Adaptive leadership is not a new concept, but as a strategy for business growth and success, it has become more valuable than ever. The pandemic has stretched the limits of business and accelerated the need for resilient and rapid responses to an ever-changing environment. Navigating uncertainty cannot be improvised alone and sound decision making should not be reactive. Good leaders must develop an organizational culture that embraces the potential brought by uncertainty and channels it positively.
Cambridge Leadership Associates, which grew out of the work of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, defines adaptive leadership as “[a] practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments.” Four generally accepted characteristics of adaptive leadership are “emotional development, organizational justice, development and character.” Helpful touchstones, yes, but as a practical matter, what does it take to successfully implement adaptive leadership within an organization and why does it matter?
Start by creating a culture
The term “adaptive leadership” is actually pretty misleading. Adopting adaptive leadership is not simply a matter of a CEO waking up one morning and deciding that, from now on, he/she is going to be an adaptive leader. In many ways, adaptive leadership is really more about the organization than its leader. To succeed, adaptive “leadership” must become part of the fabric of a company’s culture. It will take time and repetition for team members accustomed to traditional management styles and structures to truly embrace this new collaborative, flexible, fast-paced - and sometimes downright risky - way of addressing change in the workplace. This is why the demand for soft skills, such as communication, collaborative problem solving, creative thinking, and the ability to learn new things quickly has consistently become the biggest needs for employers. A leader that tries to implement an adaptive culture must have team members that have the skills necessary to implement that type of culture successfully.
Support your employees’ creativity
Rapid innovation usually requires risk taking, which means an adaptive leader needs to create an environment where responsible risk taking is encouraged. With this in mind, adaptive leaders recognize the importance of emotional intelligence - that is, being aware of and managing both their own and others’ emotional needs. Employees are humans and need to feel valued - and not just so they can be happy and enjoy coming to work. By recognizing the psychological needs of their teams, leaders build their trust. The best leaders show humility, compassion and vulnerability, creating a safe environment where employees can be authentic and take risks. This is fundamental to encouraging the type of rapid innovation that turns challenges into opportunities.
Always be learning
No one person can come up with the solution to every problem. Good leaders know this and they are always willing to learn - including from their teams - and they encourage a culture of learning throughout the organization. So, rather than determinedly moving forward with their preferred solution to a problem, adaptive leaders will embrace diverse viewpoints, taking the time to listen to what is important to their teams, even when they disagree with them. The goal is to make an informed decision - even if ultimately that decision is not changed by what they have heard. Adaptive leaders will find the end result a better decision -- and they will have likely learned something along the way.
This also means a willingness to take risks and make mistakes, including abandoning strategies that do not work. Promoting this mindset within the organization can take some time and is another reason why it is so important to recognize that adaptive is a culture, not simply a leadership style. For example, team members may struggle when a decision is made to abandon a certain project or course of action in which they have devoted significant time and energy. Good leaders will stay one step ahead of this by keeping communication about goals and timelines transparent, minimizing frustration and disappointment.
What matters most
Having well-defined organizational values and tenets will help create a common sense of purpose throughout a company. When leaders and their teams are faced with rapid-fire decision making, it is essential to have a solid frame of reference for how to prioritize and respond. Furthermore, this shared value system will encourage team members to exercise the agency adaptive leaders are trying to invest in them by suggesting solutions and making decisions more confidently.
When the pandemic hit, market uncertainties increased exponentially. The main verticals we serve - education publishing, certification, higher ed, and corporate training - were all being disrupted. The day-to-day that our customers were experiencing was often changing rapidly, so it was clear that there was only one way for us to best serve our customers: adopt an agile, adaptive mindset. We started with how we supported our employees. Here are some steps we took at GT to achieve this:
- We made sure all of our employees were working in the right conditions. You only see the tip of the iceberg in a Zoom call and it’s important not to assume anything. With the loss of traditional brainstorming spaces like the conference room, espresso maker, and water cooler, we needed to be sure everyone had the right software and hardware to collaborate and communicate effectively in real time. We also had to establish clear protocols for which communication channels our team would use and for what purpose, clarifying use of tools like Slack, for example.
- We established and communicated transparent organizational goals to our employees - including the ability and willingness to execute rapid change in the face of new challenges.
- We changed the way we communicated with clients from reactive to proactive. In order to stay out in front of the changes bombarding everyone, every day, we reached out to our clients, establishing regular strategic meetings with them to ensure we could anticipate their needs in time to address them successfully.
- We expanded individual roles and responsibilities to maximize team members’ skills and invest them with the confidence and authority necessary to make quick decisions.
Culture and mindset changes don't happen overnight. The process of shifting to adaptive leadership at GT took time, repetition, and adjustment - and we are still tweaking it. But, despite the pandemic, adopting this “recipe” in 2020 helped us reach a new level of operational efficiency and collaboration, with more “home-grown” leaders and a unique product in the market.
Companies that adopt an adaptive mentality will leverage the human capital within their organizations to meet - and exceed - the demands of not only today’s marketplace, but tomorrow’s. And it’s likely the corporate culture changes this requires will not only result in a more agile organization that is set up to thrive in the face of change, but happier, more fulfilled team members too.