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Learning Through Uncertainty: New Techniques to Build Adaptable Leaders


Wed Aug 21 2013

Learning Through Uncertainty: New Techniques to Build Adaptable Leaders

The first part of this two-part blog series discussed how the new work environment is characterized by change and complexity, and the implications this has for leaders and leadership development. To succeed, leaders need to quickly adapt to new and changing circumstances and be able to operate effectively across multiple contexts. CEB’s research reveals that conventional leadership development approaches do a poor job of enabling this.

CEB also uncovered a disconnect between how organizations perceive leader competence and the extent to which leaders actually apply competencies across the varied and unpredictable situations they manage. Simply put, senior leaders are very capable at managing situations that they know and understand, but are decidedly less effective at performing in new and changing situations.


But new and changing situations are the norm in today’s new work environment:

  • 86 percent of senior leaders report that the change they face has increased in magnitude versus 3 years ago

  • 62 percent report facing more situations that are new to them

  • 64 percent report facing more unexpected situations.

To solve for this disconnect between competence on paper and real-world application, organizations cannot rely on trying to build better and better leadership development content. Instead, the L&D function can help their organizations drive adaptive application—the ability and mindset to adapt application of learned competencies to perform in new and different work situations. To achieve this, L&D professionals must focus on three key objectives.

Target the ability of senior leaders to effectively apply their competencies in changing work situations. In practice, this means designing learning and development solutions that ensure leaders will gain a breadth of experience in order to get used to adapting quickly to less familiar situations.

An agricultural and industrial products company, for example, is involving customers in senior leader development. Rather than giving leaders action learning projects that are internally focused (and often lack real consequences), they require them to provide consulting to a customer to help them solve a crucial business problem or take advantage of an emerging opportunity.

By placing the leader in an external organization that is far less familiar to the leader than their own organization, the L&D function is creating an environment in which the leader needs to quickly adapt in order to deliver the outcomes they are being held accountable for.


Foster their mindset—or confidence and motivation—to tackle the new and unknown. One financial services firm unlocks the right mindset in its leaders by relating mindset to its leadership framework. L&D embeds mindset in their development programs, equipping senior leaders with actionable tools to improve their own mindset and that of their team.

Activate the support networks that leaders must harness to succeed. The best support networks go beyond the leader’s managers—after all, leaders don’t lead in a vacuum, but rather with and through others. For example, one CEB member transformed its leaders’ development plans into team action plans with a clear mapping of the roles that team members will play in supporting their leader’s performance and development. Regular check-ins place a premium on open and honest conversation and mutual accountability.

Another member, in the oil and gas industry, created Applied Leadership Networks to provide leaders with the ongoing and evolving peer support they need to perform in an environment of continuous change. A crucial component of what its L&D team does is to provide the networks with the tools and guidance to go beyond idea sharing to application.

NOTE: Read more CEB leadership development research findings online, and download a best practice for leader development planning.

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