6 leadership lessons for uncertain times

6 leadership lessons for uncertain times

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation have triggered a wave of change that in the next ten years will reconfigure how people live and what jobs in all professions will look like.

The possibilities are steeped in excitement and in doubt. “It leads us to this idea of uncertainty,” said Wendy R. Carroll, Ph.D., associate professor of management at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, Canada. “We are left trying to make sense of the space between the hype — the extreme hype — and that middle space about what it’s really going to look like.”

Organisations must be able to adapt, implement new technologies, and evolve quickly, even while the long-term impact of these technologies is uncertain. At the same time, organisations face tough odds: Research suggests change initiatives are often expected to fail and successful outcomes are perceived as flukes.

Carroll and leadership coach Jennifer Gervès-Keen, who both spoke at CPA Canada’s National Conference 2018, offered lessons for leaders as they carry their organisations through uncertainty.

Lesson No. 1: Change is about emotions

People’s reactions to change are rooted in emotion. The body’s natural fight-or-flight response helps explain why people react that way, Gervès-Keen said.

“We have built-in threat mechanisms,” she said. “We are going to react a certain way because we are genetically programmed to.”

Even during small changes, organisations must include time for workers to process their emotions and voice concerns. Leaders must remind themselves to be patient as they are asked similar questions repeatedly. They also must be prepared to deliver the same answers repeatedly with compassion and patience.

“When organisations don’t spend any time on this, that’s when changes fail. Those reactions all have validity and we need to respect them,” Gervès-Keen said.

Lesson No. 2: Consider organisational culture

Leaders must understand where an organisation is before they can lead it in a new direction.  

“Until you know where people are, you won’t know whether people are ready or willing to go down that path with you to change,” Gervès-Keen said. A cultural audit, comprising individual interviews or a detailed survey analysing workplace culture and values, will offer insights on how easy or difficult it will be for an organisation to change, she said.

Companies steeped in routines, hierarchy, and processes are more rigid and can take longer to embrace and implement change, Carroll said. On the other side are companies that are more focused on people and innovation. These are often outward-focused, market-driven companies, she said, that embrace innovation and may be apt to change more quickly.

Many balk at taking steps to evaluate company culture because this adds to the timeline. But skipping it can be more costly in the end, especially if a rocky transition sinks morale and takes productivity down with it, Gervès-Keen said.

Lesson No. 3: Changes start small

Some leaders might think initiating change means creating a wholesale plan that addresses all parts of an organisation simultaneously, Carroll said. But change can move in waves, and small, early successes can boost confidence in the process and, subsequently, momentum.

This is where organisations can take cues from agile teams, which integrate people from various functions to work through a challenge, such as integrating new technology, in a nonlinear fashion, Carroll said.

In an agile framework, the launch of the system would not be the final stage of the project but a beginning. Even as it is being used, its use is evolving and improving. The feedback loop for testing new strategies and tweaking them is short and frequent, which makes it easy for these teams to adapt as new challenges arise.

“It’s about working faster and working through the problem by reducing the obstacles or hierarchy that can often get in the way,” Carroll said, noting that organisations that lack experience in agile methods can bring in coaches to train them and keep them on track.

Lesson No. 4: Recruit an army of ambassadors

Change needs champions. Senior leaders should be at the top of that list.

According to a 2017 global survey on enterprise agility, 63% of those surveyed said the biggest challenge was their company’s culture — the values and behaviours that shape employees’ work and interactions — was at odds with agile values. Following close behind, 45% reported a lack of management support as a top challenge.

Resistance to change is inevitable, Gervès-Keen said. Diagnosing organisational culture using tools such as surveys or interviews can help identify those who might sabotage the process and the campaigners who can help persuade doubters.

Harvard University leadership expert John P. Kotter calls these ambassadors a “volunteer army”. This group should include supporters from all levels, especially those at the top.

“From my experience and based on my review of the research evidence, change can fail for a number of reasons, and not having leadership support is one of them,” Carroll said.

Lesson No. 5: Let data steer decisions

Organisations are inundated with data but aren’t necessarily using them effectively, Carroll said.

Collecting the right data is a challenge for many organisations, as cited by a fifth of respondents in the enterprise agility survey. Leaders also must be open to accepting what data show.

“Evidence sometimes doesn’t show us what we want to see,” Carroll said.

Instead of creating a strategy then looking for data to justify it, leaders have to look at the data objectively, she said. Carroll described this as agile business intelligence.

“At times in organisations, they start with the solution,” Carroll said. “Applying evidence-based principles and approaches is about stepping back, starting with the problem, and asking the right questions.”

Lesson No. 6: Empower employees to evolve

Many professional athletes spend hours training and learning each day in preparation for just a few minutes of competition, Gervès-Keen said. So why are business professionals doing the opposite?

According to a Deloitte survey, professionals report spending just 1% of a typical work week on professional development, Gervès-Keen said. As a result, workers forget how to learn. Many are intimidated to try new things for fear of failure or are limited by past failures.

“We have fully functioning adults who are convinced they can’t learn,” she said. “It’s getting individuals past their mental blocks and anxieties.”

Gervès-Keen said colleges and universities must prepare more adaptable students as they enter rapidly evolving companies. “There’s a lack of resilience and coping skills and being able to adapt quickly,” she said.

Creating a culture of learning and improving makes it OK to struggle or fail in the name of progress. “If we’re afraid of being wrong, we can’t be innovating,” she said. “If we can’t fail, then we can’t learn, and we can’t create.”

Stepping into uncharted territory

As organisations strive to become more agile in changing conditions, Carroll said, they must also embrace uncertainty.

“In organisations, we’re comfortable with predicting and forecasting; these are the areas that aren’t as easy for us to predict or forecast,” she said. Many industries are facing the same challenge when it comes to integrating revolutionary new technologies such as machine learning and robotic automation: “We don’t have a blueprint, nobody’s actually dealt with some of these changes before,” Carroll said.

“The good news,” she assured, “is that adapting techniques of agile methods, using data wisely, and working through change even on a small scale at first can add focus and clarity to this process.”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at


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