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Enabling our Leaders to deal with Rapid Change – Reflections on a round table discussion at Expedite’s Working Futures conference March 2017


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– By Anton Fishman, Director, Fishman & Partners

HR Directors and Senior OD and L&D Leaders from major international and UK organisations reviewed the challenges facing their business leaders as they navigated their way through today’s rapid changes and as they provided the leadership their organisations now require. In particular they considered whether focussing leaders’ development primarily on the widely adopted themes of Resilience, Authenticity and Overcoming the Fear of Change was too generic and broad-brush an approach to enable their leaders to deal with specific challenges of change in their particular organisations.

Principle Themes and outcomes of the review

 Rapid Change and how leaders respond to it is a live and pressing issue in every one of the very diverse organisations attending this session.

Whether the change they are experiencing is any more substantial than in previous decades proved irrelevant – it feels rapid, challenging and of critical importance to our organisations.

The drivers for change and the nature of responses required varied considerably. These included:

  • Keeping ahead of competition in rapidly changing market and competitor environment
  • Anticipating and responding to major geopolitical shifts: Brexit, Protectionism v Globalisation
  • Responding to pressures from client / customer base to be more responsive and commercial
  • Re-framing of the ‘rules of the game’ within their larger organisation and the consequent repurposing of their division of business unit
  • Recognition that the long term and stable business models that sustained their successful businesses over many decades are no longer going to sustain business success in the future and need to be changed substantially [failure to do so being an existential threat to the business]
  • Technological advances that are enabling challenger organisations and start-ups to eat into their core and cash-generative business activities

Cultural differences between participating organisations emerged – from those who have indeed navigated themselves through substantive challenges and responded quickly and radically to these to those for whom the narrative of ‘constant’ change and the burden of accommodating to it belied the fact that little substantial had indeed really changed over time.  Regardless of the actuality of the magnitude of change what seemed to matter more was the internal perception that change was rapid and demanding.

Without exception, participants and their HR functions as a whole were acknowledging their responsibility and accountability for equipping leaders with the capability to deal with the pressures of change and for HR to lead their organisations through the change process. Whether that responsibility should rest entirely on them or should be shouldered / shared by others was questioned, but not resolved in our discussions.

Some participating organisations had been developing their leaders’ ability to navigate change for some time – with the focus on Resilience, Authenticity and Overcoming the Fear of Failure.  Others were just starting the process of enquiry and evidence gathering to determining the qualities their own organisation’s leaders needed to possess to support and drive change in their own particular organisations at this point in time.

Generic versus Context-Specific Development. The group reviewed whether we be talking about and focusing our L&D interventions on ‘universal’ factors deemed to be fundamental to people’s capacity to absorb and deal with change wherever they worked and whatever their role was?  Or should the focus be on ‘localisation’ – identifying what leaders need to be good at / excel in to lead change for our organisation, with our culture, given our history, our people, at this time, facing these challenges, and needing to respond to them in this way?

With the key note address provided by Rob Briner on Evidence-based HR firmly in mind this is a critical L&D intervention design decision. There is great advantage of investing time in a disciplined research and evidence gathering process to develop interventions that are right for your own organisation at this time.  Relevance, ownership, commitment and impact are magnified through investment in these efforts.

In the light of these observations and the recognition that there are many factors driving the perceived and real requirements to respond to rapid change review participants worked in pairs to share their insights into what their own leaders needed to do in practice to take their organisations successfully through rapid change. Some key themes quickly emerged, which included:

  • Dealing with the ambiguity associated with shifting and unpredictable issues [culturally more difficult in some organisations – often those with biases to rigour, due process, compliance, precision their work or the services they provide]
  • Recognising there are alternative responses to the need for change, developing scenario plans and working with their colleagues and key stakeholders to agree which of these to pursue with vigour
  • Establishing good relationships within the leadership group and staff more widely – ahead of the need for change – i.e. establishing strong social capital as a leader
  • Making timely and rapid decisions – avoiding analysis paralysis and the search for the one best way
  • Having effective influence skills to gain support for and commitment to the change agenda
  • Understanding how rapid change can / should be managed based on well-established and well-understood models of change
  • Having the effective practical management skills to take strategic intentions and turn them into effectively delivered actions and outcomes

With just an hour together we were unable to dig much deeper but it had already become clear that developing leaders to lead through rapid change needs both generic and context specific capability development, with the critical success factors coming from the evidenced-based and context specific elements of these development programmes.

 

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