Leading in Uncertain Times – A Moment With Janet McCulloch



Leading in Uncertain Times
A moment with Janet McCulloch – Managing Partner, Leadership Dimensions.

In the economic downturn we are in, what are the challenges you see organisations struggle with when dealing with their people in uncertain times?

Organisations are having to achieve more with less.  Our ‘customers’, whoever they are, are more informed and have much higher expectations even as our economy forces downsizing and production efficiency to maintain profitability.

This often translates to constant change, our people having to absorb new and different tasks and the real potential of overwhelm and change fatigue.  There is also less time and money for investment in skills development so there is not always the opportunity to proactively manage (or prevent) the human ‘fallout’ of these challenges.

How can organisations best respond to uncertainty?

The first step is to acknowledge that our world has changed.  It is now characterised by rapid change and with that comes uncertainty and ambiguity.  Problems have become so complex that leaders don’t have the answers and more and more often don’t even have the full picture of the problem.

By making it acceptable to say “I don’t know but let’s get the right people at the table to nut it out”, organisations not only make it ok to sit in the uncertainly for a while, they also create space for people to work through it.

How can leaders best respond?

We are in the second industrial age – one in which technology has delivered incredible benefits as well as creating this high speed, high change, reactive environment we find ourselves in.

We’re now connected 24/7 via multiple devices and engage with each other through social media and technology based networks rather than face to face conversations.  The ‘human element’ is reducing in favour of the virtual alternative, so it’s no wonder that highly successful individuals feel lonely, as if something is missing.  For many, it is that lack of face-to-face interaction and sense of community and is manifesting in depression and anxiety at epidemic proportions.

For increasing numbers of  people, their primary community is their workplace.  Leaders can best respond by recognising that they are now a conduit for people to engage with each other and to create space and permission for meaningful and productive interactions – the type of interactions that breed connection, psychological safety and engagement.

We expect a lot of our senior leaders – they’re expected to manage the day-to-day, meet both financial and productivity KPIs, be focused on the future, often manage quite complex organisational and people dynamics, and are increasingly asked to more with less. Are we asking too much of the modern leader?

The modern leader needs to be a different type of leader.  When people feel psychologically safe and valued, they will be productive and effective.  There is also significant evidence to suggest that psychologically safe workplaces are more productive and more profitable.  The modern leader needs to stop trying to do it all by themselves and recognise that engaging and guiding others with wisdom and focus will be far more effective.

In your experience, what are the traits of leaders who are most effective in the modern business environment?

  • Clarity
  • Focus
  • Creativity
  • Compassion

How important is emotional intelligence and how can it be developed?

Emotional intelligence is a core foundation for great leaders.  As our world is changing so quickly, those who will cope best are those who regard self-realisation, social intelligence, resilience  and compassion as critical elements in their personal toolboxes.  With these qualities at their fingertips they can access their ‘inner wisdom’ or experience to confidently approach current challenges.

Increasingly organisations are becoming responsible for the wellbeing of their staff. Why is this important and where does an organisation begin in forming a wellbeing policy?  What are three things that organisations can start doing right now?

The incredible rise in the cost of stress claims and lost productivity has brought wellbeing onto the corporate radar.

Acknowledging the human condition – the recognition that we have good days, great days and lousy days – means that organisations and leaders need to be prepared to deal with human frailty in a very human way.  Empathy, connection, company and care need to sit next to realistic performance goals, effective feedback and clarity of objectives.  People need to know how they add value to the greater goal and that they are trusted to do their job.

Personal resilience and the ability to ‘bounce back’ stronger from misfortune takes strong self-reliance and self-management – another tool of Emotional Intelligence.

The formulation of a wellbeing policy starts first with a philosophy of care such as: fair and just culture and wellbeing as a value rather than activities in isolation. Wellbeing activities in isolation such as mindfulness programs, innovation and creativity groups, physical fitness programs and massage definitely have their place but are not effective unless they are embedded in the cultural progression of the organisation toward a well and psychologically safe workplace.

The three things I would recommend: 

  • Honestly assess the emotional intelligence of your leaders – if they don’t care, they don’t belong
  • Focus on building trust, transparency and a ‘no blame’ approach to mistake making
  • Talk to your people and ensure they know how they add value

It’s well documented that the wellbeing of a person is affected by not only what happens in the workplace, but what goes on in their life outside the workplace. How do leaders support their staff when they are having issues outside the workplace?

When any form of depression, anxiety or stress manifests in the workplace, it is irrelevant where it comes from.  The leader’s job is to observe the changes in behaviour and intervene appropriately to prevent the behaviour escalating to a crisis point.

It is important that leaders know exactly what they can and can’t do and say.  Simplistically, a leader (or peer) can support by listening, normalising stress reactions and suggesting (not dictating or insisting on) some form of professional help, should the situation suggest it.

What type of training is most effective to develop the modern leader?

Most modern leaders are time poor but this should not be an excuse to diminish the opportunity for, or the quality of training.  For many modern leaders having the time to reflect on what’s working and what’s not in a forum where they can learn from their peers can have unexpected results.  Many leaders are reporting that having time to connect with likeminded individuals can often forge relationships where ideas can be leveraged across industries and within organisations.

Janet McCulloch

Janet McCulloch