Ambiguity and Agility: The Orders of the Day

To be effective in a volatile business environment, chief learning officers must help leaders successfully grapple with ambiguity and develop their own leadership agility.

The economic recovery is well under way. The Great Recession continues. Depending on who you talk to, both statements are true. Economists will tell you that the economy is bouncing back, albeit slowly. Unemployed workers will tell you recessionary conditions linger.

Regardless of where you stand, volatility remains, and leaders must be prepared to deal with ambiguous business conditions. Tolerance for ambiguity used to be one of the top traits of agile leaders; now it’s the “price of admission,” said Ana Dutra, CEO of Korn/Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting.

“If you have a low tolerance with ambiguity, you can’t even lead now,” she said. “What’s important now is how you proactively anticipate changes or even drive them in light of an economy that is so volatile, that is so uncertain.”

A few months of positive economic performance are no guarantee of future growth. Ambiguity remains, and leaders need to be more proactive and engage in scenario planning — for continued improvement or the opposite.

“If we see a bad couple of months in the next quarter, how are we going to quickly shift and reprioritize, and how are we going to communicate that?” Dutra said.

The frenzy of the past two years forced many leaders to shift into reactive mode in order to respond to what was happening in the economy. While that short-term focus was necessary in many cases, one of the casualties was internal communication.

“When you have just so many hours a day and you’re dealing with a crisis on a daily basis and you’re in a turnaround mode, internal communication actually drops,” Dutra said.

Helping leaders rebuild communication with employees is where CLOs can help, but they can further assist by defining the leadership competency for the future. In order to do that, they must be willing to shift how they approach their own work.

“It’s not just about doing more with less,” Dutra said. “It’s also about finding new ways to work with the rest of the organization and with their executives [that] is going to be key.”

In some cases, CLOs become attached to the solutions, methodologies and processes they create and fail to adapt to new conditions or adjust their approach. Pragmatism, not territorialism, is the order of the day. “It is very important now to put pride of ownership aside and really explore new ways of developing the organization,” she said.

Independent of strategy, one cultural trait that hinders high performance and is correlated with mediocre performance is silo mentality. This is different from decentralized decision making in significant ways.

“There’s nothing wrong about having consciously decentralized decision making, and many times it is necessary provided it doesn’t create inefficiencies,” Dutra said. “Being siloed is a different matter. A siloed mentality is a negative cultural trait because that means you do not have a vision for the whole, you do not act in the name of the enterprise, but you act and you see the business only from one bucket, only from one perspective.”

From a development perspective, CLOs should identify the traits and competencies necessary to lead into the future. The good news is that agility is identifiable and can be developed.

“People who have high learning agility … their traits are very similar whether they were born in India, France or in Mexico, or whether they work in a small company in a very mature industry or in a startup,” Dutra said. “The beauty here is if we actually focus on what makes people mentally agile and really have those traits and competencies as the backbone of our model for global organizations, they should not have problems creating a mobile workforce and mobile talent.”