Leading through uncertainty

By Rebecca Walker, executive coach

Rebecca08bw-SMALLStop seeking the answers and start asking the right questions

As eyes cautiously turn towards a new working normality, many of us are experiencing an inflection point in our working lives. Work’s demanding something different from us all. Everything we know is being challenged and we’re making decisions at an accelerated pace that could have long-lasting implications.

And yet we have to think and act differently whilst operating in a fragile and vulnerable environment. We may be thriving or fuelled by anxiety.  We may be furloughed or working 15-hour days. Whatever our situation we need now, more than ever, to find a way to be ‘receptively quiet’. To pay attention to ourselves and identify the challenge that is causing us to stand still rather than progress.

As Hal Gregerson, author of Questions are the Answer, said: “In uncertain situations we have to stop, breathe, think, observe and enquire before acting.”

And yet, after seven weeks of coaching during lockdown, I’ve witnessed how difficult it is for clients to slow down and think clearly. To identify the challenge that needs their greatest attention. To move from a place of judgement to curiosity. During this time the words of leadership guru, Peter Drucker, have been ringing loud in my ears as I see firms move forward at pace. “The important, difficult job is never to find the right answers. It’s to find the right questions.”

 And it got me thinking about the questions and themes that I’ve experienced clients grappling with in the past few weeks and how they might help others as we find new and positive ways to live and work within challenging realities.

1. How are you helping yourself and your teams reconnect with values and purpose?

With a sense of our own values heightened and, at time when much of what we know is shifting, organisational values can provide certainty and a collective understanding of how to work and how to lead.

They give a context for difficult decisions and an expectation of how to behave and demand a more vocal, consistent and visible role. And this extends to purpose, in a very practical way, which many firms are struggling to understand.

What is my role? What am I working towards? By helping individuals and teams identify what their purpose is we can help ground people and bring a collective sense of ‘working towards something bigger than themselves and being in this together’.

2. How are you experiencing trust in your organisation right now?

Leaders are walking a fine line between trust and control right now. They are trying to keep the business going and need to know their people are productive. And yet they are trying to be flexible and understanding of individual needs.

The question to ask is how willing your team are to show ‘vulnerable trust’. By that I mean how willing are they to ask for help. To speak up when they don’t know the answer and to admit when they’ve made a mistake. Importantly, how willing are they to suggest a new idea, to problem solve, to think differently without fear of judgement.

Remaining vigilant about levels of vulnerable trust within your team will create greater collaboration, reduced anxiety and an ability to move ahead. But this also demands leaders to have the courage to show vulnerability. To ask how they can help others, to admit when they don’t have all the answers and most importantly to speak less and listen more.

Create the conditions for people to thrive without fear and the output will take care of itself.

3. What will be less important and what will be more important to you, your team and your business once we start to emerge from this pandemic?

We’re all questioning the impact of this moment in history on our own lives and I’ve seen the dynamics of a team visibly shift when asked these questions. They encourage people to stop and think about what they can leave behind and help them figure out what might be possible.

The businesses who remain optimistic, even those facing the greatest challenges, are the ones that are embracing co-creation on a greater scale than ever before.

They are pausing to question the ‘why’ behind what they’ve always done and discovering a new way to grow themselves and the business. No-one is under any illusion that we remain in a challenging new reality. That anxiety and fear are ever present and that we are all moving through this at our own pace.

However, I’m also experiencing a growing sense of purpose and cautious optimism within teams that will lead to businesses and people, emerging changed but stronger.

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Rebecca Walker is an executive coach and trainer, working with businesses to help create cultures that combine high performance and high wellbeing. Before becoming a coach she worked for more than 20 years in corporate PR.

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