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We’ve just completed our CEO research on Advanced Executive Fluency: Responding to New Leadership Challenges in a Complex World.

It’s outlines the ways of thinking, acting and being that executive leaders will be required to be fluent in as they lead in a world of hyper-disruption and complexity.

Stay tuned as over the next few weeks, until the publication date of 13th May, I’ve got some really interesting podcasts, articles and take-aways that I hope you’ll find useful.

Today’s podcast outlines the research and the thinking behind it.

Click this link if you’d like to sign up to receive the report when it’s published.

The organisational peak is a perilous environment. It is more complex and challenging than anything that has gone before. And consequently, both executive tenure and corporate longevity are decreasing. To survive and thrive at the perilous peak, executive leaders need to balance their functional leadership, a focus on execution with enterprise leadership, that is ensuring the organisation adapts in our new world. That is what we will be exploring in the Advanced Executive Leadership podcast. Welcome. I’m your host Jacqueline Conway. I’m the Founder and Managing Director of Walden Croft, a consulting practice dedicated to helping Executives and Executive teams anticipate, navigate and lead at the perilous peak.


There’s a scholar at Harvard called Ramcharan who has written a book that is very popular and well known within development circles, called the Leadership Pipeline. His basic premise is that as leaders move to ever increasing roles of seniority in an organisation, they don’t ascend the organisation in a straight line, but they go in a series of turns.


Each turn represents the promoted post that the person moves up to as they move to ever increasing roles of seniority, and at each of these 180 degree turns or hockey stick turns as he calls them (we in Waldencroft call them switchbacks). At each of these switchbacks a leader has to take on new responsibilities and therefore must let go of some of the things that they may have been highly competent at a lower level, because it’s not what is required for the level that they are at.


If we accept that model ,and we work with it quite a lot in Waldencroft, we think that it’s a very good model with a number of modifications that we have for working at the very senior levels in organisations. We think that as the leader ascends the organisation there are three things that the leader has to think about differently in order to take on that new role differently. We work a lot with this model with our own modifications of it, and particularly as it relates to the way that leaders make these turns at much more senior levels in the organisation.


In particular, we think that there are three things that change as a person ascends the organisation, three things that they have to take into consideration irrespective of what their functional area is or what the promoted post is. The first of them, irrespective of the role, is that their relationship to the work changes. Further down the hierarchy where you perhaps start with managing self where your responsibility is to come in and be perhaps a specialist in your own particular area. The first turn is that you go from managing yourself in your own output to then managing others. That’s the first of those hockeystick turns and  of course your relationship to the work there is the most obvious one which changes because your not doing the doing as much as you are supervising other people in their doing and that distance from the work that relationship to the work changes in that way as you move up the organisation.


The second of those things is that the time horizon for the output of the work changes. The further down in the organisation you are working, the shorter the timescales of the things that you are expected to deliver and typically the more senior you become, the outlook is much further out. By the time you get to really senior levels in the organisation you’re looking decades out, not just the next quarter, or you ought to be looking at that as well as the next quarter.


The third is really around complexity, so the complexity that you are grappling with increases as you get to ever senior levels and the interdependencies at those senior levels increase, so that you’re having to take on more of what’s in the wider context that you’re operating within, not just within your own local area. That’s the basic premise, and our research was particularly interested in, what happens at that last turn where you go from being a functional lead, perhaps you are a director of or head of service of (depending on the size of organisation) a particular function and then you move to the C-Suite where in effect you shift from having what is predominantly a functional responsibility to having an enterprise wide responsibility.


The question we asked ourselves in the research was what are the ways of thinking, acting and being, that executive leaders need to embrace as they fully take up their role as enterprise leaders in the C-Suite? We knew that we were expecting these leaders not just to become proficient in these ways of thinking, acting, and being the things they needed to become really fluent in.


And that’s why we called it Advanced Executive Fluency. We did this piece of research that was a piece of grounded theory research, which essentially means that you start with the problem at hand, rather than a hypothesis, and then you go out and look for what others say is important, and then you build the theory on the back of that rather than starting with your own hypothesis. We worked with 17 chief executives to see what are these fluencies that we would expect executive leaders to have and we had five in the mix. Originally, we went down to four into the mix, and those four things were cognitive fluency future fluency, ethical fluency and emotional fluency.


Over the next few weeks until we launch the report on the 13th of May, we’re going to do a series of blog posts and podcasts on each of those fluencies, really trying to get under the skin of them before we publish the report. What I wanted to do today was just spend a few minutes on each to outline what they are by way of introduction of the research, of the theory that we’re building, all of this now eight-week piece of work that we’re going to do leading up to the publication of the report.


If there’s anything that executive leaders are expected to do, it’s to diagnose issues, to take decisions, and to solve problems. The types and frequency of the problems executives are asked to face are really multifarious, and some types of those problems executives solve and organisations solve consistently well. But others not so much. So, what types of problems are proving difficult for leaders as they attempt to solve them?


What we found is that some problems seem to defy solving or seem baffling to otherwise really experienced and intelligent leaders. And typically, what we see is that they are applying the wrong logic in those problems. Some problems we can describe as being complicated or technical in nature, that is that they require expertise in order to solve them, but that there is a way to solve them. There is a fairly reductionist way that somebody could go about solving that particular problem, subject to them having the right level of expertise.


There are some people who have already thought about this. Dave Snowden, with his Cynethin Framework where he differentiates different types of problems, complicated problems being those that require a technical solution, expertise relative to complex problems which are not amenable to the same sorts of solutions that complicated problems are, and therefore it requires a different way to think about them, to diagnose them, and also to try and solve them. What we would say in Waldencroft that actually those kind of complex problems require a very different sort of leadership. Ron Heifetz at Harvard characterised these sorts of things as technical versus adaptive challenges, so a technical problem requires a change.


Again, that has required some technical expertise, but doesn’t fundamentally alter what the organisation is or how it sees itself in order to solve it with its adaptive challenges require the organisation to rethink who and what it is in order to solve it. So, you can see that there is a vast difference between these two things these complicated or technical challenges versus adaptive for complex problems.


The first of the fluencies that we have identified is cognitive fluency, and when we talk about cognitive fluency, we’re referring to the ability to intellectually, cognitively be able to 1st diagnose the different types of problems that you might be trying to solve, and then be able to deploy different approaches, different methodologies for each in order to most effectively solve it, and to most effectively lead people differently depending on how you are going to deploy resources.


To try and grapple with the particular challenge that you are faced with, and we see this as being a really crucial thing that executive leaders need to develop as they work in the C-Suite with enterprise leadership.


The second of the fluencies is futures fluency, which is really the ability to anticipate possible futures and take responsibility for the future that you’re creating. I’ve already talked about the fact that as a leader moves up and through the organising they become more senior. The time horizon that they’re working with moves out. Unfortunately, all too often, particularly in publicly owned companies, the time horizon is still short term to the quarter where they’re doing their quarterly reporting within a two or three-year strategy horizon.


But the most effective organisations are really looking much, much further out than that and they are deploying good strategic foresight to look at the potential trends and disruptors that are coming down the line so that they can ready the organisation depending on how things change in the wider context and environment in which they operate.


We all know about good strategising and good strategic foresight work, but there’s an added dimension to good future fluency. That is the ability to talk about and to think about how the organisation wants to be in that future, what legacy the organisation is trying to create beyond profit and of course profit is important, but not just about profit. The idea of what legacy are you creating? Are you being a good ancestor for in 50 years time people look back on the organisation and see that you contributed something positive to the world rather than something negative.


The climate crisis is probably the most important example of that right now. What are you doing as an organisation to solve for these sorts of things within your particular spear of influence? What we’re seeing with future fluency, it’s the ability to be able to work with those short term needs that are absolutely essential in the business, but be able to pivot to the long term to the very long term future and be able to see who are we trying to become, what are we trying to offer the world above just profit maximisation in the short term.


The third of the Fluencies is ethical fluency and that’s the ability to face into the ethical and moral dilemmas that you’re often confronted with when doing enterprise  leadership. One of the things that I often see is that executive teams are grappling with problems where there’s not one simple right and one simple wrong answer that becomes a fairly straightforward binary, do this and don’t do that when these things do come up. The executive teams that I work with tend to bat those things away relatively simplistically.


They are often confronted with much more challenging conundrums, where whichever way you turn, there are some ethical implications to that. One of the examples that I saw during lockdown was organisations that had made a commitment to not have 0 hours contracts for example. That had been a fairly straightforward binary, you know that’s preferable not to do that. They were in profit things were going well, and the action to that decision, and they rightly felt good about that decision.


But then along comes lock down, there’s a catastrophic or potentially catastrophic impact in the business and they’ve gone through two rounds of redundancies. The ethical dilemma then doesn’t become zero hours contracts or not zero hours contracts, it becomes much more nuanced and difficult. Do we go for zero hours contracts? Or do we have another round of redundancies to potentially save the jobs of these people longer term and we’re in a better position to be able to move away from the zero hours contracts stance again, but introduce it now because we’re in a particularly difficult situation.


Or is it more ethical to make these people redundant and allow them to go and see what else the world holds for them? These are challenging things and the executive teams who were grappling with these well and who actually knew that they were having a moral and ethical dilemma, as well as a strategic and practical one, were the ones who tackled it best.


The 4th of the fluencies is emotional fluency and what we mean by emotional fluency isn’t the idea of Daniel Goldman and others about emotional intelligence where you’re able to tune in with empathy to other people but when we’re talking about emotional fluency, we’re talking about working with our own internal emotional process as it relates to decision making and problem solving. Let me give you an example of that, one of the things I often see when I’m observing an executive team is when they’re faced with a really challenging conundrum or dilemma there is often a gravitational pull to make a decision, any decision, and in those situations the decision making process is as much about dissipating their own anxiety as it is about really solving the problem that they need to solve.


Quite often in solving those kind of complex problems it requires them to sit with it for longer, so the ability to tune into and to tolerate your own emotional process, your own anxiety at this level is much greater than it is  in other levels in the organisation and actually becomes really important in you being able to exercise good judgement in order to make good decisions.


I hope you’ve been able to see here that the four fluencies interact with each other a great deal. The ability to work with complexity is absolutely bound up with their ability to be able to anticipate the future. A future that hasn’t yet occurred, but to be able to say what might happen and how can we wrap our heads around that in order to anticipate and navigate that future well, and the ability to work with the kind of ethical conundrums that these things bring up, and the ability to drop down into our own emotional process so that we make the best decisions for the organisation, not just in the short term, but for that much longer term horizon that is really important.


So that is the four fluencies and over the next eight weeks, we’re going to take each of the fluencies, and we’re going to explore them in more detail with chief people officers who were going to get into conversation with around what are you seeing in your organisation? how are you grappling with these things? I have a series of blog posts that I’ll post over those eight weeks and then we’ll publish the report on Friday the 13th of May.


If you’re not already on the mailing list for it, as I said at the beginning, then we’ve put a link below in the show notes and you can click the link and then when the research is published on the 13th of May then it will come directly to your inbox. And if there are any issues here that resonate with you and you would like to have a conversation about them. Then please just reach out again on the contact details below in the show notes, and I would really love to hear from you. Thank you.

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What’s required from Executive Leaders has changed. Find out how executive leaders and executive teams can survive and thrive in our disrupted world. Interviews with CEOs and insights from Waldencroft’s Dr Jacqueline Conway.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.