Vision 2020: Are you a 21st-Century Leader?

We hear from Tim Anderson - an Executive Coach who supports leaders and their executives around the globe by way of executive reflection. He achieves this by supporting executives to discover and then practise the ability of reflective practice and by supporting organisations to deliver reflective practice throughout their organisations. Below, Tim delves into the role of the 21st-century leader and the benefits of executive reflection.

Through my work as a coach and consultant, I have been amused by the number of organisations that have used “Vision 2020” as a title when launching their new strategic initiatives. As we’ve approached the end of the decade and reached 2020, I can’t help but wonder what organisations have achieved in terms of supporting their teams and leaders to deliver on their “2020 visions”.

The year 2020 is now upon us and some of the challenges it is accompanied by include:

  • 87% of employees worldwide are not engaged with their work (Gallup 2016).
  • Leaders are increasingly required to support staff in complex and multicultural environments.
  • Senior executives are managing teams that are often working remotely and across time zones.
  • Many are managing teams without having direct authority to do so.
  • Dispersed workforces are having to be managed within the lens of cost reduction and reducing organisations’ carbon footprint.
  • Compliance continues to be a challenge where legislation is produced locally, causing duplication of cost across nations and borders.
  • The influence of technology is enabling personal values of different culture and generations across the globe are considering life with a different and fresher mindset.
  • Ease of communication and connectivity has invigorated topics such as personal health, well-being and the sustainability of our planet.

So what is the role of the 21st-century leader?

Certainly, the modern-day leader is no longer required to be the knight on the white charger, fixing all in front of them, but instead, they are now required to be the facilitator of change.

When considering the past, present and future, there are a few questions that we need to ask: How well did we prepare managers and leaders to work in such a VUCA world where change is the norm?; What support mechanisms are delivering the outcomes we need to see today?; And what initiatives and development methods will support our leaders in contributing to the success of our respective organisations in the future to help meet such challenges?

Reflection leads to better insights into innovation, strategy, and execution.

As we arrive at a new decade, this is the perfect time to stop, reflect and consider what organisations need from their leaders and senior executives and to ask if our historic methods of support are still fit for purpose. A great way to do this is through executive reflection (ER), which is an executive tool that enables enhanced performance. This may be done in isolation or by being supported by engaging with a reflective partner.

The case for executive reflection

The complexities listed earlier highlight some of the challenges that busy leaders face in today’s environment. Many leaders are under constant pressure to perform, in a 24-7 spotlight of social-media attention, and steer the ship in a sea of information. Deep thought and reflection are casualties of this high-pressure and ever-changing environment, as CEOs and senior executives are constantly rushing from one event to another or from one decision to another, whilst downtime is often regarded as wasted time.

However, according to research, leaders and executives who do make time to sit back and contemplate their work argue against this and value the time they spend reflecting immensely.  Reflection leads to better insights into innovation, strategy, and execution. Reflection gives rise to better outcomes and higher credibility with corporate boards, leadership teams, workforces, and other stakeholders.

In reflective thinking, a person examines underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge. Unlike critical thinking, which is aimed at solving a problem and achieving a specific outcome, reflective thought enhances the framing of problems, the search for meaning and pattern recognition.

Citing Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an Associate Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, “reflective thinking engages the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in self-referential mental activities”. At rest, this region exhibits the highest metabolic activity and during goal-oriented thinking, lowers levels of activity. In other words, reflective thinking and critical thinking exist at the opposite ends of a digital switch. When one is ‘on’, the other is ‘off’.

To succeed, executives should engage in both types of thinking. As complexity rises and the pace of change accelerates, executives need to engage in critical thinking to solve immediate challenges and in reflective thinking to clarify the big picture and imagine untapped opportunities.

In reflective thinking, a person examines underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge. Unlike critical thinking, which is aimed at solving a problem and achieving a specific outcome, reflective thought enhances the framing of problems, the search for meaning and pattern recognition.

Reflective practice can be carried out in isolation and form part of an executive’s regular work pattern. Reflection should be given both a structure and a schedule to ensure the process does not just drift into worrying about the immediate problems and challenges right in front of you today. A schedule ensures that the discipline is developed, that it becomes regular and that it is set in ‘tablets of stone’ within the executive’s diary.

There is a case for using a ‘reflective partner’ to help challenge and stretch the reflection and this might be provided from a trusted partner from outside your organisation. By doing so, the executive will be able to have an open and honest dialogue in a safe space, whilst taking feedback from someone with a wider perspective than the people within their own organisation. The reflective partner will also help the executive to hold themselves to account on actions and commitments that come from the sessions.

The reflective partner would work under guidelines of confidentiality and not share any details of the intervention, however, because some reflective partners provide support to various executives from the organisation, it is inevitable that patterns and themes will emerge. Thus, they might see the need to share these with the organisation, without invading the privacy and trust that has developed whilst in service of their client. This is where a structure of ‘supervision’ can accommodate the observation and sharing of recurring trends and themes without directly impeding the executive and the reflective partner’s intimacy.

 The case for supervision of executive reflection

By providing a supervisory tier to reflective practice, an organisation can begin to place a framework of quality assurance around the executive’s reflection process. It provides an element of good practice for the reflective partners to operate by and it enables the ethical and confidentiality challenges to be performed to an agreed standard. It supports consistency across the organisation of reflective practice.

The nature of reflection cuts across departments and divisions and often, a reflective partner is supporting executives from different areas both functionally and geographically. Themes and patterns that might not look so obvious in isolation emerge, however, from a wider, systemic lens, they might begin to provide evidence that hitherto had gone unnoticed or perhaps had been viewed as an isolated incident. By sharing the theme, the opportunity for improvement can be filtered back to the organisation for consideration with other topics that are up for debate.

For instance, in one organisation I worked with, we noticed a distinct difference in the line manager’s communication ability between one region to another. This provided an opportunity for each community to learn from each other and consider a consistent approach that would serve the organisation in a better way going forward.

In another organisation, we discovered inconsistency with client on-boarding and induction of staff. Once again, an internal exercise of mirroring enabled induction to be amended which led to an improvement in time to get new team members up to speed and therefore, increased the speed to full productivity.

Supervision can help the individual executive and the senior leadership team consider the challenges the organisation faces from a wider vantage point and can support the identification and implementation of improved professional practice that meets stakeholder needs.

It can deliver improvements such as:

  • Building executive presence for leaders and mid-level executives
  • Enhanced communication skills
  • Greater confidence and improved performance
  • Increased understanding of self and more developed emotional self-management
  • Greater influence and improved relationships
  • Increased flexibility and enhanced resilience
  • Reduced stress and improved wellbeing
  • Increased alignment of corporate objectives and strategy
  • An increase in team engagement and inclusivity

The ability to build leaders that can support the organisation and those working within it is vital for the success of the organisations we represent. Leaders need to be exceptional at influencing, developing interpersonal relationships, generating trust and creating strong and meaningful dialogue. Our executives require the ability to have leadership skills that are fit for purpose – skills that allow for great relationships and enable them to influence and motivate people. These skills are fundamental to leadership success. Whether they are selling new ideas at the leadership table, communicating bad news to the team or engaging stakeholders in difficult decisions, leaders need to be sensitive, flexible, confident, courageous and highly persuasive. And if you feel like you need help with any of these points, executive reflection might be worth a try.


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