The future of work, and how leaders navigate our world as things change exponentially around us, is a hot topic. The work world is only going to get more intense so it’s important to think about what the leader of the future is going to look like before that future is already upon us. Which it almost is.
The term ‘VUCA world’ is coming up more and more these days – an old military term meaning volatile, uncertain, complex & ambiguous. People in business have now adopted the term VUCA to discuss the dynamic changing forces governing our work world today. It’s time for leaders to shift their focus from looking backward at tried and true methods that have succeeded in the past, to looking forward to what is coming. It’s time to start developing and practicing new core leadership skills now before the future is upon us.
If you begin reading the many articles about this VUCA world, you’ll quickly see a theme developing. The world is becoming more turbulent faster than most organizations are becoming more resilient. And faster than most leaders are learning to deal with the changes as well.
Individuals and companies need to adapt in new and different ways. We also need to accelerate our pace of learning so that we can keep up with the increasing speed of change around us. It’s important for leaders to continually look ahead to imagine what their companies, employees, and customers are going to expect from them in the future and how it will affect the way they work and lead. When successful leaders and businesses fail it’s usually because they don’t adapt and anticipate in the face of change.
Leadership is most critical when direction and decisions are not clear, especially in these increasingly turbulent times. Here are some skills to develop or hone now to position yourself to better lead in a VUCA world:
The first and maybe most important skill of the 21st Century is the ability to focus in this environment that has so many distractions. And we live in a perfect storm of them. You know what they are – phone calls, emails, social media, your boss, your employees, your customers, your goals, deadlines -not even counting your personal life. How can one expect to get anything done? Your ability to cut through all this to focus on the important but not urgent is key, and it will only become more important in the years to come.
How do you help your teams do the same? Being visible and calm amidst the chaos is a good start. Laying out clear goals and guidelines, simplifying the complex, and minimizing obstacles and ambiguity whenever possible is also key. Take it a step further by providing an environment where it’s ok not to multitask and it’s ok to take a time out to regroup, rest or just think.
Exponential change is difficult for us to grasp because it comes upon us quickly; things shift dramatically. But that change has been coming for a long time, you just couldn’t see it. For example, 3D printing seemed to come from out of nowhere, ready to go. But people had been working on it for 20 or so years before the mainstream population had heard anything about it.
So how can you start to anticipate and look for signals, patterns, or subtle indicators that a big change is coming? What disruption do you need to prepare for? How do you pay attention and better notice what is going on around and in your business? How can you disrupt yourself, your teams and company in small ways to start, so it becomes more comfortable to think that way?
Think of this skill as learning agility as opposed to learning ability. Take something that you’ve learned or experienced in one situation, and apply it somewhere else. Learning agile folks are questioning the status quo, constantly challenging assumptions, constantly experimenting and looking at things from different angles and coming up with new ideas, taking risks, and trying new things. And then they reflect, stepping back to say, “What are my assumptions, what have I done in the past, what can I do differently now?” Embracing change by proactively letting go of the past, how things were done, what used to work.
Emotional Intelligence & Emotional Agility
This critical skill set allows you to be self-aware enough to be able to slow down your thinking when there is a stimulus or trigger, pause and then make a choice in how you react after you have thought about it. It means being agile and active in how you respond to people, instead of always going with your traditional patterned response. Because there is so much uncertainty, volatility and complexity around us, leaders who can deal with the emotional side effects created by this will be highly valuable. It’s all about understanding what other people are experiencing and seeing it from their perspective. Leaders have to listen first. Everyone deals with things differently, so leaders must be able to understand someone’s concerns then be able to help them make sense out of the confusion, surface their fears, reassure, and inspire trust and confidence. Make the complex simple – address rationally but engage emotionally.
Gone are the days when command and control leadership was touted. (Thank heavens). You can get more done working with other people and their input than you could ever do on your own. The world is increasingly interconnected and work more virtual and you need that collaboration from as many sources as possible to stay ahead.
Teams are also more global and skills like adding diversity, cross cultural competency, international acumen and inclusion are valuable and require continuous improvement. How a decision or situation might be viewed in North America might be totally different in Europe or Asia, so communication skills and awareness needs to change, as well as methods of communication.
How do you creatively help your people work better together when they may never meet in real life? And how do you and they build relationships with other employees and customers all over the world? Not with the same mindset you had when everything was local. If a team works well together and trust is high, they can move faster and adapt to change easier which should be your goal. And with four different generations in the workplace still, the ability to build strong teams demands much stronger skill sets, engagement and methods of communication.
How can you understand and adapt technology to make you and your team members’ lives easier rather than more complicated? How can you stay on top of all the emerging technologies rather than hope they will go away? Ray Kurzweil, a famous inventor, has identified three exponential technologies that will define our future – genetics, nanotechnology, robotics & AI.
You may think that these may not affect your business or work any time soon, but will they? An increasing amount of technology is out there right now that can either help your business or disrupt it. Do you know what it is? Many companies allow specific work time for their employees to play around with technology, create ‘idea labs’ or a side project where they can experiment without hurting the core business.
Are you asking your people what they think is coming next? How can you get people to ‘experiment on the edges’ so you get used to operating in a world where you don’t know all the answers, things aren’t perfect and you don’t know what the outcome might be?
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What does all this mean for you and your career? Could this make you a more valuable asset to your company (and help your upward mobility at the same time) if you focused yourself and your teams on leading the charge towards the work skills of the future? In setting the direction and changing things up without being asked to? How do you make yourself uncomfortable so you can learn – how can you challenge the assumptions you have always been operating on and relentlessly and continuously innovate?
The more you expect diversity of thought and stretch yourself and others now, the more you seek out novel and different situations, the easier it is in the long run to handle whatever new, difficult challenges come your way. Do that and then reflect on it to see what worked and what didn’t. It’s really all about disruption – how do you disrupt yourself, without being asked, and get your teams to do the same?