Leaders are being challenged like never before. In business, politics and all other sectors, they’re facing situations that they weren’t recruited for and that they may not have the skills for. In May’s Navigator Forum, led by keynote speaker Alan Merry, Non-Executive Director of Jersey Post, we discussed executive blind spots and their implications for businesses, their customers and the future of leadership.
Same blind spots; new implications
Leadership blind spots are not a new phenomenon; however, they have been universally compounded by changes in business, consumer demands and the pandemic. They are typically the result of out-of-date functions, processes, and engrained culture, and they are driven by a lack of self-awareness and sometimes ego.
When you look at the triggers for crises in an organisation, they’re often caused by a leadership blind spot or oversight. That is invariably triggered by misplaced trust that leaders can fall into, such as failing to understand the talents that exist within, or are needed in their team, slow or poor decision-making processes, poor project planning or believing their own PR.
Tomorrow’s blind spots are, and will continue to be, set against a changing backdrop. There are many great leaders, but they are often in roles that have changed during their tenure. The new world demands more empowered decision making, more human centred organisations, brands that take more responsibility and that are more sustainable.
Some leaders have skills for these new and evolving demands, and some don’t. In part, this is about competencies, but it’s also about having the time and space to do things well. We operate in a hugely demanding environment where there are lots of things to stay on top of. Therefore, unsurprising that leaders sometimes lose focus in one or two areas.
With that in mind, how do organisations overcome executive blind spots to deliver empowered leadership that serves the current and future business climate?
Becoming a ‘human organisation’
The need to be a more ‘human’ organisation is a recurring theme in our forums. Statistics show that 28% of people are choosing brands based on how they treat employees and 20% choose them in relation to how a company treats the environment.
One of the biggest areas of issue continues to be not listening to customers and teams, and instead extrapolating select information and bending it to support preconceived ideas. It was felt that a lot comes down to a lack of self-awareness; leaders can’t identify human needs unless they know themselves and their own areas of strength and weakness, as well as those of their executive team. A powerful but nuanced point was about the need for leadership to be able to step back out of the board’s group mentality and really question ideas, practices and decisions.
Being a human centred organisation is essential, but it takes time to evolve and can require some uncomfortable decision-making to really find out what clients and teams think as well as what they’re looking for. However, post-Covid, we know that opinions run high on topics that have to be addressed including working from home. The message was that leaders have to engage with how people feel and address issues and circumstances properly instead of taking feedback and funnelling it into what they think the future should be.
Many organisations have already made very positive steps over the last year in terms of listening to team members and clients throughout the pandemic. The need to continue those efforts and not undo the goodwill created in a bid to ‘return to normality’, was also voiced.
Slow or poor decision-making processes
In our April Navigator Forum with GP Prit Buttar, we discussed how decision-making had often been much more efficient during the pandemic as a result of necessity. This is a recurring topic, that the group once again felt strongly about.
Alan cited Jeff Bezos’ description of type one and type two decisions. He says:
- Type 1 decisions are not reversible, and you have to be very careful making them.
- Type 2 decisions are like walking through a door – if you don’t like the decision, you can always go back.
The problem is that in a lot of businesses, many type two decisions are locked into a type one process, making them cumbersome.
Putting the idea of empowered leadership into action and embracing an organisational structure that values the people in it, the principle of pushing decision-making down the chain of command, was felt to be important.
Leaders need to feel confident that their people have the skills, knowledge, insights, and expertise in their specialist areas to make decisions. It was mentioned that leaders often feel pressure to have all the answers in all areas, but their focus should be on bringing in the right people who can make relevant choices, that they should engage with people at all levels, trust them and learn from them as well. This is also where diversity, in all areas, from gender to culture, geography, age etc., were felt to add significant importance in balancing the perspective that a business has of itself.
Summing up the sentiment was the paraphrased quote: ‘If you can’t improve someone else’s decision by more than 40% then let it go’. The rationale was that the individual taking the decision will automatically adjust and perfect their ideas. However, if leaders step in and take over unnecessarily, then the individual responsible won’t feel the same level of ownership and you will lose invaluable loyalty as a result.
Living by your values
The disconnect between the values a company says it has and those that they actually live by was also another key area of discussion. There are lots of instances where leaders think their company stands for certain values but that differs enormously from those experienced by the team or their customers. For many organisations the pandemic has been a real test of purpose and principles – seeing if they really stood up during that time or if they’re simply written into brand guidelines.
The question of how to coach leaders to see blind spots and handle the future of business, seems, in many ways, to comes back to values. Aligning leaders with those principles and ensuring that the way the organisation operates is in line with them in a way that’s clear to the consumer as well as the team is important in today’s culture.
One member of the forum suggested that this really comes down to how leaders work with others – once again citing the inextricable importance of people within a business. Discussions highlighted the value of softer skills such as listening and good judgement over technical knowledge, and the challenges of coaching leaders in areas such as emotional intelligence.
Finding leaders with the right skills
Speaking to a head-hunter in the aviation industry, which has obviously faced a period of unprecedented difficulty throughout the pandemic, Alan highlighted a situation that illustrates the wider leadership challenge in stark terms.
The head-hunter’s job was unique because there’s nobody in the aviation industry who has experience of a downturn like the one it has been facing. That means looking for a brand new skillset. If a set of challenges has not existed before, how do you go about recruiting for them?
Revisiting recruitment processes, more than one person suggested the importance of looking to the forces for future leaders and leadership guidance. It was highlighted that today’s military leaders command very effectively at senior level, and in today’s world are required to be highly attuned to the wellbeing needs of large groups of people in very difficult situations.
Where a traditional method of appointing leaders might be to promote the most technically capable member of a team (perhaps in a law firm), they may not have the management and leadership capabilities they need to do the job well. One suggestion was looking to individuals who have a background in team sports, as well as having the confidence to address circumstances where individuals have become ineffectual in their roles.
Giving leaders the right support
As we’re all seeing a rapid shift in business organisation and both consumer and team demands and needs, the collective feeling was that there’s an increasing need to not only prioritise soft skills at the point of recruitment, but also to support leaders with appropriate coaching. That can mean providing training in listening and questioning as well as processes for empowering other people within the organisation.
Coaching can also mean ensuring that communication within an organisation is clear. For many, working from home over the last year has created a much more communicative culture because it has been necessary. We have also spoken previously about how the pandemic has enforced a greater sense of care between leaders and their teams, and the impact that has had on company culture. It was felt that coaching can play a key role in helping leaders to identify the type of company culture that they want to develop, and how different types of communication (in person or digital), may play specific roles within that.
The conclusion to our discussions was that while the pressures and environment that leaders face today are new and varied, the blind spots that often inhibit their leadership and decision making are not. There was a sense of compassion for leaders, many of whom find themselves facing challenges that they are not equipped for and recognising where they can be supported with new talent as well as coaching, to develop vital skills for today’s working environment. These included: bravery, emotional intelligence, emotional engagement, listening and the confidence to empower other members of the team.