3 Proven Ways Successful Leaders Handle the Unexpected

Building an organization that is able to respond to “the unexpected” is one of the most challenging roles for leaders to play in today’s environment. 

Market dynamics are significantly different now than in the past where there was greater continuity and relatively less unpredictability.

Today it is commonplace to see multiple new technologies shot into markets simultaneously; each ripping into market flow with massive disruption.

In addition, customers have more power today than ever before. They are greater in magnitude and better informed of their choices than people were even 5 years ago—thanks to the internet and the hyper connected world it has created.

New businesses are formed in staggering numbers today, dominated by the opportunities made available through Internet applications. The internet of things is spawning new business ideas at a staggering rate, bringing with it competitive intensity and rivalries never seen before.

These dynamics, characterized by randomness and unpredictability define the chaos facing today’s leader.

If the leaders can’t find their way through the barrage of unexpected events that slam their organization, they will fail and their organizations will die.

Here are 3 ways for leaders to make sure they are prepared when the unexpected is poised to take their organization down.

1. The ability to adapt requires a Plan B mentality. It’s all very well to create a theoretically brilliant strategy; it’s quite another to execute it and achieve the results originally intended. There are too many forces at play during the execution phase of the plan to prevent it from succeeding.

A surprising new technology is introduced, a new competitor springs up, market pricing suddenly is reduced, government policy changes and customer demand changes without warning.

The only effective coping mechanism in the face of this dynamic is to have contingency plans on the shelf ready to go on a moment’s notice.
These “what if” plans are just as important – no, MORE important – than the base plan because they prepare the organization for a body blow; they make responding to the unexpected an integral part of the culture.

2. The ability to adapt fast requires simplicity. A real time response to the unexpected cannot occur if the organization is bound up with a complex bureaucracy.

Complex rules, systems and decision making processes slow response time when “hitting the window” is crucial.  As preparation for the unexpected, leaders must simplify organizational infrastructure in all respects to make it easy to quickly replace the base plan with the appropriate contingency.

3. The ability to adapt requires a culture of nimbleness, flexibility, love of change and the willingness to make a counter move from the current direction quickly.

In order for this to happen, leaders must have the undying trust of employees.

If there is no trust, people will likely be unprepared to shift direction, believing that when leadership changes their mind it’s a sign of uncertainty and incompetence as opposed to a strategic move.

Successful leaders know the world will not likely “unfold as it should”; that unforeseen events will be the forces that shape the strategic outcome of their organization.

And they treat contingency planning as a critical priority because they know that if they do not effectively adapt to the unexpected, their future survival is at risk.

Photo Credit: natalieraegorman Flickr via Compfight cc

Successful Leaders Go “Bump In The Night” 

I am amused when all I hear leaders talk about is their successes. The triumphs they achieved paint a blueprint of what it takes to achieve greatness.

The algorithm for leadership success is almost exclusively based on what worked for them.

True, events that went the right way for someone should be dissected and analyzed. It is important to understand the specific actions taken and behaviors exhibited that yielded a productive outcome.

But the reality is that very few stand-out leaders waltz through their career to command a winner’s platform.

Successful leaders suffer personal setbacks.

My career produced disappointments that foreshadowed future successes.

This is another “bump in the night” for me.

It was one of the most stressful and painful periods in my career; the telecom business was morphing rapidly and we had to choose our way at a breathtaking pace. Change and chaos were the conditions of the day.

I was president of the advanced communications business with a communications company in Canada at the time we merged with our neighboring provincial communications company to become a major national telecom player.

The chief executive officer of the newly merged company (who I had no relationship with), struck a task force to develop a new corporate strategy. I was asked if I had a data communications expert on my old team who could play a role in charting a growth course for the new company emphasizing Internet and data rather than traditional voice services.

I said yes, and assigned one of my direct reports who was an undeniable data expert and was perfect for the task. It was the right call on my part.

The board not only supported the task force’s strategic plan; my direct report was rewarded by being appointed president of the data and Internet organization in the new company.

Ouch! I was suddenly out of the executive leadership team and ended up reporting to a previous peer of mine who now reported to the CEO.

All those around me counseled me to leave the organization because I was overlooked. “To hell with them!” was the advice I received from almost everyone, including my closest friends.

I didn’t take their advice for I knew something about this individual that the CEO and others didn’t. Even though this individual had strong data expertise, he had limited leadership capabilities which meant that sooner or later he could run into problems – a gamble on my part, but I felt worth the chance.

I stayed, was a good lieutenant and waited for the meltdown.

It happened within a year. I was asked to replace this individual and re-assume my position as president and join the executive leadership team.

Lessons learned that made me a survivor leader:

– Always do what’s right for the organization even though it could place you at personal risk;

Shut up and suck it up when you get punched in the gut;

– Take a long-term view when making a decision in a emotionally charged situation;

– Going against popular advice is often the best;

– Keep working hard in the face of adversity and show ’em what you got;

– Be wary of advice from those close to you. Sometimes their judgement is more clouded by emotion than yours is.

Surviving in the leadership jungle usually means taking a hit at some point.

Make a thoughtful reasoned call because a knee-jerk emotional one could rob you of future opportunities.

Photo Credit: ronimm Flickr via Compfight cc