A “New Normal” for the C-Suite: Learning Agile Leaders

What are CEOs looking for in the next generation of C-Suite leaders?

Let’s look at three real-world examples:

  1. Growth Leaders. The CEO of a multi-billion dollar industrial products company boldly sets an ambitious growth goal of growing revenue by 40% over a three-year period. He has a Board-approved strategy, a solid operating plan with targets, and a newly developed business unit organization structure to implement it. But he also knows that this is the easy part. What’s the hard part? It’s building a cadre of leaders who can grow the company at a rapid clip. No one has asked them to do anything like this before. They have good managers, but do they have growth leaders?

  2. Champions of the Greater Good. The CEO of a large, global educational services company is reorganizing to increase its impact in the company’s areas of focus. The new organizational model will enable linkages across the company, connecting people from various disciplines together to innovate and drive marketplace success. The CEO needs to staff several newly defined senior executive roles with leaders who will drive collaboration across former fiefdoms and make decisions that put the company, not their unit, first. Which leaders will have, not only domain expertise, but also the ability to wear an “Enterprise Hat”?
  3. Transformational Leaders. A well-respected publishing company is transforming its brand. It must reach new audiences with ever more impactful content and diversify its traditional sources of revenue. The CEO came on board with a change imperative and is heading into the third year of a multi-year transformation process. After collaboratively developing a strategy with her Board and engaging all employees in the change process, the time is now to see the changes implemented flawlessly. She needs her leadership team to collaborate across silos, make difficult strategic and operational decisions, and lead with a more integrated “One Company” mindset. Who will help her lead this transformation?

The New Normal: Learning Agile Leaders Who Operate at the Enterprise Level

These are real CEOs from real companies across vastly different industries, with different business models and different profit motives. But they share one challenge in common: they need their C-Suite leaders to develop at a rate equal to or greater than the pace of change they want to effect in their organizations. The “new normal” for C-Suite leaders is a tall order indeed. They must be deeply experienced in their chosen field AND flex a suite of leadership muscles centered around driving collaboration, innovation, growth and a “one company” mindset.

Fortunately there is a growing body of leadership research that can help these CEOs understand the qualities that C-Suite leaders need to meet the demands of the “new normal.” Learning agility is defined broadly as the ability to apply the lessons of the past to new and challenging situations.

In essence, learning agile leaders “know what to do when they don’t know what to do.” While several different definitions exist in the leadership literature, they usually include a vital few suite of abilities, such as:

  • Complex problem solving – the ability to analyze significant amounts of data and break down a complex problem into manageable pieces in order to yield insight.

  • Goal orientation – the facility to find a way to get results, especially when there are obstacles. Using a variety of techniques to accomplish goals, not requiring a playbook but relishing the opportunity to create one.

  • Innovation – restlessly pursuing the new and different, whether it’s a product or process innovation or the challenge of complex change management.

  • Eye for talent – an ability to spot capable people, bring them together, and leverage their talents.

  • Self-awareness – accurately perceiving their impact on others, seeing things from another’s point of view.

Yet if we go back to our three CEOs above, we believe there is a unique form of learning agility needed for enterprise level leaders in the C-Suite, based on the standard definition above. Learning agile enterprise leaders need to create greater impact by exercising a “higher order” level of these capabilities. For example:

  • Teach others how to solve complex problems. C-Suite leaders driving high growth in the industrial products company would help their teams develop better methods of developing growth strategies through use of analytics, consumer research, and trend analysis.

  • Help others develop strategies for removing roadblocks. In the rapidly transforming publishing company, C-Suite leaders would not just give their teams more resources outright, they would help them determine how to get those resources themselves (teaching to fish, so to speak).

  • Engage their teams in accomplishing large-scale change. The publishing company’s C-Suite leaders would actively connect two or more departments and show them how to work together more effectively.

  • Develop high performing teams and create a deep bench of capable leaders. The C-Suite leaders in the educational services company would start up and lead new cross-divisional project teams that model innovation and collaboration.

  • Demonstrate high EQ through empathy, self-awareness and maintaining grace under pressure. C-Suite leaders in all three companies would seek out and use 360 feedback, sharing their development plans with their peers and asking for help on the skills they need the most strength in going forward.

What’s a CEO to do?  Four Strategies for Creating a Learning Agile C-Suite Team

Our three CEOs have unique questions to answer. How does the publishing company CEO know which current leaders can rise to the challenge of leading the transformation? How does the educational services company CEO staff a new organization structure with the right executives? How does the industrial products company CEO build a cadre of leaders across the globe who can drive rapid growth while not causing collateral damage? Here’s a start at tackling these questions:

  1. Define what you need collaboratively with your C-Suite team. Take the definition of enterprise-level learning agility above and customize/improve on it as applied to your company’s unique challenges and culture. Engage the C-Suite in this discussion so that they effectively define their own standard of the “new normal.” If they define it with you, they will likely be more comfortable committing to the standard.

  2. Assess what you have. Incorporate learning agility assessments into your suite of development tools. There are easy-to-administer online self-report tools available (viaEDGE, Talent x7, etc.). Have your C-Suite take these tools and share the results with each other.

  3. Help them scale up. In addition to the online tools, a good development exercise is either peer feedback among the C-Suite team or a full 360 process for each member. Once complete, challenge each member to create a development plan and share the highlights with their peers. In addition, where feasible, make your C-Suite leaders accountable for completing challenging assignments relevant to the organizational challenge.

  4. Design-in peer support. Remember that the “new normal” is a high bar. Even seasoned executives don’t want to feel incapable. Encourage a mindset of peer support by assigning peers to each other for purposes of monitoring their progress on their development plans and making course corrections. You’d be surprised how much easier this is then having just you, the CEO, hold them accountable. Learning agile leaders really like this stuff. They’ll have a little fun with this, no doubt.

Originally published on the Tanveer Naseer blog.


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