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Leadership development: Coping with change

When you are scanning interesting job adverts, have a look at how many ask whether you are the type of person who can handle stress, thrives on deadlines and high-pressure situations. In recent management jargon, employers are asking for someone who can cope in a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) world. And there are a myriad of candidates who put their hands up and say, 'I can'. Even for very capable managers, this can end in trauma.

Not many people can cope with relentless change. It takes a special kind of resilience to navigate the change management process. It takes people experienced with high levels of complexity and ambiguity, and it takes a supportive team environment, with excellent managers.

The thing is: in many contexts rapid change is the norm. This means that for succession planning, organisations must place emphasis on a pipeline of resilient leaders who can adapt to relentless external and internal change. For the incumbent leader there are two concerns: 1. That they can be effective as a leader – a non-trivial requirement since choices are often not obvious and decisions difficult to make and justify to direct reports or staff in general; and 2. That they can personally cope - that they have the emotional resilience to remain even-tempered and physically healthy when their decisions may be keeping them up at night. These leaders are often making choices between irreconcilable alternatives, they may be second-guessed by colleagues with their own agendas, and they may at times be quite isolated. For the business, the recruitment, induction, performance management and ongoing support of leaders through a pipeline and into these critical roles is clearly crucial.

At USB-ED, we focus on reflective practice for leadership roles and the development of leaders. This starts by helping leaders to raise their awareness of their own actions: to reflect on what they do, how they plan and react. Since familiarity with a given scenario is a coping mechanism, we may simulate stressful situations or tough moral and operational choices, and then help leaders to familiarise themselves with options and approaches they might deploy. This way, we accelerate their experience and the creation of a continuous internal feedback loop. We hold up a mirror to highlight the attributes they need to master. In organisations with demanding change agendas, we help incumbents recognise the difference between being a manager and being a leader. We also point out the need to shift from a transactional to a transformational leadership style.

The difference? Transactional leaders use hierarchies, delegations of authority, employment contracts, rules, policies, discipline and the bonus system to keep normal staff ‘in line’. The concern is ‘the now’, rather than looking ahead. Transformational leaders focus on cross-functional collaboration and team-building to achieve an overarching strategy that all stakeholders contribute to creating. It’s very much a goal-framing approach, focused on people development. They are custodians of critical processes such as maintenance of a winning culture, regular high-quality communications and providing a clear focus. It’s the approach that leaders need to adopt to enable their teams to manage change and thrive in a VUCA world.

Here is one way that transformational leaders manage change:

Leading Strategic Change

Using John Kotter’s approach: Dr. Kotter’s eight-step change management process took decades to develop, following years of study of leaders and organisations as they attempted to transform their strategies. The eight steps finally emerged as :

    1. Create a sense of urgency: Communicate the importance of action in catalysing change
    2. Build a guiding coalition: Create a coalition of willing and effective people to coordinate and communicate the change
    3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives: Where possible, what does the future look like and what initiatives are linked to this?
    4. Enlist a volunteer army: Rally people around a common opportunity to drive change
    5. Remove barriers to enable action: Take away inefficient processes and hierarchies to allow silos to impactfully collaborate
    6. Generate short-term wins: Recognise and communicate wins to track progress and encourage persistence
    7. Sustain acceleration: Use your credibility and momentum from the first success to keep initiating change after change
    8. Institute change: Show the connection between new behaviours and organisational success to entrench these as replacements to old habits

Leading in a Learning Organisation

What is a learning organisation? A learning organisation is one that naturally assimilates rapid and/or regular change in the market and still prevails. An organisation that adapts quickly and realigns customer value propositions to remain relevant in their markets.

Sadly, many leaders claim to have created a learning organisation but their performance does not support their claim. This is usually because leadership measures this approach in terms of ‘training spend’! High levels of training spend may well correlate to higher levels of performance in the market, but this is more likely to a market driven outcome and is likely sub-optimal. The real benefits of a learning organisation are achieved when spending on people development is married with learning attained from strategically aligned projects. In other words, transformational leaders have learned to ‘operationalise’ learning. This is a huge opportunity and the approach has so many positive spin-off benefits that it should really be a very high priority in change contexts.

USB-ED leadership programmes thus shine a light on change leadership at the individual and the organisational level. Transformational leaders are resilient, are custodians of the change process and understand the change context. They detect patterns and trends and can shape and operationalise a true learning organisation.


Dr. Chris van der Hoven, CEO of USB Executive Development (Pty) Ltd, has a BSc from the University of Cape Town, MBA from Cranfield School of Management and a PhD from Cambridge University. He entered academia in his late 30’s after moving to the UK, following a prior career with Group 5 and Eskom in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. His academic field is Strategy and Innovation Management and he has wide-ranging international experience having worked with top teams on leadership and transformation in the field of Customised Executive Education in more than 40 different countries.

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