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Thriving in Turbulent Times: The Experienced Learner and the Prepared Risk Taker

October 11, 2022 Leadership
Jay Weiser
By Jay Weiser LinkedIn

The pandemic revealed a raft of leadership and organizational weaknesses. Most of these weaknesses predated COVID-19 and persist for most organizations. Why is that?

Leaders and the organizations they lead are reluctant to change. They devote time to fighting fires and focusing on near-term operational issues rather than devoting the time and resources to create change. It's almost as if they expect things to calm down, time to magically free up, and resources to suddenly appear. This dangerous thinking could not be further from the truth.

“If you do not like change, you will like irrelevancy even less.”

- General Eric Shinseki

My previous article introduced The Five Leadership Superpowers. The Superpowers are a set of capabilities necessary for leaders and their organizations to thrive in the face of accelerating change, frequent disruptions and rampant uncertainty.

Getting Unstuck From the Past

In this second installment, I want to focus on two systemic weaknesses the pandemic exacerbated and which persist in many organizations today. They are:

  • Overweighting and over-relying on experience and expertise that worked in the past and being closed or resistant to new thinking and new approaches.
  • Hyper-focusing on efficiency, productivity and loss avoidance at the expense of investing in risk awareness and any meaningful level of preparedness or resilience.

The Superpowers that address these weaknesses are becoming and staying an Experienced Learner and a Prepared Risk Taker.

The Five Superpowers: The Experienced Learner and the Prepared Risk Taker
PHOTO: Jay Weiser Consulting

Experienced Learner

The Experienced Learner recognizes the experience and expertise that helped drive success in the past is often insufficient, and even at times irrelevant, to the challenges and opportunities we now and will continue to face. This is not to say that all experience and expertise are bad. However, it often must be augmented and sometimes replaced by new learning and approaches.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

– Alvin Toffler, "Future Shock"

Consider the WD-40 Company and its ubiquitous blue and yellow can with the little red top. The WD stands for Water Displacement, and the 40 stands for the 40th attempt (a success, finally). Its failures and what it learned from them led to its ultimate success.

I recently spoke with Garry Ridge, the former WD-40 Company chairman and CEO (for 35 years) and current chairman emeritus. He is widely known for the learning culture he helped shape, which has been featured in Harvard Business Review and other major business publications. During our conversation, he shared the origins of WD-40 Company and shared that “fear (of failure) is a disabler.” He asked me if I knew what FAIL meant. I was a bit puzzled. Seeing this, he responded that FAIL means “first attempt in learning.”

Garry struck “failure” from the WD-40 Company vocabulary and replaced it with “learning moment.” The company defines learning moments as experiences — both positive and negative — that the organization can learn from. People are not penalized for experiencing learning moments if they learn and do not repeat the same thing. This provides a safe environment to innovate, ask questions, challenge assumptions and more. You can learn more about their learning culture on the WD-40 Company website.

Learning leaders and organizations are never complacent. They recognize that a dynamic environment requires continuous learning and improving learning capabilities. Doing so enables flexibility and adaptability to ever-changing conditions. Here are some tips for becoming an Experienced Learner and creating an environment encouraging others to do the same.

  • Anticipate, identify and develop new capabilities and knowledge to improve preparedness and emerging challenges and trends.
  • Engage others, seeking a diversity of views — regardless of position — to learn and assist in addressing challenges, taking advantage of opportunities and preparing for the future.
  • Welcome debate and open discussion, encouraging others to challenge past practices and assumptions, ask tough questions, and both develop and share new ideas without fear of repercussions.
  • Recognize experience and expertise can be insufficient in different environments or when facing novel challenges. Resolve this by improving existing capabilities, building new ones and expanding knowledge.

Related Article: Accelerate Leadership Development With a Fresh Take on Coaching

Prepared Risk Taker

First and foremost, a Prepared Risk Taker recognizes that intelligent risk-taking is essential to business success. They realize every decision and action has some risk, positive or negative. The same applies to those who choose not to decide or act, although many fail to realize or account for this. A Prepared Risk Taker plays to win (offense), not to avoid losing (defense), remembering it is offense, not defense, that scores points. They recognize the importance and benefits of improving organizational and individual preparedness and resilience in an environment buffeted by accelerating change, frequent disruptions and rampant uncertainty.

Consider Florida’s response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Following this catastrophic category 5 storm that destroyed over 25,000 homes, Florida recognized deficiencies in its building codes made worse by lax enforcement. It developed and now enforce the country's most robust storm-specific building codes to prevent devastating damage from future storms.

For example, it mandated stronger connections between the foundation, the house and the roof and required either hurricane shutters or impact-resistant glass for all windows. Additionally, regular reminders are sent to homeowners to always have batteries, generators and water on hand and contact plans to check on and reach loved ones during hurricane season, just in case. While there is a cost to taking some of these steps, it far outweighs the potential cost and risk of not doing so.

But preparedness is not just for disasters. It is essential for many business disruptions such as supply chain issues, inflation/recession, workforce issues, societal changes and unexpected/unseen competitor moves — all of which we've gone through in the last few years. Risk awareness and assessment are critical components and drivers of preparedness.

Risk assessments should consider not only the likelihood of a risk event but also the likely impact severity should it occur. That is why homes in Tornado Alley have (or should have) tornado cellars. The investment to install one is worth it, given the likelihood of catastrophic loss of life should a tornado strike. It is not so much the commonly known and occurring risks that are cause for concern, but those that are uncommon, unexpected and unknown, as well as the secondary and tertiary effects of these and other risks.

Here are some tips for becoming and staying a Prepared Risk Taker:

  • Conduct pilot tests of changes and innovations to catch issues early before placing bigger bets.
  • Enhance risk awareness/understanding by identifying risks faster, assessing their potential impact/likelihood, and determining if they require action, escalation or monitoring.
  • Identify low-cost, no-regret moves to improve preparedness and mitigate certain risks. For example, conducting fire drills, backing up data or developing basic crisis response playbooks.
  • Shift risk management from being compliance-focused to strategy-focused and from a loss avoidance orientation to one of value creation.

Preparedness and resilience act as disruption shock absorbers, dampening the potential downsides of risk, speeding up recovery, and enabling those with it to pounce on opportunities faster, amplifying upside returns. How an organization addresses and prepares for risks can create strategic advantages for those who approach it this way. Which do you want to be, a basketball that bounces off a wall or a coffee mug that shatters to pieces? Failing to prepare and build resilience for future turbulence is, in essence, choosing to be the coffee mug.

Becoming and staying an Experienced Learner and Prepared Risk Taker are two of the most impactful Superpowers. In the next in our Five Leadership Superpower series, we will discuss becoming a Strategic Executor and an Accountable Collaborator.

Related Article: Deciding to Decide

About the Author

Jay Weiser is the Principal and Founder of Jay Weiser Consulting. Fueled by a passion for helping clients reach their potential, he enables leadership teams and their organizations to not only survive but thrive in the face of disruptiveness and uncertainty.

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