Prepared to Pivot and Swivel: Developing the Skills of Adaptive Leaders

Originally posted on April 19, 2021 on Training Industry's blog.

What better demonstrates the imperative to be an adaptive leader than our experience of 2020? Against the torque of last year’s health, economic, and social crises, we’ve had to pivot and swivel in ways that would shred us if we tried just to stand fast. Absent a North Star to guide us and something to bring a measure of stability, those same forces can spin leaders in unproductive and regrettable ways.

The business case for building adaptive leadership skills is clear. Vantage Partners’ 2020 survey of HR and learning leaders noted that when leaders lack critical soft skills such as communications, joint problem-solving, strategic thinking, and collaboration, the impacts are felt in poor decisions, employee burnout, lack of buy-in and follow-through, and damaged relationships.

The fundamental challenge: How do we go about equipping leaders with what it really takes to help themselves, others, and the business? How do we help them not only do better, but bring their organizations along? For already knowledgeable, successful people to develop the skills of an adaptive, collaborative leader, we must start by helping them make a few key mindset shifts, then connect those different assumptions to specific behaviors they can try on for size, both in a safe “practice” environment and then in real-world application. The experience of exploring those other behaviors helps them test, validate, and finetune those new assumptions—and in the process, improve their own ability to exhibit the new behaviors. Seeing those behaviors then translate to real world value convinces them it’s worth the effort. Finally, to make the new skills really stick, anchor them in some organizational processes. Embedding them in regularized routines provides the necessary ballast to apply them even in the midst of chaos.

Take curiosity. It’s hard to imagine how an uncurious leader can be adaptive or collaborative. If you are experiencing what one of our colleagues refers to as “an attack of certainty,” you can't very well change your stance, look at a problem from a different perspective, or genuinely empathize with someone you are supposed to be leading, supporting, or influencing. But how do you develop curiosity through training? We've tried a few ways, but keep returning to a simple, traditional formula:

  1. Let leaders experience, during the training, the possibility of making an erroneous assumption.
  2. Help them recognize the assumption and reflect on how easily they jumped to that as the right conclusion or course of action.
  3. Give them an opportunity to practice and experience asking questions, listening, and getting really curious about the answers.

There are any variety of ways to catalyze this mindset shift in the classroom. One of our favorites puts participants in groups of three. One person works on their listening skills; a second acts as a foil, taking the opposite view of some “hot topic” that the listener feels strongly about; the third is a coach, empowered to gently nudge the listener if they stray from asking genuinely curious, non-loaded questions. One time, one of us was coaching the supply chain VP of a global mining company while he sat in the listener's chair. After two or three such gentle nudges, he turned around and said, “This is hard, isn't it?”

Whether in a physical or virtual classroom, training provides only a partial answer. For leaders, arguably more so than for others, it can be hard to translate to their day jobs what they try out in that safe space. Showing curiosity instead of certainty—or seeing a failure as a necessary part of any process—is something most leaders will struggle to integrate into their practice without seeing real-world application and value. Part of leaders’ learning journey therefore must include action learning—deploying these skills in pursuit of real, demonstrable value. Then they see for themselves how incorporating new skills into their regular way of getting things done really can help them be more effective.

Action learning follows a pattern of acting, reflecting, and reframing similar to programmatic learning:

  1. Ask leaders to choose a challenging objective that is part of their job, which requires them to do something differently.
  2. Ask them to articulate how they will try out their new skill (e.g., curiosity) in pursuit of that objective.
  3. Create room for them to reflect on what worked or didn't and why—and draw some conclusion about what to try next.

That last step can be challenging with leaders, but one approach we have seen work well is to create small group “learning sets” where each individual takes a few minutes to describe what they tried. Peers ask them questions intended to facilitate the presenter’s own reflection, which they need not answer. The point of the learning set is not accountability, but helping each individual learn from their own experiences and reach their own conclusions about what to try next.

After some iterations of that cycle, to measure progress against their initial challenging objective, ask learners for their honest (if entirely subjective) assessment of how much the new behaviors contributed to what they achieved. With leaders, we also ask them to assess how their behaviors contributed to what others in the organization achieved. After such an experience, it usually takes a lot less to convince leaders that integrating new skills into their repertoires is well worth the effort. With that follows the commitment—of even very successful people—to make changes in themselves.

Finally, embed the technique in organizational tools or processes. Once leaders have recognized the value of the skills, the final step is really building them into “muscle memory” so they become second nature even under stressful conditions. For example, in industries constantly dealing with significant physical risk, such as oil and gas, many companies start every meeting with a “safety minute.” Regularized discussion raises awareness and builds planning for safety into everything they do. One company we work with takes this a step further, turning their safety minute into a “learning about safety” moment, where they review a recent experience (good or bad) and what they learned from it. Their norms for that discussion are that participants may only ask questions to learn, not to prove they already knew better or to take credit or assign blame. This regular practice in being at least a bit curious shows up in other meetings, where occasionally you hear a leader say, before asking a question, “I’m going to treat this like one of our safety moments …”

Categories:

Leadership, Individual Effectiveness