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Taking some key corporate lessons from 2020 into the new year
MANY of my CEO clients whom I coached in 2020 developed new mindsets, behaviours, and identities as they worked hard to overcome the challenges of the global pandemic. Not all of them had the same outcomes though, so I thought it would be good to share some of their actions as they demonstrated the ability to develop new ways of leading as they responded to the impact of Covid-19.
Resetting purpose, vision and culture
This was a great time to get the entire organisation to take fresh perspective about the Why, How and What of the organisation. Remembering why the organisation exists and how every member was able to derive meaning and fulfilment from the day-to-day tasks they performed was essential to inspire and motivate people to perform. Realigning everyone to the long-term vision, in terms of what they were aiming to achieve over the next five years, established a clear definition of success.
Over time, organisations tend to slide into people behaviours that are not quite compatible with the goals they are trying to achieve. Many bad habits creep in, so revisiting the way things get done and discuss the underlying beliefs, symbols, and systems of the organisation recreates the culture that will allow the effective implementation of strategy.
Curating and composting
Difficult times sap our energy, and we need to find new ways to channel it effectively. The key questions to ask is 'where am I spending my energy? How do I experience myself? Am I stuck in old ways of doing things with an old mindset and beliefs that are no longer valid in today's times?"
Thriving now requires a great deal of de-cluttering of our lives. We tend to accumulate a lot of ideas and feelings over time that are no longer useful to us and hence must be curated. What is the essence of what I am trying to do now? What do I aspire for and hence how should I see myself and the world? The answers to these questions will result in making the necessary pivots for change to successfully navigate the rapids in which we find ourselves.
Composting is the process of dumping the things that no longer represent any value for us at this point of time. It is like the banana peel that protected the fruit, but once the fruit has been eaten it needs to be composted. These are the thoughts and feelings that need to be rid of, that are no longer relevant and have no place in our lives. They are no longer our defining behaviours.
Exploring and experimenting
The mindset of many CEOs has seen a big shift from one of seeking explanations, to be willing to explore and experiment themselves, and allow their teams to do so as well. They have de-risked the personal consequences of experiments that could go wrong. They have acknowledged attempts at doing things in new ways and also reminded people that most experiments could indeed fail.
One of the greatest benefits of working virtually has been the inadvertent killing of bureaucracy. Meetings start on time and end on time. People read what they need to and are no longer restricted to black-and-white thinking. The usual conflicting beliefs between the conservative rule followers and the creative lateral thinking types do not spiral into holy wars. Somehow a balance seems to have been achieved with more time and effort being allocated to exploration of new possibilities rather than just surrendering to the inevitable.
Dealing with polarities
One of the best outcomes of dealing with the pandemic has been the lessons learnt about dealing with polarities. Many countries have struggled with the choice of either ordering a lockdown to protect the health of the population or destroying the well-being of the economy. It has been a question of either-or and yet several countries have demonstrated the capacity of reconciliation to find a middle path that is able to manage both options effectively.
There are many trade-offs that corporates had to deal with. Sack employees or suffer losses. Make long term or short-term decisions. Drive growth or profitability. Risk taking or prudence, market share or margins, freedom or control, speed or diligence, flexibility or scale... CEOs and their leadership teams found ways of dealing with these apparent conflicts creating a third way that was able to manage both aspects in the best interest of the organisation. This nuanced response, coming from an enlightened mind, was able to find a better fit with the external reality and convert it to competitive advantage.
Selflessness and compassion
Many leaders found a way to express their humanity by putting human beings, not structures and processes at the centre of their organisations. They were able to show compassion by focusing on individuals and demonstrating the capacity to rethink their core assumptions about control and how it needed to be based on the concept of "servant leadership".
They were able to combine their compassion with wisdom to lead with benevolence, addressing all possible issues that created a climate of fear. Combining their selfless nature with confidence, helped them become enablers who could inspire and motivate their people to take ownership and do what they thought was in the best interest of the organisation.
One of the by-products of being coached is that CEOs begin to implement a coaching approach to having conversations with their teams. Such conversations have little to do with ongoing day-to-day related work issues but is focused on the enhancement of learning and development through increased self-awareness and evolution of the mind.
At the core of this process is the trusted relationship that the leader had developed with the individual and is able to take them on a journey of discovery. The realisation is that they are creating the future as they explore together, and the future will unfold in part because of the exploration. If the leader wishes to take the organisation to the next level, they need to have conversations with their teams, conversations never had before. In fact, the very language they speak begins to change as they work together looking at the world through a different lens, learning to make meaning of things in a whole new way.
Uncertainty as certainty
Leadership is a journey of constant development and self-change. The way the world increases in complexity, it is impossible for CEOs to have answers to all the questions asked of them. What they have learnt is that they need to be comfortable with this realisation and convert it to competitive advantage. It is impossible to prepare for all eventualities, and the best they can do is to be present and centred to what is emerging in the moment and deal with it in the best possible manner.
In the words of Carl Jung: "All the greatest and most important problems in life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They can never be solved but only outgrown. This outgrowing proves on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the horizon and through the broadening of our outlook, the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge."
- The writer is the founder and chairman of Singapore-based Thought Perfect Pte Ltd.