Surviving & succeeding in times of continuous chaos

Is one waiting for things to get back to normal? Sorry, it may be more useful to gear up one’s leadership for continuous change and recurrent upheavals.

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When I woke up to the news of battle lines being drawn between two of the world’s richest men over India’s lucrative retail market, I couldn’t help but wonder what this may mean for the people who are part of the companies they are fighting over and for the leaders of those organisations. One day, there is news that a billionaire retail giant is selling part of his business to a conglomerate owned by another billionaire giant. When all seems done, a third global billionaire giant steps in to challenge that and then all the billionaires end up working it all out in courts. It is all in the public domain. Amidst this uncertainty, leaders within these entities must keep things running and hold on to their performers. Teams need to keep delivering the results they promised. Such scenarios are no longer uncommon. The sources of uncertainty in the average person’s life have multiplied manifold.

Is one waiting for things to get back to normal? Sorry, it may be more useful to gear up one’s leadership for continuous change and recurrent upheavals.

Having coached hundreds of leaders and top teams through uncertainty, change and even through exponential growth and the ensuing chaos, I have learnt that it’s important to embrace the unpredictability and focus on building ‘next practices’ for the future.

The powerful approaches described below have helped leaders preserve their core while maximising the opportunities presented by an environment of urgency, unpredictability and uncertainty.

• Generative vs extrapolative future focus

Human beings, like many animals, naturally use past experiences to imagine or anticipate the future. Humans also possess the rare ability to imagine and envision a future we have not experienced before. It is important as a leader to help people notice what is different this time. An honest assessment of current environment and future-focused, goal-directed action is what keeps the best teams going. Help your teams transcend the boundaries of extrapolative thinking and provoke creative and generative thinking to craft successful futures during unfamiliar and unpredictable times. Create and sustain the right energies by encouraging your team to accept the constraints and generate ideas, practices, plans and future outcomes.

• Fostering adaptiveness

Important lessons on managing through a crisis presented themselves in a much-delayed recent conversation with a friend from the army posted in a disturbed zone with no clue on when things may change.

“What keeps you hopeful?” I had asked him. He answered “I can keep going because I believe I am going to make it to the other side of this. I am not telling myself this will be over soon or that it will be easy. When I say that, I fool myself and eventually break down. I tell myself it will be dark, it will be difficult, but I must focus on planning how I come out at the end. I have to accept the uncertainty in my life here to make sure I can trust myself to overcome it.”

It is important for a leader to balance the urge and pressure to feign certainty in the face of collective anxiety. Acknowledging the tough parts and being comfortable not having all the answers helps leaders seem more human and engage in the right conversations. Focus instead on adapting. Proactively dialogue with your team on your existing plans — what needs to be conserved, what needs to be eliminated and what needs to be re-invented to prepare for the future. Invite team members to experiment with new ways of doing things.

• Cultivating shared leadership

A leadership style that distributes leadership responsibility in a way that leaders within a team and organisation lead each other significantly enhances the collective ownership that is essential during turbulent times. Maximise the talents of all your extended leadership team by empowering them to take leadership roles in their areas of expertise.

• Embracing volatility as an opportunity to drive desired change

The new way of working involves striking a delicate balance, which creates just enough dissatisfaction to inspire change. At the same time, it does not create an environment filled with so much unfamiliarity or ambiguity as to provoke fear and demoralise your people. Dissatisfaction with status quo offers leaders a rare opportunity to confront allegiance to existing norms that no longer serve the organisation.

Change is not easy, and it is especially difficult to motivate people to change when they are comfortable with the existing situation. An existential threat can provide the stimulus to drive desired change with effective change leadership at the helm.

Does this sound like something that is easier said than done? Over more than a decade, we have successfully helped leaders across industries use these approaches to create success.

The process usually begins with expanding leaders’ awareness of their own mental models and enhancing their ability to influence and shift mental frameworks in themselves and others.

One of the more powerful tools in this process is coaching, both as a direct intervention and as an approach to leadership

Effective coaching enables the identification and shifting of worldviews. It enables sense-making (Karl Weick) – the process of “structuring the unknown” (Waterman, 1990) by “placing stimuli into some kind of framework” that enables us “to comprehend, understand, explain, attribute and predict” (Starbuck & Milliken, 1988).

These elements are essential for us to accept new experiences and take new actions.

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires people to maximise their personal and professional potential”.

This simple definition encompasses one of the most powerful approaches to creating futures. The focus is on “partnering”, on “provoking thought”, on creation and on maximisation of potential. This description of coaching invites an innate belief in the potential that lies within each individual and encourages a generative future focus.

The coaching competencies defined by ICF encourage exploration, connecting as an observer, evocative questioning and more. Exactly what we needed for people to reframe their perspectives, strengthen new learning and adopt a generative approach.

In my experience, coaching as a tool and as an approach has contributed significantly to helping leaders successfully sail through turbulent, transformative or uncertain times. Adaptiveness, future-focus and shared leadership help leaders protect the fundamentals while they pivot to exploit new opportunities.

In 2020, the International Coaching Federation (ICF) celebrates 25 years as a global organisation for coaches and coaching. Dedicated to advancing the coaching profession by setting high ethical standards, ICF provides independent certification and builds a worldwide network of credentialed coaches across a variety of coaching disciplines. Its 41,000-plus members located in 147 countries and territories work towards the common goal of enhancing awareness of coaching, upholding the integrity of the profession, and continually educating themselves on the newest research and practices.

In India, ICF is represented by five vibrant chapters, all led by volunteers — ICF Bengaluru, ICF Chennai, ICF Delhi, ICF Mumbai and ICF Pune.

Shweta Handa Gupta, the author, is an ICF Master Certified Coach (MCC), affiliated to the ICF Delhi chapter, with 20+ years of experience including a change specialist role in a Fortune50 organisation and as CEO of a small business group. She has received numerous global honours, including CEO Coach of the Year and the ICF Young Leader awards. Gupta works with CEOs and boards to measurably enhance strategic output and bottom-line impact of top leadership teams. She helps ambitious leaders significantly accelerate their professional success and is the co-founder and leader of QuadraBrain® Transformation Solutions, which specialises in ‘making complex change simple’!