agile leaders learn from them and ensure that the business also learns how to avoid them in the future.  It is worth thinking about the quality of learning in your business and how you are capturing it, as well as how you are ensuring that it is disseminated so the relevant people can benefit from it. 

Making the time to focus and think will become the critical skills of the 21st Century leader.  Making the shifts discussed above will begin to address the VUCA nature of the world we are now living in but you don’t have to do it alone. 

Remember, especially as you consider VUCA . . . stay curious! 

With best regards,

David Klaasen 

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