Leading By Learning For Business Success

This is part 6 of a 6-part series: ‘Excelling in a VUCA Environment Requires a Learning Mindset’. Click here for part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.

This is the final article of the 6-part series focusing on how CEOs adjust to their disruptive business environments and what they learned from their efforts that might be helpful to other CEOs. To answer these questions, we interviewed six CEOs/Chairman/Presidents from a variety of industries: Joe DePinto (CEO, 7-Eleven); Mike Fucci (Chairman, Deloitte); Tony Guzzi (CEO, EMCOR), Margaret Keane (President and CEO, Synchrony Financial), Bob Leduc (President, Pratt & Whitney), and Bob Weidner (President and CEO, MSCI). We also interviewed General Dennis Reimer, who led the Army through a major transformation during the period when the Army created the term “VUCA.” We asked each of the leaders to describe their business environment and discuss how they are leading their companies to thrive in the face of massive disruptions. We are grateful to these leaders for their thoughtfulness and candor. We found their stories fascinating and relevant and hope you have as well.

The six executives with whom we spoke all agreed their business environments are experiencing significant disruptions. Across a wide range of business sectors—manufacturing, engineering, aerospace, financial services, convenience stores and professional services—VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) is real. Technology advancements, competition, regulations and globalization are accelerating the rate of change and placing enormous demands on their business to be more agile and responsive to new market forces. What are they doing to adapt?

First, they are creating, shaping and transforming their organizations’ cultures to be more responsive to their environments. They influence their organization’s culture by articulating and reinforcing corporate values. The executives spoke about the values of integrity, trust, empowerment, employee and leader development, and learning as being essential in the new normal of VUCA. Once the corporate values are articulated and shared, they reinforce them by personal example and presence and ensure they are cascaded throughout the organization. They also understand they need others to shape and reinforce the corporate culture; they use the values to guide hiring decisions and personnel development processes, and they ensure that all the organizational systems are aligned and synchronized to embody the culture.

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Culture change is hard work that takes time and continuous effort, and they understand the importance of communicating the need for change. The executives stressed the necessity for having a clear sense of shared purpose, an unwavering commitment to change and a willingness to listen to all stakeholders. Celebrating small early successes is important to build confidence in the change process and trust in the corporate leadership.

Second, the executives are transforming their companies into learning organizations. They are encouraging experimentation with new products, services and procedures. From corporate R&D “skunk works” to small-scale pilot projects to cross-functional project teams, these executives are investing in experimentations with new ways of doing business within the markets. They are also creating the conditions where the organization can learn from experience, making “work” the “curriculum” for improvement and innovation.

Techniques such as the after-action review (AAR) are enabling teams at all levels within the organization to learn from experience. These executives appreciate that things don’t always work out as planned; they have the courage to see the value in learning from failure, and they understand when and how to balance learning with organizational performance.

Finally, the executives are investing heavily in employee learning and leader development. They understand that organizational agility requires agile employees who have the knowledge, skills and personal attributes to operate within the corporate culture they are trying to establish. Employee training programs are planned and delivered to create a workforce that embodies the culture. Leader development efforts leverage stretch assignments and work experiences, which are supplemented with supportive coaching and mentoring, to grow and expand the leadership bench of potential executives.

At the end of the interviews, we asked the executives to reflect on how their efforts are working. They mentioned that employee surveys and “voice of the customer” feedback provide indications for how internal and external stakeholders perceive the change efforts. They also believe it’s important to be visible in, and available to, employees—listening to employees at all levels share their stories and experiences with change. They are employing “leadership by walking around.” The executives expect the changes will result in better performance of the business; although they are anxious to see early results, they also understand that many of their efforts will need time to fully blossom. They understand the importance of having patience, are eager to celebrate early successes and anticipate making great progress.

Perhaps this is the most important takeaway: Excellence in a VUCA environment takes time. It requires strong leadership and agile, resilient team members who are all dedicated to being learning leaders who persevere in the face of resistance and setbacks. The six executives who shared their stories are certainly committed to change to provide better products and services of value on behalf of their customers, employees and shareholders. We are grateful for their willingness to share their experiences so others might learn as well—a true hallmark of learning leaders and organizations.