17 leadership excellence essentials presented by HR.com | 02.2014

By Lisa Kay Solomon and Chris Ertel

Design strategic conversations to accelerate change.

Leadership in a VUCA World Interactive

Today’s leaders face a constantly shifting array of strategic chal- lenges. Disruptive technologies can appear with little notice, reorganiz- ing industries and markets. New competitors and customer demands are challenging incumbent business models. Skills and capabilities that worked in the past are often not ones we need to thrive in the future.

Since vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) seem to be the new normal, how can leaders spark productive col- laboration to issues in real time? This is the most vital leadership question for our time!

Gone are the days when financial forecasting, competitive analysis, or best-practice benchmarking alone can resolve the big strategic issues. If strategy was like a high-stakes chess game two decades ago, it’s more like hockey today—fast, risky, and hard to follow. There’s as much improvisation as planning involved. All leaders and managers are being hit with messy, open-ended, mission-critical challenges regularly.

Leaders today face a world-class dilemma: they need to make good strategic choices under uncertainty while engaging more people with different perspectives in the process—and do it all faster, too. To do this well, they need to put their people back into strategy—in a smarter way. Today, more than ever, strategy is the conversation.

Unfortunately, our traditional approaches to conversation and col- laboration—data-drenched standard meetings or brainstorm sessions that circle back to nowhere—aren’t up to the task. When was the last time you can recall a linear-agenda, slideshow-driven meeting that

drove real progress against a tough strategic challenge? Learning how to design these strategic conversations is a vital lead-

ership skill, and yet it’s rarely taught—not in business school, not in executive development programs, not anywhere. One inhibiting factor is the lack of public examples. Most strategic conversations happen behind closed doors, rendering them invisible to all but few participants. It’s hard to get better at anything without seeing what good looks like.

In our work advising executives on strategy and innovation, we’ve learned that designing strategic conversations is a craft—not a crapshoot. It’s a craft defined by a few core principles and key practices that can catapult a been there, done that” meeting into a gathering that propels an organization forward. To turn your strategic conversations into experiences that ignite engagement and accelerate change, practice these five steps:  

1. Clearly define your purpose. What do you need most from the strategic conversation with your team? Do you need to have a conversation that builds under- standing on an issue? Do you need to generate clear strategic options on what to do next? Do you need to make a critical decision? For big, complex strategic issues, each question requires time and discussion that focuses on one of these three purposes. Avoid rushing to a conclusion on an open-ended topic—go slow to go fast—taking the time to make sure every- one understands the issues and what’s at stake before making decisions.

2. Engage multiple perspectives. Leverage the di- versity of ideas and opinions in your organization, and bring in equally valuable perspectives from outsid- ers—industry experts, customers, partners, and sup- pliers— when appropriate. Often, direct input from these experts can be more valuable than detailed analysis shared through static charts. Get the dream team—not the must invite team—in the room working on the issue.

3. Frame the issue. Take time to the right questions on the issue: spending 10 minutes on the right question trumps wasting 90 minutes on the wrong one. These conversations may need to be framed in the larger context of external trends, a dynamic competitive landscape, or changes in customer behaviors. Strategic frames work best when they are clear and memorable, and help participants connect the dots between different aspects of a complex challenge.

4. Set the scene. Don’t have your most critical conversations in the default conference room Look for rooms with natural light and vertical white space to boost personal productivity and engagement. Small details can make a big difference. Are participants comfort- able? Do they have the materials they need to stay attentive and alert (pens, paper, food)? Is there a whiteboard to capture new ideas? By minimizing distractions, you can maximize the productivity of the valuable time spent together.













18leadership excellence essentials presented by HR.com | 02.2014

5. Make it an experience. Design the session like an experience with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. While you can’t predict exactly what will be said and how it will go, you can proactively prepare how the meeting will start; predict and manage potentially conflict-rich parts in the middle; and help guide where and how it will land at the end. Most memorable experiences involve some drama, but if you don’t prepare for a solid ending in advance, you’ll likely be surprised in a negative way.

To make progress against strategic challenges, you have to harness the best thinking and judgment of your best people—especially when they don’t agree. The old saying is true: nobody is as smart as all of us. Plus, it’s much harder to put strategic decisions into action if the people executing them aren’t part of the conversation.

When leaders show the capacity to face a strategic challenge, they can drive change in powerful ways. Confidence and optimism become contagious. People spend more of their time thinking about and planning great things they can do next. That’s why convening and designing great strategic conversations is the single most important leadership skill you can have in today’s world. LE

Lisa Kay Solomon teaches innovation at the MBA in Design Strategy program at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts and helps executive teams develop the vision, tools, and skills to design better futures. Chris Ertel designs strategic conversations as an executive adviser. They are coauthors of Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change (Simon & Schuster). Visit www.momentsofimpactbook.com.

Our leadership model is broken. Leaders are poorly served by the prevailing paradigm on producing short-term results, often at high cost to ourselves and to our organizations. Many leaders today are ill-equipped to manage the challenges they face in a world changing faster than their ability to reinvent themselves. As they look into their organizations, there remains a growing gap between present and future leader.

A new model is emerging—a radically different approach to lead- ership that speaks to our better selves, while helping CEOs grapple with the relentless and complex demands of today’s marketplace and improving company performance. Our research with has led us to conclude: It’s who you are as a healthy leader that determines what you do—and, in turn, drives performance. The matter of who you are is determined by six dimensions of leader- ship health:

1. Physical health which provides the energy and stamina needed to keep up with the relentless speed of change, as well as the ability to use mental and physical energy effectively and live a healthy life. PricewaterhouseCoopers Global Chairman Dennis Nally, for example, drives growth and change in his company by maintaining his physical energy with golf and yoga while balancing his work and personal lives.

2. Emotional health enables leaders to understand their strengths and shortcomings, to tap into positive feelings and jettison the nega- tive ones, to be comfortable living with uncertainty and bounce back from adversity. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the time her company was stagnating, Linda Rabbitt, founder of Rand Construction in Washington, D.C., used her enhanced self-awareness to let go and value her relationships more deeply and better delegate responsibility to her employees, helping the business to break out of its rut and experience explosive growth.

3. Intellectual health involves a mental adroitness and deep curios- ity, an ability to understand and accept contradictory or paradoxical thoughts and think clearly enough to innovate quickly and meet the demands of a complex marketplace and workplace. The CEO of military shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries Mike Petters

tapped his deep curiosity, adaptive mindset, and commitment to life-long learning when his led the company, a spin-off of Northrop Grumman, in 2011 in a successful IPO.

4. Social health provides the capacity to be authentic while forging intimate ties with others and to build mutually rewarding relationships and help to nourish teams and communities. Ken Samet, president and CEO of Medstar Health, the largest health-care system in the Washington, DC region, boosted employee trust and commitment to his 2020 strategy, in large part, by being real, honest and authentic.

5. Vocational health is your ability to tap into a personal calling that reflects who you are and what you want to be, to fulfill your highest potential through personal mastery and to drive for achieve- ment and success in a competitive world. Ted Mathis, CEO of New York Life, the largest mutual life insurance company in the United States, helped to change the firm’s slow, hierarchical decision-making structure—and to weather the 2008 economic downturn—through personal mastery by challenging himself, learning from others and being thoroughly prepared to address the issues.

6. Spiritual health opens up the part of an individual that recog- nizes something more meaningful than personal needs. It helps leaders tackle the forces of globalization and avoid chasing small-minded aims. Klaus Kleinfeld, CEO of Alcoa, combines his German-bred passion for excellence with his commitment to social responsibility, applying those values to every facet of operations, from the work the company’s foundation does, to ensuring the business’s leaders are globally minded and socially committed. Six Actions Healthy Leaders Take

Mastering the six dimensions of leadership health enables leaders to take the six actions necessary to lead today.

1. Tap into a higher purpose. Ben Noteboom, CEO of Rands- tad Holdings, a global staffing company, boosted revenues from $5 billion in 2003 to $22.8 billion today partly by hiring people who are “fundamentally motivated to be able to build a better company and a better world around a higher purpose” he says.

2. Forge a shared direction. Alan Mulally, who became CEO of Ford Motor Co. when the company was hemorrhaging money and shedding thousands of jobs, focused the organization around the One Ford One Direction plan and turned the firm around.

3. Unleash human potential. David Novak, CEO of Yum! Brands, relishes his role as teacher and mentor, instructing more than 4,000 people over 15 years in everything from problem-solving to step- change thinking.

4. Foster productive relationships. Sally Jewel, former CEO of

By Robert Rosen

Grounded leaders drive high per formance.

Six Pillars of Leadership


Leadership in a VUCA World

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