Today, leaders are being asked to make unfathomable choices in an unstable environment.
At Sounding Board, the leaders we coach have had the benefit of massive amounts of practice. Because they are constantly dealing with change – acquisitions, bankruptcy, layoffs, massive hiring, downsizing, changing strategic direction, IPOs – these leaders have had to lean into change management skills to mitigate the ever-shifting impact on staff and outcomes. To the leaders of the companies we coach, while the new global pandemic adds intensity and a brand new unknown, this is the kind of change management they have been honing their skills for all along.
As a leader, you have probably been facing challenges that tested your leadership skills for years. Letting staff members go, rearranging budgets, making hard choices, holding firm to an unpopular view, managing stress amidst urgency… sound familiar? You are a seasoned leader, I imagine you have had lots of opportunities to lay this critical foundation.
But many leaders have been avoiding cultivating and practicing key leadership skills. When given a choice, they choose other urgent tasks instead of using their time to develop trust with employees and colleagues, think strategically and proactively about business challenges, provide clear direction, correct communications issues, invest in self-management, or tackle a long-overdue courageous conversation about behavior or performance.
With legions working from home and a new urgency developing to deliver business outcomes amid unstable conditions, now is the moment where leaders are made – for real – by doing everything you should have been doing as a leader all along.
Ben Horowitz in his 2011 book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” illuminates how hard it is to become a wartime leader if you haven’t been upleveling your leadership skills in peacetime: “In peacetime, leaders must maximize and broaden the current opportunity. As a result, peacetime leaders employ techniques to encourage broad-based creativity and contribution across a diverse set of possible objectives. In wartime, by contrast, the company typically has a single bullet in the chamber and must, at all costs, hit the target. The company’s survival in wartime depends upon strict adherence and alignment to the mission.”
In today’s environment, we are all being asked to step up to be wartime leaders– to hit that target dead-on. Yet, how do you inspire and motivate employees if you haven’t been cultivating those relationships all along? How do you get employees to “walk through walls” to make things happen now when you haven’t created the trust needed for employees to go all in. How do you even know what the “one bullet in your chamber” is unless you have been considering the future of your business strategically already?
The work of leaders in peacetime is to be as prepared as possible for wartime, not just their business but themselves. Leaders participating in Sounding Board coaching have been doing that and are now ready to shine in this time of crisis.
But if you are not one of these lucky and proactive leaders, don’t worry. Coaching is the secret weapon that can quickly elevate your leadership and help you get smart about change. Coaching provides a thought partner, trusted confidant, and accountability reminder, and a shock absorber when it comes to making hard decisions and navigating a crisis. Coaching helps leaders decide how to manage themselves and their teams through stress, be strategic in the face of a crisis, and get clear and intentional about communication. Coaching brings curiosity to the table, not fear, helping shed light, and a new perspective on what’s available in any situation.
For example, take two leaders I know. One leader, pre-pandemic, had been saying she wanted to work on some communication issues on her team but she never found the time to make it happen. Suddenly, with a new virtual work-life she finds herself unable to set boundaries with and keep her team motivated and is failing to keep the business running at full steam. On the other hand, a second leader has been patiently and persistently working on trust with her team even when day-to-day struggles hit her unit, incrementally shifting her mindset so she can better empower her team to do the problem-solving. While there are ups and downs, she is finding herself energized by our current moment and her team is ready and willing to meet the challenge head-on.
Both approaches are understandable, but only one will result in a thriving, successful environment to deliver business outcomes and adapt to today’s new normal. For these leaders, crisis creates opportunity, and the more adaptive, responsive and agile the leader can be at mastering leadership skills, the more successful they will be at moving quickly through any challenge.
If you’re finding yourself less than adaptive in this moment, my encouragement to you is to go back to basics. Take a look at the things you should have been doing all along, the hard tasks that you know you need to tackle, and decide the moment is now. You will find that the resistance can be an indicator of where you need to practice, sharpen, and engage skills that will make you a better leader, whatever the circumstances to come. And use a coach to help you quickly level up your wartime leaders skills faster than you can do on your own. You may just find yourself as excited and prepared for a cycle of massive change as you are for the profitable times that hopefully lie beyond it.