In partnership with my colleague Alexandra Barosa Pereira, I addressed two groups of Portuguese business and industry leaders in the beloved city of Lisbon. We wanted to discuss what kind of leadership and management skills are required to succeed in the present times.
Back in the 90s we speculated about the impact of globalization and technology, believing it would change forever the ways we did business, govern, educate and socialize. We simply had no clue how deep that change would be. The world after 9/11 and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy is quite different than we imagined then, but the constants remain the same: Change and Speed.
In today’s world we can’t afford to repeat many of the well-documented errors that saddled global performance before the crisis. For most industries and sectors, as well as government, the growth cycles are over and new challenges emerge while trying to do more with less, taking away rather than giving, while multiple stakeholders hold us accountable at every step of the way. When I observe how leaders are performing under these circumstances, I always see room for improvement. What can they do better?
For one thing: never stop learning and looking for ways to increase awareness; what has worked well in the past? Who and where are they innovating leadership styles and behaviors? In my talks I share lessons from the commercial airline business, because for many decades before it became “fashionable” it was already involved in:
- Globalization through expansion and development of vast route networks
- As a product of the above, exposure to cultural diversity and sensitivity
- Negotiation, integration and execution of wide ranging commercial partnerships and alliances
- Running complex operational, logistical, industrial environments, while providing an immediate customer service experience across many touch points
- Developing new technology and communications applications in all financial, commercial, operational and people related functions
I could go on, but airlines also teach us how to lead and manage in an almost permanent “crisis mode”, which is precisely the kind of environment in which most industries and organizations find themselves today (and for the foreseeable future).
Through a healthy debate with our participants, we discussed the following attributes of successful “Personal Leadership” and “Collective Organization” dimensions:
On the Personal Leadership dimension we concluded that individuals can succeed as long they recognize their role as “being in the service of the organization” and not the other way around. What do we expect our leaders to do well in these new, uncertain times?
- To create, communicate and inspire a vision across their organizations
- To create and empower well aligned structures of people, processes and resources
- To share accountability and rewards in order to achieve results
- To take a long term view, delegating and empowering teams to execute the vision, developing talent, technical and leadership skills
- To actively engage and align themselves with all the stakeholders, listening, asking for, and providing constructive feedback
- To be present and take advantage of all kinds of communications as their primary tool to connect with all levels of the organization
As far as the Collective Organization space, these are some characteristics of well-adapted and successful structures:
- Constantly questioning and developing good alignment between people, processes and systems that enable the organization to execute and deliver on the vision
- Decentralization as a general principle, in order to empower more middle management and front line teams because they are closer to the customers, the products and services
- The continuous sourcing of talent and leadership development programs, beyond the traditional hierarchical levels
- The removal of as many barriers as possible, to allow open, frequent and transparent communications to flow across all levels
When faced with all these issues and opportunities, in essence “change”, leaders and organizations can either reject or resist it (losing focus and engagement), or they can embrace and leverage it (fostering creativity and innovation).
Individual leaders and their organizations are two sides of the same coin. As more people gain access and power through information, driving and managing change is no longer the responsibility of the leaders; their organizations can and must play an active part. Both entities must learn and depend on each other.
It sounds intimidating to some! But these are proven elements that successful leaders and organizations are displaying in a variety of sectors and cultures. So the next question to ask is: Why aren’t these skills and behaviors being adopted more enthusiastically and frequently?
Change, in some people, raises uncertainty, fear, and insecurity. But if we accept that change is here to stay, that our world is not going back to a comfortable, stable and predictable state, what other choice do we have but to improve ourselves as leaders and organizations?
Once we accept this fact and decide we are ready to move forward, looking for trusted partners to help us raise our awareness, increase our accountability and adopt different and more productive perspectives, is the natural path.