Leadership blind spots in rapidly changing organizations

By Clinton O. Longnecker and Robert D. Yonker

Executive Summary
During major organizational changes, it's easy to find yourself out of sync with operational needs. Everything happens so fast that blind spots or leadership gaps can develop quickly, becoming more apparent to your people than you. It's so important to know and understand yourself when major changes are happening so you can lead your people effectively.
 

We have been studying and leading largescale organizational transformation for the past two decades and have witnessed some amazing success stories. We have seen organizations significantly increase their market share, improve their profitability, implement breakthrough technologies, increase quality, reduce waste and cycle time, and rapidly transform their organization's performance trajectory. In each and every case, effective change was driven by effective leadership.

We've also experienced a number of significant "change failures" that were driven by ineffective leadership at multiple levels of these struggling enterprises. It is difficult to deny that leadership plays a significant role in the ability to drive and sustain organizational change.

Interestingly, there is little research and discussion on the subject of leadership practices and effectiveness in the context of rapidly changing organizations. So what specific skill or competency deficiencies might confront leaders during periods of upheaval? The answer has important implications for individual managers and the organizations they serve.

A great deal of research makes it clear that leadership deficiencies can hamper performance and career advancement. This is true for several reasons. First, managers must develop new skills in the heat of battle. Second, to make this task even more challenging, managers are frequently performing in environments where they receive little feedback. While this lack of feedback is not uncommon, it frequently is exacerbated in times of rapid change.

Leaders can easily find themselves with a "performance deficiency" that they might not be aware of, which can damage their ability to deliver for their organizations at a crucial time. This article aims to identify the potential blind spots that can stunt the growth and development of leaders during these critical periods.

Research methodology

To better understand leadership performance deficiencies and competencygaps among business leaders in rapidly changing organizational environments, more than 200 middleand frontline managers from a crosssection of U.S. manufacturing and service organizations participated in a multisource feedback exercise as part of a formal leadership and career development program. All participants were operating in organizations that were described by their superiors as "experiencing largescale organizational change."

Leaders were asked to identify five individuals they had ongoing working relationships with. All participants were asked to select a feedback group that knew them well within the context of their current work situation, had regular and ongoing contact with the participant, was in a position to offer accurate feedback on their leadership performance and were willing to offer an honest assessment of their performance.

The criteria for the feedback group were important because participant leaders chose raters whom they believed were in the best position to aid them in their leadership development and performance improvement. Each participant's feedback group was asked to provide a candid, written, qualitative response to the following openended question: "What specific things should this individual be working on to become more effective as a leader in a rapidly changing work situation?"

All members of the multisource feedback team submitted their written assessments to the participant for review and analysis. The participant was then asked to assess the feedback from his or her team and identify specific areas that needed attention. Participants were then required to submit these specific areas of improvement with examples identified by the team. These factors were content analyzed.

As one participant observed, people don't want to hear that they're not doing a great job, but this exercise made it clear that he needed to work on some areas that were not on his radar screen. The leadership "performance deficiency factors" identified by the participants could be broken down into four overarching areas of leadership behavior: emotional intelligence, creating focus and time/priority management, people practices and fundamental management skills. Our findings identify specific blind spots across these four important dimensions.

Emotional intelligence deficiencies

Emotional intelligence refers to an individual's ability to perceive, identify, understand and manage emotions in themselves and in their relationships with others. Our participants made it clear that in times of rapid organizational change, a leader's emotional intelligence is put to the test. The following potential blind spots are related to emotional intelligence:

Blind spot 1: The belief that you communicate with your people effectively. The participants identified a host of communication problems that damaged the performance of their managers. These performance deficiencies included "not listening," "not sharing needed information," "poor meeting leadership," "less than effective oneonone exchanges," "ineffective nonverbal communications" and "problems with written communications."

Ineffective communication practices and skills can damage a manager's performance in normal times, but this is particularly true in periods of rapid change and uncertainty. During these times, it is imperative that leaders are wellinformed about what is going on around them while ensuring that their employees have the information they need.

Interestingly, a full twothirds of the participants in this study were told that their communication skills and practices needed to improve.

Key leadership question: In periods of rapid change, are you making communication with your people a true priority, and are you dedicating the time to do so?

Blind spot 2: The belief that you are spending ample time onworking relationships. Our participants frequently were told that their effectiveness could be enhanced if they improved their working relationships and their ability to work with others across their organizations. Feedback teams cited examples where they need to improve a wide variety of people skills and teaming skills, including being more "approachable," "empathetic," "investing in others," "patient," "willing to cooperate,'' "friendlier," "taking more time for people" and "seeking to understand others." Participants heard from their feedback teams that the ability to forge stronger interpersonal relationships was a key factor for getting better results.

Participants made it clear that change can place additional pressure and tension on working relationships, but that strong working relationships allow the change process to proceed more effectively.

Key leadership question: Are you investing time, effort and energy in the working relationships that are necessary to achieve desired results?

Blind spot 3: The belief that your ego is in check and that you don't have all the answers. Participants reported that their feedback teams stated that they were, in some cases, "unapproachable," "aloof," "unwilling to listen," "at times arrogant," "overconfident" and even "egotistical." This is the kind of feedback that no one really wants to hear even when it's true. According to our participants, all of these factors hampered the leaders' ability to influence people, solve problems, create teamwork, make wise decisions and fully understand business reality. In periods of change, it is important for leaders to be confident and have a clear sense of direction, while at the same time being approachable and humble. Humility is an important leadership quality, change.

Key leadership question: Are you keeping your ego in check, and are you willing to solicit and listen to the input of the people around you?

Blind spot 4: The belief that you can handle stress and pressure created by change and stay poised at all times. It's safe to say that change creates additional pressure and stress for business leaders, and our participants were told that it is important for them to handle these stresses and pressures with great skill and poise. When a manager "freaks out," "snaps," "loses it," "melts down" and demonstrates an "inability to handle the pressure," the confidence of employees can be shattered. Periods of largescale change and rapid transition can inject a great deal of uncertainty and stress into a workforce. When a leader demonstrates calm and poise, employees generally react in kind.

Our leaders were encouraged to develop strong mechanisms to handle the pressure and deal with the stress in an appropriate fashion. When leaders do not demonstrate this poise and composure, the leader's behavior has a debilitating effect on employees, making a difficult situation worse.

Key leadership questions: Do you know and understand how the pressure and stresses associated with change affect your ability to stay calm and lead effectively? Can you manage stress?

Focus and time priority deficiencies

Two of the most important things that any leader must do in periods of change include helping their people know what is expected of them by providing clear direction and focus and helping them prioritize their use of time.

Blind spot 5: The belief that you provide a clear sense of direction and performance expectations. When organizations experience change, leaders must become increasingly proficient at helping their people understand where the organization is headed and what the organization needs from individuals and teams.

This is a primary area that the feedback teams stated needed attention among the managers in this study. Nearly 50 percent of our participants were told of the importance of creating clear focus and direction for their people. Managers were told, "not to assume that everyone knew where the organization was headed," "to make sure that performance expectations were properly communicated," "please do a better job of clarifying roles, goals and responsibilities" and "make sure that everyone knows exactly what they need to do to be successful," among others. These findings also reiterate the importance of effective communication to create vision and clear standards for their people.

Key leadership question: In periods of rapid change, do you take the time and effort to let people know where the organization, division, department and/ or team are going and what specific role(s) each person must fill?

Blind spot 6: The belief that you help your people prioritize their activity and use of time. In periods of rapid change, activity levels increase and a leader's time becomes a scarce and critical resource. Participants made it clear that their feedback teams thought that making wiser and more effective use of time and better managing priorities was critically important. Our previous research suggests that managers operating in dynamic environments need to become much more proficient at controlling their work schedules and allocating their time to activities that produce the greatest return on investments.

These practices affect not only their personal performance but also the effectiveness of their direct reports and fellow managers.

Key leadership questions: Are you proficient at time and priority management? Do you invest your time and the time of your people around the actions/activities that will deliver results?

People engagement deficiencies

Motivating and engaging employees are critical to the success of any change effort. In addition, coaching employees and helping them develop the skills necessary for success in response to the change are key leadership requirements. When these practices are deficient, a leader's ability to make real change happen is diminished.

Blind spot 7: The belief that you create engagement, ownership and understanding about any change you are attempting to make. Motivating employees is not getting any easier, especially when change is involved.

To avoid resistance and cynical behavior from employees, our participants heard that they need to do a better job of explaining the "why" behind the changes they are asking employees to make. In addition, they made it clear that leaders can have a powerful impact on an employee's willingness to participate in any organizational change by engaging them from the beginning, creating ownership of the change process.

The feedback teams made it clear that ignoring these things can be a recipe for indifference, resistance and failure.

Key leadership questions: Do you take the time to make sure that your people know why they are being asked to change? Are your people engaged in the change process from the beginning, and are they given opportunities to own the change?

Blind spot 8: The belief that you provide coaching, feedback and employee development opportunities. Change creates uncertainty, and employees want to know where they stand. Providing employees with ongoing coaching and balanced performance feedback are critically important practices. Our previous research makes it clear that managers frequently struggle to find the time to coach their employees even in normal times. So it should come as no surprise that managers struggle to provide the coaching, feedback and development activities desired by the people they work with in times of change.

Key leadership question: Are you spending sufficient time providing performance feedback and coaching to your employees and helping them develop the skills necessary for success?

Management skills deficiencies Blind spot 9: The belief that you effectively plan for the future. The multisource feedback teams identified the need for leaders to improve their planning skills. When managers fail to anticipate future needs and develop a plan to prepare for what is coming next, performance suffers and a wide variety of problems can emerge. This deficiency caused "firefighting," "being blindsided," "unanticipated surprises" and "manmade crises." All of these descriptors are symptomatic of leaders who do not take the time to plan or do not have the requisite planning skills necessary for their job. Planning deficiencies may be strategic, tactical and/ or operational.

Key leadership question: As a leader, are you anticipating, thinking through and communicating where your team is going, what is coming and how you're going to get there?

Blind spot 10: The belief that your problem-solving and decisionmaking skills are sound. Organizational change is almost always in response to a problem or opportunity. So from that perspective, organizational change is a problemsolving endeavor where leaders seek out solutions to put their organizations in a better position to achieve their mission. All of these activities require that leaders develop acumen in solving problems and making wise decisions.

Our feedback teams stated that the participant leaders needed work in this area. Leaders were told they needed to "make more timely decisions," "clarify their problemsolving processes," "be more inclusive in their decisionmaking," "use CI (continuous improvement) tools more effectively," "get more people involved in implementation," "make better use of data and analytics" and "get better at defining problems up front." Solving the problems created by the need for change requires effective decisionmaking, which can be a challenge when leaders face new and unknown situations.

Key leadership question: As the leader, are you making effective and timely decisions and solving the problems needed to keep your team moving forward?

Blind spot 11: The belief that you have created the structure and processes necessary to support the changes you are attempting to make. When organizations enact largescale changes, it almost always requires creating an aligned structure to support needed actions and new activities. In this study, a number of participants were encouraged to improve their organizational skills and take active steps to create operating structures that would best support the necessary changes. Our participants provided numerous examples of things that they needed to become more proficient at, including "making better use of resources," "realigning budgets," "clarifying reporting relationships," "improving processes," "identifying better procedures" and "creating guidelines and policies to support changes." In the end, participants were told that they needed to take action to improve efficiency and productivity of the people that they work with by creating an effective support system.

Key leadership question: Are you working diligently to create a productive and efficient operation that supports the changes that you are attempting to make?

Blind spot 12: The belief that you provide your people with the necessary resources to help make change happen. Our final lesson addresses an organizational reality that is frequently not discussed. Our participants were reminded by their feedback partners that when we ask team members to change or take on new responsibilities, we need to provide them with the necessary resources. These resources might be budgetary, time, personnel or access to information and other parts of the organization. The feedback teams were realistic enough to know that there will never be enough resources, but they encouraged their leaders to address this issue realistically through formal discussions, problemsolving activities and better priority management. To ignore this issue is to invite frustration among employees and loss of credibility for the leader.

Key leadership question: As a leader, are you sensitive to the needs of your people, and are you doing your best to provide them with the resources that they need for success?

In the end, these 12 leadership blind spots represent a list of potential threats that are present for any business leader experiencing rapid and largescale organizational change. Failing to address these issues can damage short-term performance and long-term career success.

A call to action

In dynamic and tumultuous times it may be easy to conclude that leaders need to be more complex and sophisticated in their approach to leading their people and operations. And yet, the exact opposite is true based on the findings of this study.

When organizations are awash in change, leaders (at all organizational levels) must practice the fundamentals of leadership and management with greater passion and skill than in the past. If competencies of this nature are not developed, they can easily become "career derailers" for managers operating in dynamic enterprises.

As one participant observed: "When things are changing fast, it's important to remember that I need to change to keep up. If I don't have a plan and execute that plan to do so I can find myself going the way of the dinosaur."

With this backdrop, we would put out a call to action to leaders who find themselves in the midst of largescale organizational change and transformation. Are your leadership skills and competencies where they need to be? Are you effectively engaged in doing the things that will help your employees achieve higher levels of performance? The following recommendations can help leaders who are interested in ensuring that they are effectively leading their operations in these challenging times:

1. Look in the mirror and assess yourself against the top leadership blind spots. Leaders experiencing any level of change need to stop and assess where you stand in terms of the performance deficiencies identified in this study. This selfassessment is important for your career development (and possibly even survival) to determine if you are effectively engaged in the activities that employees believe are important for your success. To this end, reread the performance deficiency factors and answer the subsequent leadership questions.

2. Conduct your own multisource feedback assessment. To validate your initial selfassessment, replicate the procedure described in this paper by choosing five people to complete an assessment of you. As in our study, choose people based on the following criteria: They know you well within the context of your current work situation; they have regular and ongoing contact with you; they are in a position to offer accurate feedback on your leadership skills/performance; and they are willing to offer an honest assessment of your performance. After receiving their input, compare your selfassessment with your feedback team input and determine where you need improvement.

3. Create a real improvement/ development plan for yourself. After this review, identify any area that needs work and develop an improvement game plan to address deficiencies headon. For every area needing improvement, identify specific actions that will help you develop better skills and practice areas. Development processes might include attending formal training, reading a book, seeking out a special assignment, keeping a performance diary, securing some coaching or mentoring from a senior leader or creating job aids or cues to remind you to engage in certain behaviors, among others. The key is that you identify deficiencies and develop a simple and effective approach to improve your performance in these critical areas.

4. Create accountability around your development plan. Once you have developed your improvement plan, execute this initiative with great consistency and discipline. Our previous research makes it clear that without accountability, measurement and ongoing feedback, breaking old habits and replacing them with new behaviors can be a daunting challenge. Thus, most business leaders interested in improving their performance are wellserved to seek out a mentor or accountability partner that they can meet with on a regular basis. These regular meetings can create accountability for action, an opportunity to seek counsel and, given the right set of circumstances, provide the leader with effective performance feedback.

We would challenge the reader to be reminded that periods of rapid change and largescale organizational transformation require effective leadership for organizations to succeed. So what are your blind spots?

In a rapidly changing organization, performance improvement and career development become even more important as leaders must become more proactive about developing themselves to meet the changing demands of their jobs. Without effective leadership that meets the demands of organizational members, workplace teamwork and morale will suffer. Our participants received multisource feedback that made it clear that if their performance was going to improve they needed to practice the fundamentals of leadership and management more effectively. Developing these leadership skills and filling in these performance gaps can create a competitive advantage for your career and improve your ability to get better results.

Finally, organizational leaders responsible for management and career development for other members of their organizations would be wellserved to review these performance deficiencies and create systems to encourage their subordinates to step up and take more responsibility for their career development by closing performance gaps, which can be career killers.

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