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Leading in a turbulent environment

The challenge of leadership in our rapidly changing and complex context has been aptly described as “building a skyscraper on a moving conveyor belt”.

The external context in which organizations operate is in constant and rapid flux. Technological changes are impacting on all spheres of business. The customer has also changed and become a lot more knowledgeable and demanding. We are finding that product shelf life is very small and also that it’s impossible to compete on product differentiation in today’s world. The customer has a lot more choices available and as a result has become a lot more demanding. The effects of the global economic crisis are also still with us and have also contributed to a more financial constrained consumer. In order to survive and thrive in such a turbulent environment, organizations must have the capacity to learn that is equal to or greater that the rate of change in their relevant context (Reg Revan). If the internal variety of an organisation is not able to match or exceed the variety on the outside, the Organisation will not be able to survive.

The big question then for us is whether our human and talent development  processes are adapting this changing world and its complex demands on leaders. I have a few observations in this respect. My experience is that the current efforts to manage costs have seen more and more organizations cutting back on their spend on talent development. Even more serious is the realization that many of the training and development processes are managed at lower levels of the organisation by people who do not understand the complex nature of top leadership functions. When organizations are in financially constrained times, they should be more intentional in spending time and resources for learning especially at the high levels of the firm.  We should be doing the exact opposite of what is currently happening. We should be increasing our spend in strategic learning and development. Training has the purpose of reducing complexity to enable a lower system to cope. Learning on the other hand is about increasing the internal capacity to match or exceed external capacity.

So given where your organisation is currently, how much of your spend is towards learning at the higher levels in comparison to your spend on training? What amount of time is your board and top executive spending in learning as opposed to fire fighting and crisis management? Maybe it’s time to take the foot off the accelerator pedal and possibly even engage the reverse gear to enable the slowing down necessary for reflective learning. It has been well documented that the more frantic we become in times of complex situations, the deeper the ruts we dig for ourselves and others. While visiting a well known large corporate in South Africa that is undergoing major change, the cry from the middle and senior managers was that their EXCO and CEO were not providing the necessary presence to calm the anxiety during the very complex change process. The top leadership were said to be holed up in bunker rooms frantically trying to strategize. In my view, their well meaning efforts are like  arranging chairs on the deck of the titanic. Being visible on the deck and also allowing for reflective conversations could lead to creative and innovative solutions that would improve the viability of the organisation. Sadly as it were now, it’s a mad rush for the lifeboats, everyone for themselves.
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