Change Leadership – How to Navigate the Best Way Forward When There is No Clear Path
Listening to clients, following the media and reading LinkedIn Posts, I’m noticing many phrases describing both our present and post COVID-19 reality:
- When things go ‘back to normal’…
- The ‘new normal’…
- The ‘road to recovery’…
But the truth is, nobody knows what any of this will be like and regardless, we will all be changed one way or another, by the impact of this pandemic.
Perhaps the most real (though heavily overused), phrase is that ‘These are unprecedented times.’ Unprecedented because there is nothing we can compare this with and hence there is no recipe, formula or proven guidebook to help us.
What’s more, the uncertainty of what lies ahead makes it difficult to anticipate and plan for what’s basically an unknown future.
Change Leadership has taken on a whole new level of challenge as leaders everywhere deal with shifting sands (what was certain yesterday can change to vague overnight), family stressors, heightened anxiety and falling productivity.
To make matters worse, where we used to be able to rely on BAU (Business As Usual) to maintain stability and the status quo, it too has had to change.
COVID-19: So What…? and Then What…?
Navigating change is tricky enough during ‘stable’ times, so how are leaders supposed to set the direction and communicate the way forward when there is less clarity and certainty than ever before?
5 Quick Change Leadership Tips
The following change leadership tips will help you and your team move from survive to thrive, regardless of what the future holds:
1. Pause, Reflect and Make Sense of What’s Happening
Back in the good old days, this was perceived to be a luxury that no one had time for. Yet it’s a simple thing to do that will make a tangible difference to your business and the mental health and well-being of your team.
Create space for your team to share their experiences and explore what they mean for them. When we’re given the opportunity to ‘Make Sense’ of what’s happening, we can consciously choose the meaning we put on it.
While you can't control your experiences, you can control your explanations.
While we may have zero control over the pandemic and many of its impacts, we do have the opportunity to choose what it means for us.
Depending on how you look at it, this pandemic could be a ‘disruptive disaster’ or a great opportunity to improve what we do and how we live.
Asking your team to simply share ‘what’s most important’ to them will offer fresh insights, alternative meanings and expanded perspectives, enabling those who are feeling ‘stuck’ to explore other possibilities.
2. Rely on Your Compass, Rather Than Your Roadmap
With so many unknowns, many project plans may now be on hold, irrelevant or obsolete. Where we used to have step by step plans and structures to guide us, many of these are now fluid or in ‘let’s wait and see what happens’ mode.
The points on your compass are certain and stable. Focusing on these will keep you and your team on track, no matter how much the landscape changes.
When it feels like your team has gone off track, is lost or floundering, checking in with your compass points will remind everyone of what matters most.
3. Simplify However and Wherever You Can
When people are tired, stressed and overwhelmed (yes, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a thing!), complexity and waffle become the enemy. With the status quo disrupted, our capacity to absorb, understand and do even simple things is diminished.
One leader, who is being applauded for straight speaking right now, is New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo. Using plain language (rather than confusing ‘Poli-speak’), his messages are clear, hopeful and inspiring. In a recent news conference, he shared his desire to 're-imagine' rather than reopen New York after lock-down:
What have we learned, how do we improve and how do we build back better? Because it’s not about return to yesterday. There is no return to yesterday in life.
It’s about moving forward...
The direction here for New Yorkers is clear – they will do what they did before, only better and differently, with the benefit of hindsight.
Work with your team to replace complexity with clarity, simplicity and straight talking.
4. Be Committed to the Outcome, not Wedded to the Task
Back in the good old pre-pandemic days, we humans bowed at the feet of ‘tasks’ as the only way to get things done. But being task focused can be the enemy of efficiency. Many tasks were over-baked and non-value adding.
The end result was that people were always busy and overstretched but things took way longer than was necessary to achieve.
Several of my clients have recently shared that the decades old, entrenched practice of physically walking hard copy documents around to the offices of senior managers to get physical signatures has now, by necessity, changed to document sharing platforms and e-signatures.
Interestingly, it was the most senior people who were the most reluctant to change. They believed the physical document delivery / pen and ink signature task was the only way to keep highly confidential documents secure.
Although the technology to automate this process securely has been around for years, being wedded to the process led to unnecessarily high anxiety when they were forced to change.
Conversely, when their teams shifted their focus to the desired outcome (documents reviewed and approved), they quickly moved to a secure, automated and faster process that could be followed by everyone remotely.
5. Build Your Pivot Muscles
When you look at the species which have evolved successfully over many thousands of years, it is those who have adapted to constantly changing environments that have thrived.
If I’d said to you even 6 months ago, that you and your team would be able to make and adjust to the changes you’ve recently made, as quickly as you did, you’d probably have said, ‘No Way!’.
What this pandemic has taught us is that when we have to change, we do. Restaurants are pivoting to takeaway and delivery. Manufacturers are re-tooling to create face masks and our government has swapped infighting and a budget surplus to bi-partisan financial support.
Being flexible, adaptable and resourceful are the keys to thriving in uncertainty. The ability to pivot on the spot and change direction quickly can be strengthened by:
- Expecting the unexpected – what was true and certain even yesterday can and probably will change overnight. Pursuing plans, knowing there is a high chance they WILL change, will help you stay focused on the bigger picture whilst still getting the priority work done.
- Going with the flow – means letting go of the need for certainty and becoming comfortable with the unknown.
- Controlling what’s within your control and letting go of the rest – trying to control what’s outside your sphere of influence is as stressful and futile as driving blindfolded. Make a list of what IS within your control and put your focus and energy into that.
- Focusing on the What and the Why, leaving the How to Your Team – empowering them to complete the work in whatever way works best for them. With children to home school and family needs to be met during what used to be ‘work hours’ means many of your people are juggling multiple, concurrent priorities.
Only they know what will work for them and if they choose to work in short blocks, send emails late at night or have to stop the dog barking / children fighting during a conference call, cut them some slack.
It may be some time before the unmarked path ahead becomes a grass flattened sheep track, then a dirt road and then a bitumen highway.
We are all laying down new pathways right now and, as long as we keep moving forward, we will emerge stronger and more resourceful than we could have ever imagined.