Thriving in Turbulent Times: The Strategic Executor and Accountable Collaborator
The pandemic has been referred to as both the “Great Uncovering” and the “Great Unfreezing,” as previously ignored weaknesses were suddenly thrust into the spotlight. The unfreezing definitely loosened but often did not fully break the bonds to past approaches. And although the brunt of the pandemic appears to be behind us, we remain in flux with a seemingly continuous parade of disruptions and uncertainty.
Many leaders appear reluctant to make the changes needed to address long-term strategic imperatives and prepare for a much different future than the past they remember and miss. Their focus on short-term results is short-sighted, because no calm period is on the horizon for them to focus on the important work.
The majority of news reports and recent surveys expect the level of change, disruption and uncertainty to be the same or higher than it has been. Waiting is not a viable option. Those who do will be lucky if they survive, as others take charge of their destiny, determined to thrive.
Preparing for the Future
In previous articles, I laid out the case for a new set of capabilities, The Five Leadership Superpowers, and detailed the first three, Present Futurist, Experienced Learner and Prepared Risk Taker. In this third installment, I will focus on three weaknesses that predated the pandemic. They are:
- Failing to balance and integrate strategy and execution (operations), choosing instead to focus on short-term and urgent, often preventable, issues.
- Perpetuating silos and a “go it alone” approach, failing to foster collaboration across functional and organizational boundaries.
- Focusing on activities (“busyness”) instead of on achieving desired outcomes while holding individuals accountable for results they cannot achieve on their own.
The Superpowers that address these are becoming a Strategic Executor and an Accountable Collaborator.
“Strategy without execution is the slowest route to victory, and tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” — Sun Tzu from the “Art of War.”
A Strategic Executor recognizes that strategy and execution (operations) are integrally linked and must be considered jointly. They acknowledge that balancing and focusing on strategy AND operations, not one at the expense of the other, is critical. They understand that rash decisions in the short term can have long-term implications.
Consider Delta Airlines: according to CEO Ed Bastian, “When COVID hit, Delta was the most profitable, best-performing airline, not just in the county but in the world, ever.” As soon as the pandemic hit, it lost 95% of its business. It was a critical time for the industry, let alone Delta.
From the outset, Ed Bastian functioned as a Strategic Executor. By the middle of March 2020, he quickly realized that he and his leadership team did not have answers or know what was to come. With that in mind, he communicated the principles and values to guide Delta through the pandemic: Focus on protecting our people, customers and their safety. Protect and be mindful of our cash while safeguarding our future. The latter point is essential to be a strategic executor.
Delta made decisions based on these principles. Unlike other airlines that began to slash costs by blindly and abruptly laying people off, mothballing planes, and alienating customers and employees alike, Delta and Ed Bastian took a different approach.
The company was transparent in their internal and external communications. Knowing their strategic and operational plans were no longer relevant, they focused the organization on its principles and values. Rather than firing people, they offered early voluntary retirement before issuing furloughs. They stayed in touch with current and furloughed employees. They knew the business would return and Delta would need their great employees back to succeed — and acted with this in mind.
They took similar steps with customers. They quickly provided credit for canceled flights, eliminated cancellation fees and dropped lucrative change fees permanently. They blocked middle seats and extended limited capacity longer, emphasizing their focus on safety. While they knew most customers were not ready to fly, they strengthened their relationships and generated goodwill through their actions.
As a result of these and other steps, Delta emerged as a stronger brand and company. Because they had not decimated their workforce and company in the process, they could ramp up faster when demand returned compared to other companies that faced labor strife, challenges bringing people back and were plagued with systemic failures. All of this positioned Delta for a faster, more robust recovery and set it up to pounce on future opportunities. The airline remains higher rated than any other U.S. airline on Fortune’s list of Most Admired Companies and has been on the list for nine consecutive years.
Here are some tips for becoming and staying a Strategy Executor:
- Encourage and support principle-driven vs. rule-driven execution, allowing for greater flexibility and responsiveness in disruptive and uncertain situations.
- Consider and weigh long-term implications before deciding and acting on urgent operational issues. Take care not to impair the company’s future with rash decisions.
- Makes operational decisions aligned with longer-term strategy, adapting as conditions change.
- Addresses operational challenges while focusing on longer-term vision and strategy, even under pressure.
During times of disruption and uncertainty, being a Strategic Executor provides employees and customers with a sense of stability through its constancy of purpose and principles. Customers remain loyal because they know the company cares about them and keeps its promises. Employees have greater faith and confidence in leadership and loyalty to the company because their actions align with what they say and they know what the company stands for.
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“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” — Helen Keller
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” — Albert Einstein
Let’s look at each part of the Accountable Collaborator superpower:
- Accountable has two parts, “account,” referring to a report or description of an event, experience or time, and “able,” referring to one’s ability to act. Holding someone accountable for something they cannot do due to not being enabled and empowered is inherently unfair.
- Collaborator at its root is to collaborate. Collaboration is defined as working together as partners to develop something new for a shared/common purpose based on a solid relationship built on having shared objectives.
People have a tendency to want to know who to hold accountable for something happening in virtually everything we do. It's as if we always have to find someone to blame when things go wrong. I once had a client tell me, “I need to know who to kill if this goal is not met.” Secondly, our culture tends to glorify individual heroes versus great teams. Being an Accountable Collaborator flips these ideas on their heads.
An Accountable Collaborator recognizes that collaboration across functions and organizational boundaries is necessary to address most organizational challenges and opportunities — because these challenges and opportunities are multi-faceted and complex. Accountability must rest with the team, as individuals cannot handle and resolve these challenges/opportunities alone. Responsibility for outcomes (not activities) rests with the team. Individuals are accountable to each other for fulfilling their roles and supporting each other in doing so. They know achieving results is far more critical than completing activities.
Consider the U.S. Special Operations Forces (e.g., SEALs, Green Berets, etc.). The teams are tasked with delivering a specific outcome, such as the capture or elimination of an enemy, the rescue of a group held hostage, or the taking of a particular piece of territory. The teams are formed based on who has the right capabilities needed to achieve the mission and the ability to work with other team members, nothing more, nothing less. The team owns and is held accountable for achieving the desired outcome. The group holds each other accountable for the roles they must fulfill and supports each other in doing so. Oversight and direction are outside of the usual command structures. The teams are fluid and fit for purpose. The achievement of the mission determines the team’s success.
The business world thankfully involves few life and death or national security matters, but the same principles still apply. Here are some tips for becoming and staying an Accountable Collaborator:
- Foster team collaboration and collaborate across internal (functions) and organizational (partners, suppliers, competitors, etc.) boundaries when needed to solve complex challenges and achieve strategic objectives.
- Focus the team on clearly understanding, owning and delivering critical outcomes versus completing activities.
- Facilitates team success by providing timely and adequate resourcing, support for overcoming and removing organizational obstacles, and guidance for navigating challenges.
- Support forming dynamic, fit-for-purpose teams comprised of individuals with the necessary knowledge and capabilities, irrespective of position or level, which can supersede (or overlay) existing organizational structure to deliver critical outcomes.
Complex, disruptive and uncertain times demand leaders who foster, enable and empower nimble, dynamic teams that can deliver results. It’s all about getting the right people on the right bus, going in the right direction, and being able to adapt as conditions change. Accountable Collaborators are essential for success in whitewater environments like those we currently and will continue to face.
This concludes the introduction to each of The Five Leadership Superpowers. In the final two installments, we will discuss how the Superpowers support and reinforce one another, the benefits they collectively deliver, who needs the Superpowers and where they should be applied, and how to start becoming a Superpowered organization.
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.