Although it may be true that we can’t “step into the same river twice,” as Heraclitis said, once we step in, we are part of that river’s flow. Since birth, we have been swept up in a raging, constantly changing never-ending flow of experience. Sometimes we love the flow of life, sometimes we hate it and resist it. But because the flow of the river is constant, we have no choice in the matter. We have to change. It is part of the price of admission to life. Every moment our cells are changing; our thoughts are changing; our emotions are changing; our relationships, our marketplace, our finances. Change is endless and relentless.
We have no choice in the matter except for one aspect—accelerating our growth through change by adapting and learning. Most leadership research illustrates that as we go up the executive ladder, we need to become increasingly comfortable with uncertainty and sudden change. As leaders, we have to have the “integrative ability” to weave together and make sense of apparently disjoined pieces, crafting novel and innovative solutions. At the same time, we need to have the self-confidence to make decisions on the spot, even in the absence of compelling, complete data. The qualities needed at the top—courage, openness, authentic listening, adaptability—also indicate that leaders need to be comfortable with and able to embrace the “grayness” that comes from multiple points of view coming at us at once. In other words, we have to master our adaptability mentally, emotionally, strategically, and interpersonally.
Dr. Daniel Vasella, Chairman and CEO of Novartis for 17 years, named “the most influential European business lead of the last 25 years” in a poll of Financial Times readers, and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, told the graduate at Mumbai’s Indian School of Business, “Be comfortable with seemingly contradictory situations, feelings, and actions. You will of course encounter many people who cannot deal with ambiguity, people who always want simplicity and clarity. So, you as leaders will have to create the clear direction for them.”
Based on a multi-year study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), the number one issue facing senior leadership is “Dealing with Complex Challenges.” This finding has many connections to our own research that the number one most important competency in shortest supply today is “Dealing with Ambiguity.” CCL defines complex challenges as problems that:
- Lack a clearly defined solution
- Remain beyond an individual’s or single group’s ability to overcome
- Have significant strategic, cultural, environmental, and marketplace impact
- Create a paradox of reflection and action
- Render traditional solutions ineffective
- Demand flexibility and agility as challenges shift seemingly overnightFive leadership skills are required to navigate complex challenges:
- Collaboration rather than heroics
- Building and mending relationships
- Participative management
- Change management and adaptability
- Risk taking
Learning to be open to the potential learning contained in all change is no small task. Quite often we are dragged “kicking and screaming” to every lesson. As my colleague, Janet Feldman likes to say, “People change more often because they feel the heat than because they see the light.”
Learning Agility is a key to “seeing the light” to accelerate change on-purpose. In fact, research studies by CCL, Mike Lombardo and Bob Eichinger of Korn Ferry/Lominger, Robert Sternberg and his colleagues at Yale University, and Daniel Goleman, all point to Learning Agility as being more predictive of long-term potential than raw IQ. Learning Agility is a complex set of skills that allows us to learn something in one situation and apply it in a completely different situation. It is about gathering patterns from one context and then using those patterns in a completely new context. As Stephen Hawking put it,” Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” Learning Agility is that intelligent ability to make sense and success of something we have never seen or done before. In short, Learning Agility is a change accelerator versus a change manager—the ability to learn, adapt and apply ourselves in constantly changing, first-time conditions.
With the Korn Ferry Assessment of Leadership Potential (KFALP), it is possible to measure Learning Agility across five dimensions: Mental Agility, People Agility, Results Agility, Change Agility, and Self-Awareness. While results vary between different groups, quite often the Core Development needs fall into two areas: People Agility and Change Agility. The core skill needed for People Agility? Listening. The Core Development need in Change Agility? Bringing clarity to ambiguity. Another study yielded similar results correlating high engagement with the combination of Learning Agility, empathy, tolerance for ambiguity and a social leadership style. Executives with this combination of traits were more likely to be engaged than those with other combinations. As my friend and former colleague, Bob Eichinger puts it, “There are ‘just’ two problems left to solve in business: PEOPLE and CHANGE!”
Learning Agility is one core factor in intelligently accelerating change. In addition, the underlying architecture of agility—our neurophysiology—is fundamental. David Rock, management consultant and author of Quiet Leadership, and Jeffrey Schwartz, research scientist and author of The Mind and the Brain, co-authored an article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” published in strategy+business magazine. The article sharply connects the latest research on the brain with leadership imperatives, especially effecting successful change initiatives. In fact, Rock and Schwartz go so far as to say “Managers who understand the recent breakthroughs in cognitive science can lead and influence mindful change: organizational transformation that takes into account the physiological nature of the brain and the ways in which it predisposes people to resist some forms of leadership and accept others.” The authors identify three reasons change initiatives fail:
- Change resistance is real; it makes people physiologically uncomfortable and “amplifies stress.”
- Typical, outside-in behavioristic models don’t work for the long term because they rely on external rather than internal drivers.
- Trying to persuade people to embrace change through outside-in communication initiatives or presentations is not compelling and engaging enough for people.
Based on neuroscience the authors identify four key elements for successful change:
- Focus people’s attention on the new idea and help them to map a clear vision of what their world will look like from the inside out.
- Create an environment in which talking about and sharing this vision is part of the everyday experience.
- Give people space for reflection and insight to digest the change possibilities from the inside out.
- Keep reminding people what is important; leave problems in the past and focus on identifying and creating new behaviors and solutions.
Through thirty years of helping leaders, teams and organizations to navigate change, we have codified change accelerators to optimize value-creating change on-purpose:
- Change Accelerator One: From Problem Focus to Opportunity Focus.
Transformative leaders tend to perceive and to innovate the opportunities inherent in change.
- Change Accelerator Two: From Short-Term Focus to Long-Term Focus.
Transformative leaders don’t lose sight of their long-term vision in the midst of change.
- Change Accelerator Three: From Management Focus to Purpose Focus.
Transformative leaders maintain a clear sense of purpose, value, and meaning to rise above an immediate performance focus.
- Change Accelerator Four: From Performance Focus to Agility Focus.
Transformative leaders understand that control is a management principle that yields a certain degree of results. However, agility, flexibility and innovation are leadership principles that sustain results over the long haul.
- Change Accelerator Five: From Self-Focus to Service.
Transformative leaders buffer their teams and organizations from the stress of change by managing, neutralizing, and/or transcending their own stress to serve the team’s needs more effectively.
- Change Accelerator Six: From Expertise Focus to Listening Focus.
Transformative leaders stay open and practice authentic listening to stay connected to others and to consider multiple, innovative solutions.
- Change Accelerator Seven: From Doubt Focus to Trust Focus.
Transformative leaders are more secure in themselves; they possess a sense that they can handle whatever may come their way; their self-awareness and self-trust are bigger than the potential threats of change.
In short, Benjamin Franklin summed it up well, “When you are finished changing, you are finished.”