Maintaining a Leadership Edge in Today’s Market

By Ted Freeman, Psy.D., Organization Effectiveness & Leadership Advisor

Dr. Ted Freeman explores ways that Great Everyday Management practices can help leaders in times of uncertainty as they anticipate future demands.

Walking through an airport recently, I ran into a former CEO client.  After catching up on work and family and exchanging platitudes about how fast the world is spinning, he asked, “With all of the change around us, what capabilities are most important for leaders to develop and practice?”  I’m never as fast on my feet as I’d like to be, but here’s the response I wish I’d given in the moment.

First, the debate about the value of investing in the fundamentals of leadership and organizational culture is over.  When I started working in this field 25 years ago, I spent a lot of time trying to convince organizational leaders that focusing on leadership, people and culture would give them a strategic advantage.  I don’t have those conversations anymore.  It’s broadly understood that what we call Great Everyday Management practices – a coaching mindset, clear communication, role clarity, delegation and accountability, cross-functional collaboration, the ability to productively have difficult conversations, among other core skills – reduce waste in organizations, facilitate better decision-making and enhance productivity.  

Not all organizations invest as much as they should or in the ways they should, still the vast majority of leaders understand the importance of Great Everyday Management practices in elevating organizational performance.

Second, in addition to these core skills, some forward-leaning organizations recognize the importance of what organization development experts Fred Miller and Judith Katz refer to as Interaction Safety.  For organizations to thrive, leaders need everyone in the system to make their greatest contribution.  And people don’t do that when they don’t feel safe in their interactions with others.  

Without an environment of Interaction Safety, people focus on protecting themselves, keep their heads down, withhold their ideas until they are fully polished and resist making trade-offs in service of the whole because they want to defend their area of the organization.  They play not to lose, as opposed to playing to win.  

When people are invited to share their still-in-formation ideas, valued and seen for who they are as individuals, and approached with curiosity and interest rather than fear and criticism, the environment of Interaction Safety leads to better organizational outcomes.  

Finally, there are a set of leadership capabilities that leaders need to practice in our increasingly VUCA world.  Futurists generally agree that in the coming years we will experience even greater volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.  Rather than proceeding as if the rollercoaster of the last few years will be put behind us, leaders need to prepare for a world of regular disruptions.  Preparing for that kind of future demands a new set of capabilities.  

Two important ones include “Signal Spotting” and “FutureBack Thinking.”  Drawing on the mantra that “the future is all around us, it’s just unevenly distributed,” the skill of Signal Spotting is to identify data around us that might indicate something about the future.  Signals may come in the form of the way consumers talk about products, how a restaurant is set up, how people interact in public settings or an unusual news report that at first glance seems anomalous but may actually be a thread of the future.  Rather than let the data fly by, the practice is to take time to reflect and talk with others about what this might mean for one’s customers, business processes, new markets or competition. 

Futurist Bob Johansen adroitly points out that we often are so embroiled in our current circumstances that we over rely on “now-forward” thinking (Where are we now? What do we do next? What does that mean about the future?).  Leaders must also learn FutureBack Thinking (What futures might exist? What will happen before that? What does that mean we should do now?).  It’s this combination of approaches that helps us not only operate in the present but see around corners and prepare for what’s next.

The fundamentals of Great Everyday Management, creating Interaction Safety and practices to navigate an increasingly VUCA world – these are the capabilities organizations need to engender throughout their companies to thrive in todays world. Next time I see my friend at the airport, I’ll be sure to tell him.