How To Drive Clarity And Creativity In Times Of Disruption
“There is so much we don’t know about the future, it just feels like we’re treading water. My people are anxious”, an executive coaching client confided in me recently. As leaders it can be frustrating when we know we need to provide clarity about the future, but clarity eludes us.
Here’s what to do instead. When we can’t predict the future, we focus on finding a meaningful problem worth solving. After all, the purpose of any business and how it creates value is by solving tough problems for its stakeholders.
I have been interviewing leaders who are being agile and making a meaningful impact in times of disruption. One such leader is Aamir Paul of Scheider Electric. Schneider Electric is a US $30 billion Fortune 500 company in the electronics industry with over 130,000 employees. In our interview we discussed how to remain agile and innovative in times of disruption.
Henna Inam: How is Schneider Electric managing through this disruption?
Aamir Paul: Let me approach this by describing some of the most compelling problems we see within the energy ecosystem that we’re solving for. If you look at the amount of electrification and energy consumption vectors of the world, they’re going to continue to increase at almost a 40 percent rate. Then, if you look at the carbon emission vector, the rate of decline that is needed is equally dramatic. So, you have two vectors going in opposite directions. As the world’s population continues to increase, there is an expectation of a better quality of life which includes access to energy, so how do you resolve that dilemma? If I were to describe one problem statement that encapsulates what we do every day, it’s about how we’re helping customers make the most of their energy resources in order to be more efficient and sustainable.
Inam: Where do you find inspiration for yourself as a leader?
Paul: At our leadership conference earlier this year, we hosted the Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX, where she elegantly described their company’s mission in terms of facilitating the ability for humans to ultimately colonize other planets. That ambition was fabulous and what stood out was that she spoke about the need to have a Plan B in case our planet doesn’t survive. What inspires me is that we’re working on Plan A and making sure we can find a way where the quality of life for everybody improves but does not come at the cost of our planet. Having a vision, making bold bets, taking the right risks, and empowering others to do the same – that’s what excites me as a leader.
Inam: What traits or behaviors are important for a leader in order to create a culture of agility and flexibility?
Paul: Every company culture is different so there isn’t necessarily a single recipe for success. As a leader, it’s important to be curious and ask yourself, ‘Is there a better way to do it?’ You must recognize there will be moments where you lead and moments where you follow. Also, show humility and admit when you don’t have all the answers. Leaders who facilitate an openness to change are far more effective in environments of uncertainty like the one we’re currently in. Creating a space for everyone to contribute, stay curious and challenge themselves and others to experiment is key. Lastly, I think leaders must embrace the concept of urgency and the idea of moving quickly to make important decisions. An underpinning of being an agile organization means removing rigidity in your setup.
Inam: How do we create cultures where risk-taking and failure are acceptable?
Paul: As leaders, we must encourage “failing fast.” Failure is when you come out of a process not knowing any more than when you went into it and exhausted lots of resources. Leaders must also talk about their own failures. Every time I do that, I’m surprised by the feedback because people are appreciative that I’m sharing it. There is this perception of leaders that they never worry about their business decisions, and that’s certainly not true in my case. So I try to understand the anxieties and fears of my people and communicate ways to help them learn and ultimately succeed.
Inam: Schneider Electric is experimenting with new organizational models. Can you tell me what models of work you’re exploring and how employees have responded?
Paul: We believe in experiential learning in order to create accessible and equal opportunities within the company. We also believe it’s important to constantly provide our people with the opportunities to upskill, reskill and seek out work they feel drawn to. For example, we took inspiration from the gig economy and came up with the concept of an Open Talent Marketplace. We match people who are interested in working on a particular problem with open project assignments. It results in a team with a diverse mix of backgrounds and experiences. It’s been a tremendous success – we have 28,000 employees globally participating, which is 32% of our employee base. We’ve found some great talent by using this concept, and what’s most interesting is that we’ve completed 45,000 hours of work in the marketplace alone.
Inam: As we think about the state we’re currently in with the pandemic, how do you enable people to grow during times of change and disruption?
Paul: In the traditional sense, leadership was once tied to hierarchy. However, if you look at the most successful organizational structures today, it’s clear this is an antiquated model. As a leader, it’s important to remember that leadership should not be viewed as a position, but as an act. It’s this notion of having the capacity to bring a group of people together to help them create something that they couldn’t have done otherwise and for them to sustain it. People need to feel empowered, too. You don’t want them to feel alone, but you also don’t want them to feel constrained or micromanaged. Giving assignments where you can provide people support, yet also space, for them to go create something on their own and grow is what really matters.
In addition to the above topics we discussed Paul’s advice for young leaders and other topics related to the future of work. You can find the complete version of this interview on the Transformational Leadership podcast.
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