Transforming our leaders for success in a VUCA world

A journey from self-limiting to self-authoring: Carsten Tripler and Alex Grimshaw describe a radically different leadership development programme for BAYER leaders.

Are you prepared to handle a VUCA (Volatility-Uncertainty-Complexity-Ambiguity) world? Do you recognise the disruptive impact that digital technologies could have in your business area? Are you comfortable in your skin to deal with the uncertainty of the future and the ambiguous reality around us? Are you a self-directed learner and independent thinker who can identify new opportunities, evaluate options, and take the right action in the face of myriad risks? Do you show up authentically for your team, invite genuine collaboration, create psychological safety so your people speak their minds, and bring a calming presence where there is confusion and instability?

These questions speak to the heart of the capabilities now needed to navigate the deep disruptions and profound changes in a VUCA world. The traditional skills and competencies associated with managerial leadership are no longer sufficient. At the current pace of change, even extensive experience in a domain will not guarantee that you know the right questions to ask, nor whether the answers you receive are correct and relevant. The future is blurry, not easily decipherable, and problems are increasingly complex. In a VUCA world, the subject matter experts you have learned to rely on may be no better at predicting the next trend than a recent college graduate. Instead, effective business leadership today originates from developing and training high levels of self- and contextual awareness, versatility of thinking modes, generative dialoguing, and the readiness and agility to respond swiftly and pivot your strategies in the blink of an eye.

A new type of leadership programme emerges

To effectively respond to these shifts in leadership development requirements and to support BAYER’s digital transformation strategy, Peter Spannagl, globally responsible for senior leadership programmes at Bayer, implemented an immersive learning journey for training leaders at the middle management level to adapt to and embrace the changing BAYER business environment. Spannagl was inspired by the transformative approach to executive development which at that time was being developed in the UK by SyNet, an international Leadership and Organizational Development consulting company. The programme turned out to be a profound co-creation and learning process for everybody involved. Moving beyond the traditional supplier-client boundaries, the spirit of this unique co-design process modelled the underlying principles of the new programme: demonstrating an ability to operate with agility and flexibility in as yet unknown, emerging business contexts while simultaneously providing structure and orientation for all stakeholders when bridging the status quo of current reality with future possibilities. This collaborative approach turned out to be a valuable tool for the design team as its members were researching and tapping into often colliding perspectives and expertise on the topic from academia, business, and consultancy.

Who should participate?

The programme is specifically aimed at experienced managers with four to eight years in the firm. Going forward we hope that the programme will be crucial for the success of transforming how work is understood and done in the organisation. Leaders at this level possess a wealth of domain knowledge and on-the-job experiences which are profoundly respected and critically needed. In this new climate where leaders have to cultivate an entirely new set of leadership literacies, our goal is to help leaders learn and grow beyond where they are now, to maximise your organisational effectiveness, and to meet the increasing mental demands of your professional life with ease.

“Going forward we hope that the programme will be crucial for the success of transforming how work is understood and done in the organisation”

We believe that the learning experience in this programme will be distinctly different from other leadership development programmes. The programme is built around an investigative, experiential set of deep conversations and generative dialogues that aim to provoke deeper thinking about leading in a VUCA world. The programme takes leaders on a journey into identifying, embracing, and empowering their individual leadership character – and as such, no right or wrong outcomes are prescribed. In essence, the programme seeks to expand a leader’s vision, open up new avenues, deal with disruptive digital technologies, practice higher-level thinking, plan and execute complex projects, motivate and energise teams, and make better decisions. While at times leaders might feel stretched and challenged as they ‘operate’ outside their comfort zone, this experience can help boost comfort levels in the VUCA world and develop new sensibilities for sustained smart actions in adverse times.

An amazing course; I had the good fortune to be part of it and it was timely. We have to be on the lookout for signs of volatility and seek out the unchanging truths of leadership and the skills that keep us and our organization relevant. – Sue

When leaders change their mindset

The question at the core of the programme is: ‘How do you change the nature of a crystallised leadership mindset to function productively in high-speed times of turmoil, confusion and adversity? In a static world with little change or complexity, it is easy to master the skills needed to solve problems and manage teams. Work in this context is primarily task-oriented and transactional, and traditional organisations are set up to cascade authority through command and control hierarchies.

However, in a dynamic, evolving world, we face constant change, and reality becomes discontinuous. Leaders may be overwhelmed by an endless flux of new information, disrupting technologies and shifting horizons of understanding. Long-term strategic planning is almost useless and near impossible. Teams and individuals work under tight deadlines, with greater demands for innovative output and profitable results.

This uncertainty makes it difficult to predict whether A will lead to B, or to know which information is accurate, complete or…fake. As a leader, you are increasingly operating under a cloud of confusion and insecurity. Some leaders become risk-averse, fearful of making mistakes, and resort to following protocols and routines, while others thrive in these conditions.

Leaders at the middle management level are particularly prone to developing a regimented mindset, failing to recognise is how their management style is creating obstacles that limit their effectiveness in dealing with a disruptive and changing environment. These leaders often feel uncomfortable moving beyond self-imposed limitations and constraints into a wider world of breakthrough thinking and alternative opportunities for action. Many are trapped or ‘stuck’ for longer than is either healthy or serving.

The fact that some leaders do thrive in a complex and uncertain environment while the majority struggle profoundly, is closely connected to what stage of development they are thinking and acting from. To be effective a leader’s thinking must be equal or superior to the complexity of the environment within which they are operating. The SyNet programme has been designed for leaders to be confident and self-directed as they move into more advanced ‘vertical’ stages of leadership development where they can express this kind of thinking and operating rather than consuming yet another set of horizontal (‘how to’) skills and competencies. In short, the focus is less on content and more on development.

Living by example

The SyNet-Bayer leadership development programme was originally designed as one virtual and three in-person modules to be taken over the course of one year. The content included extensive interpersonal interactions and experiential activities. SyNet had already offered the programme at several locations around the world, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, at which point the entire programme was converted to a virtual online class using Zoom. At this point the SyNet team, in collaboration with Peter Spannagl, had to go back to the drawing board to rethink, innovate, and re-design – and fast. Overnight, the conceptual base of the programme itself became a lived reality and the design team had to actively demonstrate the competencies taught in the programme. Once it had been decided to maintain all delivery dates of the global roll-out as scheduled, despite the crisis, the team managed to redesign the upcoming programme module for virtual delivery in less than two weeks, applying lessons learned in the process, adjusting and entering the same cycle for the next modules. For designers, faculty, and participants it was a unique experience as the learning environment perfectly merged with the unfolding reality in which they were operating.

“For designers, faculty, and participants it was a unique experience as the learning environment perfectly merged with the unfolding reality in which they were operating”

“What I discovered about being a leader is that no one really knows anything. As a leader, you cannot be afraid of making changes when things are not working. There is no path so you have to go first. There is no perfect answer so you have to do something. You cannot wait for people to tell you what to do.” – Duane

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    Transforming our leaders for success in a VUCA world

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