Five Ways to Be a Strong Leader in Disruptive Times

During disruption, stability and security are important. So are openness and transparency.

Like many of you, the events of the past few weeks have thrown me flat on my butt. My heart goes out to the many people who are dealing with COVID-19 in their families or have lost their jobs. And my soul grieves for the pain that is yet to come.

This past Fall, I published my latest book, The Disruption Mindset, and drawing upon that research, as well as over two decades of studying disruption, I’ve learned that disruption creates opportunities for change. That’s because when a disruption happens, our sense of normal is torn apart into pieces and thrown into the air. The people who thrive with disruption jump into the air to catch the pieces before they fall. Those who duck their heads and hope not to get hit will become the victims of disruption.

My hope is that people will leap high with courage and conviction so that they can be the disruptive leaders we so desperately need in the coming days. Anybody can be a leader because it doesn’t require a title. Rather, a leader is simply someone who sees the opportunity for change and takes action to rally people to that cause.

I want to share five ways you can be the best leader possible in these trying times.

  1. Develop a disruption mindset
  2. Establish stability and security with structure and process
  3. Use openness and transparency to create accountability
  4. Communicate in 3D to nurture relationships
  5. Identify opportunities for the future

1. Develop a Disruption Mindset

Let’s be honest, it’s hard to know where to head with such chaos going on. Personally, I feel whipsawed between dealing with family issues to answering text messages from clients and team members. It’s hard to focus your efforts on things that really matter and effectively manage the noise.

In researching The Disruption Mindset, I surveyed over 1,000 leaders globally and found that an individual most able to thrive with disruption possess a mindset that is both open to change and embodies the leadership behaviors that empower and inspire others. These disruptive leaders are called “Realist Optimists” in that they see the opportunity being created but are realistic about what actions need to be taken today.

At this point, you may have already had to make some tough decisions with your organization just to get through the past week. You likely won’t know the answers as your team asks, “What do we do now?”.

But it’s not your job to have all the answers. Your job as a leader is to ask the right questions – to focus your team on the work to be done. Your job as a leader is to connect with other leaders in your network to fill in the gaps of your knowledge and experience. Your job as a leader is to keep the process moving forward so that together you all find the path forward.

Use this as an opportunity to change your perspective of what it means to lead an organization. Last August, the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation from being solely around increasing the value to shareholders to also creating value for customers, employees, suppliers and the community. I can’t think of a better time than now to create new frameworks, metrics and best practices around what this looks like.

Being a disruptive leader requires that you have the courage and conviction to step out of your comfort zone. Courage is when you don’t know what the outcome is going to be, yet you still move forward into that uncertainty. We need courageous, disruptive leaders in these crazy times.

2. Establish Stability and Security with Structure and Process

This new normal requires new norms, especially for leaders now working with suddenly distributed teams. For example, distributed teams communicate, connect and form relationships in vastly different ways from in-person teams. Simply transferring your office protocols isn’t going to work. In a time of crisis, more information sharing is needed.

When you can no longer manage by walking around, you will need to substitute it with daily standups and weekly check-ins. Formalizing what was previously informally done creates a structure and process that will benefit your business because it ensures that everyone is aligned around your strategic goals.

Given the current crisis, traditional meetings may not make sense when people are juggling childcare and working from home. One leader I spoke with made it clear that having a toddler in a lap or a cat walking across a desk was completely acceptable given the circumstances.

Another organization decided to do away with scheduled meetings because it was too stressful for parents to make sure that they were available for a specific time. Instead, they used digital platforms to gather, organize and make decisions in an asynchronous manner. As needed, team members held unscheduled chats or posted feedback over a set time period (typically 24 hours) to move decisions forward.

Lastly, decide on the tools that you are going to use to get work done. RingCentral found that many workers waste up to an hour a day navigating between enterprise apps; so minimize the number of apps that you use. One important process to define is how people will message each other – will it be by email or another platform like Slack or Teams or WhatsApp? Designate one messaging platform that you will use, one place to share documents and one collaborative project management e tool.

You will need to develop your own protocols that work for your organization. The key is to be very clear on how work is going to be done so that you remove uncertainty and confusion.

Use this disruptive time as an opportunity to build agility, flexibility and accountability into your culture and work habits. Make disruption work in your favor as you create stability and security out of new practices and beliefs.

3. Use Openness and Transparency To Create Accountability

To build trust with both your customers and employees, it is important to have one single source of truth that is known by all. Take the time to lay out how you will share information and decisions in a transparent way.

“You will need to develop your own protocols that work for your organization. The key is to be very clear on how work is going to be done so that you remove uncertainty and confusion.”

One leader I spoke with realized that only the leadership team had access to key company data on their collaboration platform, but that the team would benefit from seeing and using it.  Except for a small amount of confidential information, they made everything accessible to the entire organization. Openness in information sharing ensures that everyone knows what is going on, giving them the security to be able to make decisions quickly.

To that end, encourage people to share information and decisions in the open. If you can’t physically see each other getting work done, then you need to tell each other what you are working on. Transparency creates trust, security and stability.

4. Communicate In 3D To Nurture Relationships

By all means, over-communicate in a time of crisis. Nokia Chairman, who guided the company through the sale of their handset business and its pivot into an Internet communications telecom giant, said, “No news is bad news. The bad news is good news. Good news is no news.” Rather than dribble out bad news slowly, deliver it with compassion and empathy as soon as you can. It’s far worse imagining the bad news than to receive it and then be able to take the necessary next steps.

Communicate in “3D,” using every channel available – email, video recordings, Slack, social media and Teams and WhatsApp. It also means using video to make calls. There’s nothing like being able to see each other to develop that connection, rather than a disembodied voice on the phone. Video also creates accountability – you can confirm that the other person is present and focused on the conversation and with you.

Another dimension is looking at communications from the perspective of being “Remote First.” Instead of thinking of remote as a second-best alternative to being face to face, think of it as the default going forward. Even when you go back to your office, keep the processes that work for distributed workers so that it makes sense for both modalities.

Lastly, your communications must also establish a new culture for this new normal. Without the serendipity of running into someone in the lunchroom, you will need to engineer serendipity by designating areas where people are encouraged to share and discuss non-work topics. From sharing pictures of their work area at home to jokes and memes, invest in this connective social tissue to help your team connect and continue to build their relationships. It’s these casual encounters that build trust.

5. Identify Opportunities for The Future

The final area is thinking about future opportunities. My research found that disruptive leaders and their organizations do one thing extremely well: they focus on the needs of their future customers. This is truer than ever in these disruptive times. It may be tempting to go back to existing customers and try to coax them to come back to you. But just as importantly, you must think about where new customers with emerging needs are going to be.

As an example, here’s a figure that maps the U.S. GDP growth rate over the last five years. You can see that times of recession and crisis resulted in great creativity and innovation. Microsoft was founded in the midst of the oil crisis of the 70s. Apple launched the iPod in 2001 after the bust. And Airbnb and Uber were founded in the depths of the last recession in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Disruption today is creating a need not just for innovation, but also for ingenuity. The need hasn’t gone away with the shuttering of businesses – it’s instead shifted and if you can shift with the need, you can fill the gap.

Multiple examples of ingenuity have surfaced in the past few days. For example, some closed schools rerouted school buses to deliver meals to home-bound kids. In Ireland, small business AMI refurbished high-quality laptops from companies to meet  a demand to rent or buy laptops for working from home employees. And my personal favorite is seeing trainers and yoga instructors bringing their clients together on Zoom calls – it’s gratifying to see my fellow class members also struggling to catch their breath!

As a leader, you can find the next disruption opportunity by aligning yourself and your entire team around understanding the needs of the emerging customer. Instead of asking, “What can I do?”, ask instead, “How can I best serve?”

Here are three ways to better identify and understand your future customer. First, use empathy maps to better understand how these people feel, what they say, what they think and what they do (below is an example empathy map from my book). Deepen your understanding of how they approach a problem or situation.

Second, create a Customer Advisory Board (CAB). It can provide you with insight and feedback on what you are doing well and how you could serve their needs better. Don’t stack your CAB with your biggest and best current customers. Instead, find the customers who push you to do things in a different way. Ask your sales and customer services teams who the most insightful customers are – the ones who challenge the way your company works. These customers will hold you to a higher standard.

A strong CAB will push you further and faster than anything you can come up with. Having concrete examples of what future customers want is a powerful antidote to stuck-in-today thinking.

Lastly, find your customer-obsessed people. Seek out the people in your organization who are already naturally inclined to think about your customers. You likely already know who they are. They walk in customers’ shoes and intuitively understand their pain points. When you find these customer-obsessed people, give them the social proof that their opinions, not only matter but are being heard and are making a difference.

For example, one organization routinely highlights call center staff at monthly team meetings who have not only surfaced a problem from a service call but also taken the initiative to push through a change in product or policy. Recognizing the advocacy that addresses a customer’s needs turns that person into a hero to be emulated, encouraging others to surface the voices of customers.


Every Step Is the First Step on The Disruption Journey

I wish I could promise that the journey ahead is smooth sailing. It’s going to be anything but. That’s what disruption is – it forces us out of our comfort zone and makes us come face to face with our biggest doubts and fears. But if you can look past them to the opportunities to serve created by disruption, you and your team will have a focus that will steady your hand.

Today, you can decide to take the first step on the disruption path. And given the difficulties, every step will feel like the first step all over again. But trust and believe that you are on the journey, which will be so much better than staying mired in the past.

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