Are you training future leaders to deal with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity?

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 6, 2015

The acronym VUCA, meaning volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, was coined in the 1990s by the military to describe the growing geo-political landscape in which it had to operate. The same acronym was soon applied to the fast-paced landscape of the business world. How should businesses modify their talent management and development initiatives to effectively operate in a VUCA environment?

In 2013, Kirk Lawrence, program director of the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina, published an informative paper titled, “Developing Leaders in a VUCA Environment.” Lawrence states, “The volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity inherent in today’s business world is the ‘new normal,’ and it is profoundly changing not only how organizations do business, but how business leaders lead. The skills and abilities leaders once needed to help their organizations thrive are no longer sufficient. Today, more strategic, complex critical-thinking skills are required of business leaders.”

So, how do you screen potential employees for VUCA skills that can be further developed? Ask them questions to determine if they possess the following:

Ability to exercise good critical judgment

Ask the applicant to share situations in the past where they had to make a decision but only had perhaps 20 or 30 percent of the information needed, and did not have the time or couldn’t obtain the remaining information. Did they exercise good critical judgment? Did they obtain input from others before making the decision, even if the decision was within their authority level? What was the outcome, and what was learned? Always hire people with good critical judgment.

Courage to violate company policy when it is in the best interests of the company

You should hire people who will question a company policy if by following it in a specific situation would cause financial or reputational harm to the company. Ask the applicant if they ever faced this type of situation and how they handled it.

As a business manager early in my career, I ordered the recall of a product which our manufacturing plant found to be contaminated after it was shipped to a number of distributors. The VP of our division was traveling with the CEO, and he was not reachable. As each day would pass, the cost of recalling the contaminated product would increase exponentially as it was distributed further into the channel. Without having the authority, I ordered the recall, knowing that I would either be celebrated or terminated. When I eventually spoke to the VP and told him what I had done, I was celebrated for doing the right thing. Had I been terminated, the company would have lost its future CEO.

Interpersonal skills needed to move an organization forward that resists change

Many people resist change because it creates uncertainty. In today’s business environment, change is a constant. The process of continuous improvement is an imperative for any business. It involves change. Ask the applicant if they have had experience getting an individual or a group of individuals to adapt to change, and how they did it.

So, how do you nurture VUCA skills in developing leaders within your organization?

Identify employees who have potential for growth

Every organization has employees who have strong interpersonal and leadership skills, achieve their goals, generate results, embrace continuous improvement and want to expand their responsibilities. These are the future senior leaders of your organization. Develop them by giving them additional responsibilities or promoting them to a position where they can continue to develop.

Expose developing leaders to a wide variety of new and unstructured experiences

Ask them to serve on groups charged with achieving a goal in a complex and ambiguous area. Hold them accountable for achieving a goal in an area completely new to them. See how they do, and provide feedback on how to improve their performance the next time they are given this type of assignment. Expect mistakes. It will be a learning experience. Anyone who has never made a mistake has never done anything.

As a business unit manager for my company, I filed an anti-dumping suit against a French manufacturer of a competitive product exported to the U.S. and sold below their home market price. Our attorney insisted that my product manager and I play a major role in presenting the case to the Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission. When the decision was announced, it felt like we won a gold medal at the Olympics! We were certainly outside our comfort zone, but what a learning experience.

Invite high potential employees into your inner circle

Expose high potential employees to your thinking on strategic and other complex issues and get their input. You will help these employees build VUCA and other skills. You will be giving them a gift – the opportunity to see how you think, as well as develop their own strategic and conceptual skills.

The societal, competitive and regulatory environment will grow even more complex over time, characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Your job as a senior leader is to prepare the next generation of leaders to effectively lead the organization in a VUCA environment.

Stan Silverman is a writer, speaker and advisor on effective leadership. He is the Leadership Catalyst at Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Silverman is vice chairman of the board of Drexel University, a director of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Website: www.SilvermanL


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