“The greatest threat for most leaders right now is not the turbulence in their marketplaces and industries, but rather applying yesterday’s logic to tomorrow’s world”, says Vistage speaker Keith Coats. For over 20 years, his focus has been on helping leaders to be the very best they can be.
Right now, the ability to learn, grow and be adaptable are some of the key traits of a successful business leader. We caught up with Keith ahead of his recent Vistage session - Leading in a Changing World - to understand what ‘futurefit’ leadership is all about.
The impact of global change
“Being futurefit isn’t about focusing on specifics”, says Keith. “It’s about being ready for anything.”
That said, there are certain global events and trends that have been on the cards for a long time.
Keith believes that COVID-19 has simply accelerated some of these changes. “Prior to the pandemic, we as futurists were warning the corporate community about things like an accelerated trend towards digitisation, and the increasing complexity and interdependence of the global economy”, he says.
As a result of the contextual shift over the last two years, Keith believes these things have accelerated. “It’s given business leaders a window of opportunity to grasp and understand the significance of this shift”, he says.
The same goes for hybrid working: something that younger generations in the workplace had been pushing for pre-pandemic, confident that they could work from any location. “The prevailing playbook for how teams work, how corporate works, hasn’t allowed that”, says Keith. “We’ve acknowledged it, but nothing’s actually happened.”
The pandemic has forced remote working into play. It’s something that should have happened on its own, but the pandemic accelerated it.
For Keith, it’s a prime example of how the corporate landscape can change. For leaders, the key is to be flexible and adapt to such changes.
“Without adaptability, I simply just don’t know-how leaders can survive - let alone thrive - in a changing world”, says Keith. “We’ve come out of an era where businesses have been taught, programmed and managed towards greater efficiency. I think adaptability is a more important DNA criteria than efficiency in order to thrive into the future.”
From the dance floor to the balcony
It’s important for a business leader to think like a futurist, says Keith: someone who “intentionally builds capacity to see and understand the implications and meaning of change”.
“You get off the dance floor and onto the balcony”, he says, referring to an analogy popularised by Heifetz and Linsky in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Leaders are comfortable on the dance floor - they’re good there. That’s what got them promoted in the first place. However, if they spend too much time on the dance floor as leaders, they’ll fail to see any changes happening on the periphery until it’s too late. Spending time on the balcony allows them to see the entire dance floor: what’s happening in the entire organisation.
When working with executives, Keith asks them a simple question to establish whether this is happening: “Can you show me six months’-worth of agendas?” This allows him to see whether there is any evidence of this “balcony thinking”.
Often, the shift in mindset will take some work. As Keith describes it, “a huge amount of unlearning needs to take place to create space for the learning that we need to embrace.”
The entire organisation
While the focus is on leaders changing their approach and mindset to be futurefit, the whole organisation needs to be involved and on board. The ability of a team to build adaptive intelligence is contingent on four things:
- The ability to embrace change and uncertainty
- The capacity to invite learning and be a learner
- The ability to activate diversity
- To ability to give away control
“These apply equally to the collective as to the individual”, says Keith. “They will have a massive impact on how things are done, what is measured. When you really start to get into what it means to be adaptive and to apply initiatives in those four areas, everything will change”
“A culture in which adaptability can thrive”
In order to create a culture in which adaptability can thrive, you may need to change your existing culture. This is never easy. There are two things to bear in mind, says Keith, that can make the process easier.
The first is changing your language. Keith gives an example that he comes across regularly. “I’ve worked with organisations who refer to other people as subordinates”, he says. “By starting to change terms like these - terms that are suggestive of a hierarchy - you’ll see a mind shift that starts to change.”
It may not be possible to change everyone’s mindset. However, you can make sure as many as possible are on board by addressing the sense of loss. “The sense of loss that people feel often torpedoes with change initiatives”, he explains. “It could be a loss of comfort, of position, of entitlement, of security.”
Leaders will have had time to become accustomed to an upcoming change. By foisting this change on their teams without acknowledging that sense of loss, it will be tough to create an adaptive culture.
How to start your adaptive leadership journey
“It’s just like a toddler learning to walk”, says Keith. “You can’t just take one step towards adaptive leadership and expect to be there - it takes trial and error, and you need to build momentum.”
Instead, he recommends just doing something: picking one of the four key things needed to develop adaptive intelligence, as described above, and making small changes.
Looking at the capacity to invite learning and be a learner, for example, you may want to shake up your approach to learning and development. “Consider telling your team what you spend on their learning and development per annum”, Keith says. “Offer to give them 30% of their budget to use at their discretion, but hold them accountable.” In this way, you can build capacity in each individual to take responsibility for their own learning.
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In terms of the ability to embrace change and uncertainty, consider letting your team know that there won’t be an agenda in place for the next three company meetings, and see how things go. “It’s basically a series of experiments”, he says. “Some will work, some won’t. But it’s through this experimentation that you start to learn and change.”
There are also various books that Keith recommends for those starting out on their adaptive leadership journey:
- Mavericks: How Bold Leadership Changes the World - David Giles Lewis, Jules Goddard, Tamryn Batcheller-Adams
- Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense: Why Some Organisations Consistently Outperform Others - Jules Goddard, Tony Eccles
- Leading in a Changing World: Lessons for Future Focused Leaders - Graeme Codrington, Keith Coats
- Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error - Kathryn Schultz
The place of deepest learning
“The place of deepest learning is seldom on the mountaintop - it’s in the valleys”, says Keith. “It’s often in our darkest moments that we stand to learn the most.”
These are certainly dark moments for many businesses. Global supply chains are under pressure. The situation in Ukraine could easily escalate into something even broader. The cost of living is high. British politics is in crisis. The ramifications of Brexit continue to be felt.
The current economic and political conditions, says Keith, make now a great time for change. “Times are tough”, he says. “There’s a lot of fear and insecurity. However, by seeing the current situation as an opportunity for adaptability, leaders can really challenge the status quo, seeking out how to do better and be better going forward.”
Many thanks to Keith for taking the time to talk to us. To watch his Vistage session in full, click here.