How Should CEOs Deal with Business Complexity When Everything is a Priority?

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Chloe Watts is a Partner in the Technology, Transformation & Change Practice at leadership resource consultancy WBMS, part of The Wilton & Bain Group.

For business leaders, the world is an increasingly complex place. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotic automation, industry 4.0, the internet of things, these all promise a future very different to the present. Technology is transforming products, services and business models. It is reshaping society and the expectations of consumers.

At the heart of the maelstrom, buffeted by a relentless storm of data and information, CEOs must navigate the best path for their organisations. Yet, in such challenging circumstances, often operating in volatile rapidly changing markets, how can they filter the noise, detect relevant signals and continue to make the right decisions for their stakeholders? How can they chart a course through chaos?

While there is no magic solution that allows hard-pressed business leaders to cut through and make optimal choices for the organisation, there are a number of factors that can help.

Finding space and time. Perhaps the starting point for leaders is acknowledging that the constant flux they experience in their everyday lives is here to stay. Most business leaders are already on overload. At home, for example, they start and end their day attached to screens, always linked to the world, dealing with demands from both family and work. At work it is similar story. They are constantly ‘on’. The people who leaders manage, their peers, the board that they report to, their stakeholders, are all similarly stretched.

As a society we have lost the ability to relax, to press pause… and take a moment to gain some perspective. Whatever personal route they take, leaders need to recapture that ability. Mindfulness is enjoying popularity, but there are many other techniques. Leaders should be able to gauge their own energy levels and those of the people that they lead. Know when it is time to take a break, take a breath, regroup, consider and evaluate, and then push on again.

Knowing unknowns. Another issue for leaders is dealing with unknowns. CEOs can take steps to ensure that information is filtered and fed to them, but there will always be limits to their knowledge. No matter how good their peripheral vision, there will always be blind spots.

The best leaders understand that asking for clarification on a topic shows strength of character not intellectual weakness. Having worked on their self-awareness, they know the areas where they are less capable or knowledgeable and find this cover in their network. They trust and pay attention to these people, who may be C-level executives, frontline employees or external consultants.

Digital natives from younger generations may provide new insights on tech topics, for example. While external consultants or hires, especially if they are outside a leaders’ direct sphere of operation – profession, industry, market, or function – can often offer valuable unbiased opinions.

Part of this process means having the courage to tolerate mavericks and alternative perspectives. Encourage radical thinking that challenges the mainstream. Protect organisational heretics; find a means for them to communicate their views in the least disruptive manner.

Distributed decision-making. CEOs cannot make all the decisions in an organisation. Nor should they want to. Leaders provide clarity of purpose. They set the direction of travel, establishing the broad context and parameters within which distributed decision making can take place. This decision-making framework should be one of the threads that underpins an organisation’s culture.

Although the means of reaching the proposed destination can and will flex, the end goal, the organisation’s vision, must remain reasonably constant. Otherwise initiative fatigue can set in, depleting and diffusing energy.

When the direction of travel is well-established, and clear to all employees, it allows day-to-day decision making to be pushed out into the organisation value chain, to the person best equipped to take that decision at that point in time. To the people who have the knowledge and experience at a granular level to distinguish the essential from the extraneous.

Level 5 leadership. As a final note, it is worth returning to the thoughts of management guru Jim Collins. While not all the Great companies featured in his book Good to Great may have lived up to that billing, there is still value to be had from Collins’ leadership framework – and in particular the concept of Level 5 leadership. To climb to the summit of Collins’ leadership model, level 5 leaders require a combination of professional will and personal humility. They are leaders that value the advice and wisdom of others. In a society, where many people are searching for authenticity and meaning, those seem like reasonable leadership characteristics to aspire to.

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