4 Obstacles CEOs Must Overcome to Create More Adaptable Organizations

In today’s interconnected environment of dramatically increased speed and complexity, organizations must be more flexible and agile to thrive—or merely survive. What many CEOs struggle to recognize is that, to enable the iterative evolution of their organization, they too must evolve.

Here are a few of the most common obstacles C-level leaders must overcome to adapt themselves before they can build adaptable organizations.

1. What made you good at your old job will not necessarily make you good at your new one. Most executives wind up in the C-suite by being great at what they do. And many fail in leadership positions by not being willing to stray from what they did. Many leaders—whether in the military or in business—distinguish themselves early in their careers through functional excellence. As they rise, they initially inspire confidence because they have credibility—they’ve previously performed remarkably in the same role they currently hold. But too many leaders dive into the weeds of their prior positions and, in some instances, hide there. Instead of focusing on new challenges, they stick to the domain in which they have excelled, even if it’s only a small portion of their leadership role.

2. Everyone needs your time, but there simply isn’t enough to go around. A lack of a disciplined personal operating rhythm can inhibit adaptability. Leaders must be laser-focused on the things only they can do, and work to push everything else down into the organization. At the C-suite level, the demands on one’s time are numerous, varied and unpredictable. CEOs must be as strategic about the meetings they attend and the relationships they maintain as they are with the organization’s most valuable tangible resources. Executives who think they can fill their calendars to bursting often find their minds filled to bursting. Without white space to think, innovate or respond to the unexpected, leaders are suboptimal.

“Hire people who complement, not duplicate, your strengths.”

3. It’s not about the decisions you make, it’s about the decisions you don’t make. Most executives believe themselves to be good decision makers and, in reality, many are. But at the top of the house, an individual cannot participate in the decision-making process for everything that must be accomplished. Leaders often hoard decision-making power because of context. If she holds the big picture at her level, her subordinates will never have enough context to make good decisions with organizational impact in mind. Subsequently, subordinates must either go back up the chain for guidance at every turn or execute in a vacuum and risk creating unintended consequences.

4. Hire people who complement, not duplicate, your strengths. On the surface, a homogenous workforce does not always seem problematic. Similarities in the tribe facilitate cohesion and harmony. People with similar backgrounds or shared experiences may appear to work efficiently, understand one another easily, and perform steadily. However, homogenous workforces have more difficulty innovating, responding to challenges, and integrating new ideas. Employees in homogenous workforces are less likely to oppose their leaders; ideas are not debated and assumptions are not challenged.

Therefore, understand where your weakness are and hire people who have the strengths you don’t. The programmer whose name you don’t know might be your defining asset when a startup disrupts your established business.

You must lead on ground that shifts underfoot: a challenge for even the most established executives. Your role now is to constantly scan the environment for cues, translate those cues into context for your organization, and ruthlessly maintain a culture of empowering others.

As you critically assess the demands of your role, establish your operating rhythm, delegate decisions, and diversify your workforce, you will set the conditions for organizational adaptability. This puts you—and your organization—into a consistently agile stance that enables you to be the right thing at the right time, constantly. Doing so takes time and sustained effort, but embracing these challenges will enable you to adapt and win while others fail.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events