Winter 2015
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CTDO Magazine

Leading in Times of Disruption and Ambiguity

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Given the disruptive nature of the work environment, evolving best practices come into play for leaders seeking to drive lasting organizational change.

The scale of change we will encounter during the next decade will surpass that of the past half-century, according to scientists and futurists. Although we have been talking about the "increasing pace of change" for more than 20 years, the pervasiveness of this disruptive change is now unprecedented.

Leading well, gaining followership, and delivering results in the next 10 years—in which change, volatility, and industry disruption are the constant, and periods of stability and predictability are unusual—will be the challenge that underlies all else for executives and those who help develop them. Effective leaders will need to be able to adapt to such a wide variety of different contexts, conditions, and situations that it will be increasingly difficult to simply teach "how to lead." What we can do instead is develop leaders who have the skills to flourish in complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments.

Humility, anchored by purpose, will be the hallmark of the leader who can inspire and lead smart, talented professionals who have an opinion and a point of view. Humble, authentic, but also driven leaders will be able to connect well with others, obtain the best information, inspire motivation and commitment, and reduce the barriers that derive from hierarchy or intimidation.

Leading during times of complexity, uncertainty, and disruption requires real leaders who have more authenticity, better agility, and a stronger sense of purpose. But how will we produce leaders with these capabilities?

To understand the subject more deeply, Korn Ferry recently conducted a global study of more than 7,500 executives from 107 countries. A key finding is that the executives' top leadership development priority is developing leaders who can drive strategic change.

However, only 17 percent of respondents were fully confident that their organizations had the right leadership capabilities in place to execute on strategic business priorities. While just more than half of the respondents (56 percent) said they are "somewhat confident," more than a quarter (27 percent) were either unsure or did not believe their teams had the necessary leadership capabilities.

When asked to rank the most pressing strategic business priorities in their organizations, accelerating the pace of innovation was one of the top three answers, nearly tying with improving profitability and increasing organic market share.

From the perspective of this study, as well as the work we do at the top of some of the world's leading companies and brands, we have seen five best practices that are being undertaken by the most effective leaders who drive lasting organizational change, even during disruption. They are:

  • Put disruption front and center.
  • Discover, uphold, and live a definitive purpose.
  • Develop and demonstrate authenticity and agility.
  • Use journey-based immersion experiences to accelerate transformation.
  • Bring the ecosystem into the room.

Put disruption front and center

Disruption requires businesses to continually challenge who they are and why they exist. In the past, leaders were able to create strategies and long-term business plans that could remain relevant for years. Today, leaders must reinvent their business in real-time, revamping profit models, transforming market positions, and producing innovative and breakthrough products, which often must be bundled with services and delivered across internal silos. The agility required in this context is that of being able to maintain core values while also managing to challenge everything else.

In today's highly disruptive, competitive environments, decisions about business models also must be driven by insights about one's organizational culture. And discussions about culture should reflect concerns about how money can and should be made. For executives and the organizations they lead to be successful, there must be real conversations about the economic and cultural challenges and questions facing the business.

Disruption, and the fear of it, usually lies at the heart of resistance to change. Our research suggests that leading organizations find success because they are willing and able to have courageous conversations with the focus on resolving real organizational dilemmas. They're also adept at organizing their teams to work through difficulties and overcome disruptions with clear data and honest perspectives, communicated openly.

Discover, uphold, and live a definitive purpose

By definitive purpose, we mean the reason why an organization exists, as well as the deep commitment a leader feels to take action in the face of risk, conflict, and uncertainty. Serving as the anchor that enables leaders to act with agility amid disruption, purpose helps them earn the trust of others and to lead without ascribed power and authority. It transcends talent, skills, or even knowledge.

Unlike personality or behavioral approaches to leadership, purpose defies quantification, categorization, or assessment—approaches often associated with the "head" side of leadership. Purpose is about "heart" and embodies commitment, genuine feeling, and passion. It cannot be taught, but it can be discovered. To drive the discovery process, we encourage leaders to ask themselves three basic questions.

What am I being called to do? For this step, leaders must take a clear-eyed look at the context in which they are leading and determine what's most needed of them for the organization's greater good. They consider the most significant problems in the business that need to be solved and ask: Where do I (or we) feel a call to action? What do I feel responsible for?

They also evaluate to what degree they're responding to and addressing these pressing challenges versus merely taking the path of least resistance—and they take an honest look at what's preventing them from doing more. The central goal here is "sense-making," which means reading an unclear and perhaps even chaotic situation and finding meaning, order, and clarity.

What's the right thing to do? The second step is deeply personal, in which leaders link their convictions to what the organization asks of them. They look at their identity and story as a leader and consider what really matters most to them. Given all of this, they ask: What's the right thing to do, based on the circumstances I find myself in?

In the process they determine what they might take a stand on even in the face of risk. At the heart of it, they're determining what might be the unique difference they each can make here and now.

What kind of leadership is it time for now? Here, leaders outline what they individually need to do to help the organization the most, based on who they are and how they fit into the larger context. This question pushes the leader from theory to action by centering focus in the immediate present tense.

Leadership is then defined by active response to a specific need, here and now, rather than a description of traits or styles. With this, leaders arrive at a stronger sense of purpose and a clearer view of what their next critical moves should be.

Develop and demonstrate authenticity and agility

In our work with global clients and executives, we repeatedly see that authenticity and agility are becoming the distinguishing leadership characteristics of high-performing businesses.

Authenticity means behaving and acting in ways that match with a leader's personal convictions as well as the purpose for which an organization exists. This conviction builds and maintains trust when a shifting context requires evolving leadership decisions or positions.

Agility is the ability to lead nimbly in the face of uncertainty and the ever-changing circumstances in which leaders are responsible for reinventing businesses. Flexibility and a strong sense of purpose keep the focus on results and outcomes amid shifting sands. Knowing what you stand for clarifies when one should be open to change or when one should hold his position despite being in unknown territory. This self-awareness serves as the foundation of agility.

Use journey-based immersion experiences to accelerate transformation

Our survey respondents told us what we see everywhere today: Classroom learning is only one channel for development, and action-oriented executives today learn best from experiential, immersive, and tactile program designs. Journey-based development trumps time-bound or event-based programs. Instead of a five-day program, development must be a journey, where over time people learn the skills they need to thrive in their organizations and successfully implement strategies needed to achieve new business objectives.

Not only do leaders learn best from experience, but they also learn more if those experiences represent different situations and contexts. In a connected world, a learning network comprised of companies and leaders that face similar business, organizational, or leadership challenges have as much to learn from one another as they do from "experts."

Being on-site and communicating face-to-face invites leaders to draw on their five senses to arrive at insights via firsthand experience. Real insight about leadership must increasingly come from normal, typical settings where leadership really does take place in the day to day, not just unnatural settings such as the classroom. We call this immersion learning: the extensive and intense exposure of leaders to the natural settings in which leadership is actually exercised.

One of the most powerful types of immersion is reconnecting executives with their customer base. While many executives purport to understand their customer needs intimately, few have daily exposure to their customer, or if they do, they likely haven't created the degree of openness and trust required to obtain useful feedback. So, the opportunity to meet with, observe, and relate to customers gives leaders a firsthand sense of their real and pressing needs. This experience also helps in understanding customer mindset, reasoning, and top priorities.

Bring the ecosystem into the room

It is critical to proactively expose leaders to their ecosystem, and for leaders to seek out this exposure as well. Learning and growth isn't isolated to individual participants or their organization. We all operate in context and within our relationships with others.

Given human nature, it's impossible to teach someone how to manage disruption, strategy, or political dynamics totally independently of her context. To close the gap between abstract learning and its application, bring people together around real concerns. This creates visceral learning that can deeply and enduringly shape the way participants exercise leadership moving forward. Learning becomes embedded in how they operate.


In keeping with this approach, immersion learning that engages the entire business ecosystem—including stakeholders beyond the boundaries of the organization—allows participants to understand the business more fully and completely in context. The deeper, richer perspective and experience that result take into consideration key players such as suppliers, business partners, and government officials who can profoundly influence the day to day as well.

Driving lasting organizational change

A unifying theme as the economy transforms is that in almost every business, barriers to entry are coming down. For us, one of the best measurements of success for leadership initiatives isn't merely a matter of looking at post-program evaluations. We arrive at the end of a leadership development experience and ask if the conversation has fundamentally changed in the organization. Do new thinking and fresh ideas occur? Are insights taking root?

The program has only worked and done its job if the answer is "yes" and we know participants have truly been moved. To take on and navigate all of the change ahead, we have to be willing to change ourselves, to grow.

What It Takes to Drive Lasting Organizational Change

Put Disruption Front and Center

Take a clear-eyed look at the key dilemmas, issues, and questions facing the business—both economic and cultural. Disruption, and the fear of it, usually lies at the heart of these dilemmas.

  • How do leaders view the constant organizational challenges of long term vs. short term?
  • How do we manage standard solutions vs. custom solutions?
  • How we grow globally and act locally?

Discover, Uphold, and Live a Definitive Purpose  

Delve into the reason of why an organization exists, as well as the deep commitment a leader feels to take action in the face of risk, conflict, and uncertainty. This embodies commitment, genuine feeling, and passion.

  • What am I being called to do?
  • What’s the right thing to do?
  • What kind of leadership is it time for now?

Develop Authenticity and Agility

Authenticity means behaving and acting in ways that match with a leader’s personal convictions, as well as the purpose for which an organization exists. Agility is the ability to lead nimbly in the face of uncertainty.

  • Are we leading in ways that are congruent with our organizational values?
  • What kind of team is important to becoming more agile, and are we able to adapt to organizational changes and environmental headwinds?

Use Journey-Based Immersion Experiences to Accelerate Transformation

Development should be a journey where people learn the skills to navigate their organization and become effective in driving strategies to achieve new business objectives.

  • Has the dialogue in the organization fundamentally changed?
  • Are new insights taking root?

Bring the Ecosystem Into the Room

The leaders of tomorrow will likely need to build broad ecosystems, partner openly with competitors, and rely on deeper emotional intelligence and self-awareness.

  • How can we better serve our customers?
  • Have we included stakeholders from the broader industry in which the company operates—such as suppliers, business partners, and government officials—to broaden the leadership perspective?

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

David Dotlich is president of Pivot, a strategic leadership boutique that develops corporate strategy and executive development programs for Fortune 500 companies.

About the Author

Raj Ramachandran is a senior partner of Pivot and has nearly two decades of management consulting and industry experience. He is an alumnus of the Wharton School of Business and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, earning both his doctorate and master's degrees in education. He also holds a BS in biochemistry from Ohio State University. Considered a thought-leader in corporate learning and talent development, Ramachandran provides his clients with deep specialized expertise in learning strategy, technology, and global sourcing operations.

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