How infectious is your leadership practice?
A tale of how to change through listening and adapting….and how not to.
This calendar year in this spotlight series, we’ve so-far covered off leading with humanity as well as inclusive and sustainable leadership from our top ten Future Fit Leadership traits shortlist.
The first two certainly resonate with the more people-centric sentiments that emerged from the lockdown period, a rare time, when people were forced to work remotely and it’s fair to say, generally missed the subtleties of in-person contact in all social settings, including work. It’s also fair to say that some of the novelty associated with that unique epoch in the leadership cannon has not lingered as long as many predicted. The ingrained reflex to push and pull people back to the commute and the 9-5 office ritual has proven powerful and we’ve certainly seen a strong compulsion to return to “business as usual”, whatever that may mean. Sadly, this has often resulted in plummeting engagement rates, culture development challenges and leadership coaching needs across sectors. There are exceptions, of course.
It’s been a busy quarter. Leaders have had a lot to cope with in this volatile socio-economic matrix. With five generations working together, the solutions to daily dilemmas aren’t always straightforward and are testing leadership lore.
Time’s precious, so we’re combining two themes into one blog this month. This time we unpack what influencing; listening, understanding and adapting looks like as future fit leadership practice. Because it’s important.
Influence is becoming an increasingly potent leadership skill as the mix of stakeholders that leaders have to manage expands at the pace of the growth of communication challenges and the demands of innovative thinking.
When it comes to managing change, the semantics are dominated by terms like: nudge; evolve; agile; cascade and waterfall. They, all emphasise incremental change at scale. So it’s no surprise (and pretty ironic) that the parlance of post-pandemic change includes the term viral to describe its subtle pervasiveness.
Come to think of it, the root of the word influence is similar to the origins of the most infamous virus: influenza, originally coined to describe the virus as “the influence of the stars” as a way of describing the way the illness spread through the air in an unenlightened age.
Well-intentioned influencing skills clearly aren’t malevolent…always. But the term aptly describes the associated traits. Influence is the antithesis of hierarchical power or control. It’s a far more subtle art suited to these psychological safety-obsessed, inclusion and wellbeing-conscious days.
In Brand Engagement, Ian describes effective communication as “a message transmitted from one person to another in such a way that it results in the action intended”. It’s a simple definition but note the viral nature and the fact that it is neatly both channel and mode neutral. This description implies that a number of qualities need to be present on both the transmitting and receiving side of the equation in order for the messaging to be successful, including willingness to engage and listening for understanding rather than listening in order to respond.
Future Fit Leaders always have an eye on the horizon. But they are constantly attuned to the needs, feelings, and sentiments of their colleagues as they not only need feedback on their strategy and plan, but need their creative input and contributions to the processes that will ensure that they meet their collective goals and milestones. In short, they listen much more than they speak. Think about the great leaders you’ve worked with. I bet this infectious and compelling style was a defining characteristic, however charismatic they were, especially when they shifted to high promoting and motivating mode, as all leaders have to at some point.
To illustrate the importance of influencing skills, here are two extended and very practical examples, from the same sector. They both stem from predominantly passive aggressive cultures. But they highlight two very different responses to the same overwhelming external stimulus and bring the blessing of lessons aplenty.
Organisation A: deliberately shadowed the government’s response to the global pandemic, doing the bare minimum in advance of lockdown (and hoping to avoid it0. However, we were advising their leaders on communication and engagement at the time. So, ignoring out-moded policy, with the support of a handful of forward-looking leaders behind the scenes who were convinced by our business case, we created a preparatory shadow crisis communications strategy in the first two weeks of the emerging problem.
We then worked with the first line managers and divided the colleague population into two “crews”:
- most “at risk” who were asked to setup and work from home immediately
- their counterparts who were prepared to “hold the fort” at the office.
Despite the reactive response of a few key members of the senior leadership team, this approach ensured that the organisation both complied with the official line and prepared a deeper, more avant-garde approach for when the crisis erupted.
It ultimately served them well. It was subtle and viral in nature, a regular, dependable rhythm during unpredictable days. It was, short and sharp. Communication drops and engagement sessions set out “what if” scenarios and were hungry for questions. There were a few internal complaints and grumblings about doing more than expected, but they soon tapered off when the true scale of the collective challenge became clear.
Unfortunately, the reactionary approach of the senior leadership team wasn’t just confined to the original approach to strategy. Before the engagement axis could influence them, several key players ran for the hills during the onset of the pandemic, one notably opting to strand themselves abroad during the most important initial phase of the crisis. This undoubtedly increased the intense burden on the communications, HR and IT functions. Interestingly all were led by interim and temporary senior executives at the time, all familiar with the true nature of change and willing to hold the line.
Fortunately, the proactive strategy included a range of variable scenarios and prioritised listening and engagement above “push” communication. This mechanism ensured that line managers at all levels were not only fully briefed and coordinated, regardless of cynicism and fear, but were also able to feed-back best practices and act as an emotional barometer during the most challenging of times.
As a result, it soon became very clear who the true leaders were. Many emerged at middle manager level and it will come as little surprise that, despite navigating the pandemic well, the organisation continues to wrestle with their internal culture and a “back to the future” compulsion now that the interim Execs have left.
Following a steady slew of Glassdoor negativity, they recently appointed another director to head the change process that started five years ago. Sadly, in this case, the positive influence ran its course and business as usual eventually retained control. Unfortunately their corporate reputation continues to suffer as a result with a dire net-promoter score and lots of negative examples.
Now, for the flipside.
When we called time on the aforementioned partnership after seeing the client safely through the eye of the crisis, we answered the call from an influential part of a major healthcare provider who were understandably struggling under the relentless pressure. Once again, we focused on expanding their communication and engagement strategy to encompass all priority stakeholders. But this time we started with the board and senior leaders and insisted on collective responsibility; engagement and commitment. Leveraging and flipping some pretty dire feedback, we were able to re-create the focus and energy of the pre-pandemic period, engineering a sense of unity, compulsion and inspiration to see them safely and effectively through the final stages and into the future. We created a sense of certainty and hope by looking far beyond the darkness and we consulted and involved as many people as we could.
Bridging communication to organisation development and change, we convinced the leaders to role-model people-centred practice, embracing their key influential roles despite being confined to the online environment. The format brought opportunities for vulnerability and authenticity and we made the most of it. That meant facing up to tough news, consulting with colleagues relentlessly; doing twice as much listening as talking and forever focusing one step up on the engagement channel matrix. So instead of calling they held face to face sessions and despite the depth of feeling they always focused on the positives. Coaching the top team, we created a communications calendar based on appreciative principles, viral change, subtle influencing and sharing best practices rather than dwelling on critique, problems and issues. And it worked.
Within a quarter, stakeholder engagement statistics had started to climb out of their nose-dive. On the back of the example set by the leaders, podcasts and listening groups leadership roles were quickly filled and secondment places were in demand. This helped foster a sense of community and joint-problem-solving, and even the recruitment of three new senior leaders was embraced as an opportunity rather than a loss to the transformation drive. Each spent their first 100 days consulting widely, listening to gain influence and then implementing strategies clearly related to what they had gleaned rather than taking a “new broom” approach. Honouring the past while learning from it to create a compelling and evolved future became a catch phrase that helped the senior leaders pivot to face the future with confidence.
They have just sailed through a tricky audit, secured their future funding, and have since been shortlisted for several industry and Marcomms awards for their engagement and campaign work. This is all testimony to the enlightened approach of all concerned, especially stars like the Chairman and CEO and their conviction to adopt the subtle arts rather than mass broadcasts and constant cascades.
Regardless of whether you’re reading this as a client, partner, or part of our wider community of practice, you probably recognise parts of both these scenarios from your current leadership frame of reference. Hopefully you haven’t witnessed too many examples of “phantom leadership”, but sadly, I suspect, the “back to the future” approach to presenteeism most likely rings too true too often. You can and should influence and reinvent this narrative.
The reason why we have decided to sponsor the annual Mosaic Future Fit Leadership review and resulting academy is partly to track the evolution of leadership thinking during this time of relentless pressure, in an attempt to promote more future fit leadership behaviour. But it’s also our aim to identify and share emerging best practices that we then fold into our coaching and leadership development practice. As consultants and coaches we practice what we preach.
Do drop us a line if you want to know more.