Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 21, 2022
by Neil Senturia
You are leading a company into a digital transformation. You can pick one of the following as the key trait that will make the company successful — provide a steady hand at the helm, think ahead with keen foresight, draw on your previous experience to cautiously plot a sensible route to travel, and finally, bring deep digital literacy to the management team.
Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School, did the research and yup, the winner is none of the above. What she found was that the “71 percent of the 1,500 executives they surveyed in more than 90 countries said that adaptability was the most important leadership quality in these times.”
Coming in second was “curiosity and comfort with ambiguity.” Well, the words are nice, and everybody nods, but what are the behaviors that correlate with them?
Here are some traits and characteristics gathered from Hill and Jeff Boss, Leadership Strategy contributor at Forbes.
Willingness to experiment. Lots of ink has been spilled about “pivoting” in a company, but you can’t pivot if you have not experimented. Otherwise, you end up going in circles.
Leaders, especially Type A, need to give up “linear and deterministic strategic thinking.” In other words, maybe an occasional pie-in-the-face might open eyes and minds to possibilities. Dump the Gatorade on the coach.
Trust and let go. The football coach does not play quarterback. Call for a back shoulder pass in the corner of the end zone and see what happens. See opportunity where others see failure.
A corollary to that one is distribute authority. Leaders talk a good game here, but micro-management is a loser in this digital world. Your sticky fingers cannot go as fast as a packet across the Internet.
Lean on others. This does not mean to lean on the people you know, rather try out a bit of diversity, lean on the other people you don’t know. I plead guilty here, but I am taking baby steps. I am starting a company, and the basic tech team look “different,” but no matter, they are brilliant. The mantra is curate talent and embrace it.
Adaptable people talk to themselves. I own this one. This does not mean howling at the wind, what it means is to look in the mirror and challenge yourself. Talk back to the who and the why. Make each decision stand up to scrutiny.
Be an explorer. Hill says, “leave the office.” Be careful not to live in the bubble. Seems obvious, and San Diego is not Boston, there is not six feet on snow on the ground — open the door.
Don’t blame and don’t claim fame. Again, this seems obvious, but humility is not the natural, default characteristic. It is a learned behavior. A precursor to humility is to be willing to ask a lot of questions, particularly if you do not already know the answer. No smart-shaming allowed here. Then the next step is to listen.
Time for a confession. I have a tendency to interrupt. There I said it. I am not proud of it, and I work on it every day. But when I get it right, powerful stuff happens.
An associate in my new company begins to tell a personal story related to our project. I think I know where he is going, but this time I shut up and hang on. And magic happens. He tells a powerful tale, including breaking into tears as he shares his past. It moved the whole room, it catalyzed the direction of the technology, it focused the team. It was the classic locker room speech, right before you burst out onto the field. All I had to do was shut up and listen. He did the rest.
In the startup world of fail fast and fail often, Hill says the corollary baseline behavior for founders is to be curious and adaptable. Embrace “courageous conversations.” Sure, nice words, but only up to a point.
I have a client who is in a box with limited options. What he needs now is a crowbar, not a conversation. I happen to have one in my toolbox, but prying open the lid is going to create some splinters.
Rule No. 705:
Always carry tweezers and some Band-Aids.