Nigel Ewington
VUCA

Key challenges for integrating top teams (1): a focus on decision-making

How can we support top teams to be more agile in the way they work together? Recently I was approached I was approached by the HR Director of a global manufacturer who had been tasked by the CEO to bring new impetus and energy to the Global Leadership Team on which she sat. She explained that this was a newly expanded team under pressure to increase sales and market share as well as keep costs down, and wanting to integrate regional sales directors to achieve this.

I have learnt with top teams that a team development workshop – with a focus on ‘piggy-backing’ a one or two day learning on to regular meetings of such a team – can bring the release in energy required by the HR Director. So I naturally took the opportunity to speak to each member of the team – including the CEO (and de-facto team leader).  At this critical re-beginning of the team, I wanted to understand how energy could be released in areas of concern to the team. In terms of energy I feel my work is similar to that of the acupuncturist looking into the eyes and examining the tongue of the patient before inserting the needle in the right point of the body.

My initial interviews revealed a common picture of a team where great progress had been made by the CEO – in his first 6 months in the role – of building a sense of trust in his ability to lead the team. However, by common consent, there were concerns about the future -and pain-points from the past -linked to 3 issues:

  1. What kind of team have we been in the past, and what do we need to be in the future to handle the biggest questions our organisation faces? There was a sense coming out of the interviews that the team had lost touch with the markets. It needed to take the opportunity of having regional sales people on board, to unite in serving the customer.  Reporting results was no longer enough. The team needed to work together to solve problems, and deliver results itself. A real team rather than a working group.
  2. How can we learn to trust each other in responding to these issues together?  There was a fear that there may be a trust gap between the competence of sales and other functions (such as marketing, finance and product management) in working together globally to serve the customer. The old team of functional experts were concerned that the sales directors would be able to extricate themselves from the details of their markets to serve the broader needs of the organisation. The new regional sales directors were concerned that would get the opportunity to communicate their experience of the customer to others
  3. How do we create value in the way we communicate and collaborate together in the grey zone? There were a mounting number of pressing strategic issues that needed greater clarity and direction for the organisation to move forward such as the impact of online sales, and the growth of talent. However, there was a perception that decision-making was a key bottleneck in the team. The CEO team leader himself admitted to liking to take time to make decisions, weighing up the various options.  Perhaps partly linked to his Scandinavian roots, he enjoyed working in a consensus-style where opening up discussion supported greater commitment to the decisions finally made. His team-members trusted his judgement, but wanted him to be more decisive in leadership style.

In my experience these 3 questions are the biggest challenges of top teams in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world. How can a group of alpha-males and females pull together and build the repository of trust necessary to themselves create change, rather than depend on delegation to others? How can they get the best of speed with the best of commitment when making decisions?

One activity that we tried out in our opening two-day workshop – particularly linked to question 3 – was the testing of a decision-making process that could be incorporated in real team meetings.

Firstly, the team prioritised top two emerging issues that had implications for the success of the team moving forward, and could not be resolved by working within functional or geographical solos.

Secondly, two mixed groups of sales managers and functional heads were each given one of these issues to make a decision on using a 5-step discussion process and a time-limited meeting. Discussing in parallel in separate rooms, each then reported their ‘recommendations’ back to the team leader who took a decision in front of the whole team.

The 5-step process we agreed on was the following:

1. The team would together agree two ‘grey zones’ that most urgently needed discussing

2. For each grey zone chosen, the whole team would also need together to formulate a question to which the answer is the decision they need to make eg how do we handle differential pricing in the new world of online shopping?

3. The two whole leadership team of 12 people (minus the CEO) would be split into two groups, with each group discussing one of the issues. They would be allocated 45 minutes of real face-to-face problem-solving time to prepare a recommendation to the CEO. This meeting would involve the following steps:

  • Clarify the question – what are we helping our team to decide on?
  • Listen to each person, in turn expressing their ‘gut reactions’
  • Summarize the options we have
  • Listen to individual opinions about which option is best
  • Agree on our best possible recommendation to the CEO, based on consensus or split decision

4. Report recommendation back to the whole team  where the team leader makes the final decision, and it is recorded in a ‘decision log’

5. The team also agrees on how this decision is to be implemented and the results monitored.

The process proved a success. It seemed to help to create a sense of interdependence and draw on collective intelligence, but also supported the CEO and his colleagues in finding the faster speed of decision-making they required. 

People wanted to tweak the process slightly, but it was decided to keep going with it in future meetings.

TCO International specializes in accelerating the agility required to get higher performance in a VUCA world. In the next few blogs I would like to share other activities that I have applied to this and other top teams.

To join the discussion on LinkedIn, please go to: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/key-challenges-integrating-top-teams-1-focus-nigel-ewington/
TCO products, VUCA

Personal agility in a global context

Have you ever in a moment of quiet reflection looked back at your life and asked yourself ‘how did I get here?’ I did this recently when I reflected on how a young boy – who had grown up in a small town in the UK with a local sales rep as a father and legal secretary as a mother – had ended up with a Chinese wife and Chinese-speaking kids, running workshops linked to the theme of global agility around the world.

It struck me how ‘global’ I and others like me have become in just one generation. It also struck me that the story behind this global development in my personal and professional life is not so much the end result of carefully followed personal career planning and ambition; nor even a deep-seated curiosity about the world from my childhood. It came about more through a readiness to ‘go with the flow’ and embrace the unknown in a fast-changing and rapidly globalising world.

I remember a moment in the early 90s when I accepted an unexpected offer to lecture in a Chinese business school. It meant designing and teaching an introduction to management that I had never done before, in a cultural context that I had no experience of.  For the growing numbers of others like me, it is often not so much a case of ‘shaping your life’ but rather remaining agile in those moments when ‘life reaches out to shape you’. Looking back, I realised that I had been ready to take an opportunity to accept the unknown, to participate in the opening up of China, in ways that would have long-terms implications for my life. Looking back, our life seems to be made up of neatly converging paths which meet in the present; looking forward our future path can seem hidden in a confusing, intimidating and impenetrable jungle.

What helps us to embrace these kinds of opportunities and then thrive, rather than just survive, in everything that evolves out of them? Undoubtedly, in my case, what helped me to start off was a bungee jumping sense of adventure, a flexibility in behaviour and a growing awareness of the different cultural values of those growing up in different parts of the world.  As time has gone by, these personal resources have developed. I have a growing self-confidence in my ability to manage whatever challenges life throws my way, an ability to choose when to adapt and when not to, and finally an ability to respond to whatever behaviours are displayed in front of me by international partners despite what it says is ‘normal’ in the cross-cultural literature. It always helps to remind myself that, while we constantly yearn for an oasis of calm when the testing time is over and things calm down, life will always throw something else at you.

There has never been a time when the global context we live in presents so many opportunities to shape us in new and unexpected ways. The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment we inhabit means that as professionals we no longer have to take expatriate assignments in places like China to experience being taken out of our comfort zone. My colleagues in TCO International and I have realised that what we offer to our clients is no longer the ability to ‘go global’ but ‘grow globally’. When we first started 25 years ago, the primary challenge was to help people cross borders, linguistically and culturally. Now globalisation has sparked a new generation of organisations. These are either ‘born global’ or after a period of rapid expansion into new markets, and the acceleration of virtual working, are consolidating the relationships they had developed in a period of expansion. The number of expatriates may be going down but the expatriate challenge – needing to achieve high performance when engaging with global partners while managing personal change – is growing exponentially. After all, VUCA comes to us; we don’t need to seek it out.

In TCO International we believe that the key ability required by all of us to thrive rather than just survive is global agility ‘How can I think, act and create value in an interconnected VUCA environment’.

By ‘thinking’ we mean understanding without stereotyping others; being self-aware while understanding that there is no limit to how we will be seen by others across geographic and organisational boundaries. Even the most positive cultural ‘generalizations’ about others may need to be put aside in a world where the behaviours of so many local professionals are already partially adapted to the styles of their international partners. I am constantly meeting Chinese professionals who have never lived abroad but whose experience of working for Foreign Invested Enterprise (FIEs) in China gives them an ability to switch from a face-saving style with their local Chinese colleagues to a straight-talking, task-oriented approach to giving feedback with Europeans and North Americans.

By ‘acting’ we mean making decisions and initiating contact with others without ever knowing exactly how they will respond. This requires us to draw on a combination of making our own intentions clear, while exploring the needs of others, so that we negotiate ‘what we mean’ in the present moment. Too much reliance on goals and plans and we can lose the opportunities provided by the present. Too much adaptability and we can lose track of our goals. By ‘creating value’ we mean ensuring that we have the ability to build trust, relationships and ‘comfortable levels of clarity’ in every interaction without always having the opportunity for longer-term relationship-building that existed among colleagues rubbing shoulders together in the traditional workplace.

In supporting personal agility in a VUCA global context we help individuals manage the dilemma they face between focusing on ‘My Way’ (getting things done and remaining authentic to yourself) and ‘Your way’ (knowing how and when to adapt to others).  Our belief is that we can build trust and credibility with new global partners through either approach. You can ‘frame’ the benefits of your preferred style of communication to your global partner but knowing how and when to ‘adapt’ to their local way of doing things is likely to help you succeed when visiting their country or supporting one of their clients.

In our global agility framework there are 4 areas of ability which act as compass points in helping us to navigate the My Way and Your Way dilemma in an interconnected VUCA environment.

  1. Self-awareness (my way)
  2. Intentionality (my way)
  3. Other awareness (your way)
  4. Connectivity (your way)

These abilities relate to 4 questions which connect to the ‘inner world’ of feeling and thinking, as well as to the outer world of doing and saying. We draw on a combination of experiential activities, personal reflection, and coaching to help individuals engage with these questions, as well as find their own answers.

Self-awareness and Intentionality. In terms of the ‘My way’ of approaching global agility you need to ask yourself ‘How does VUCA impact on me? What do I need?’. In terms of the ‘inner world’ are you, for example, someone who quickly requires closure and certainty when faced with the unexpected or are you happy to ride the waves of uncertainty? But such ‘self-awareness’ is not enough, and needs to be turned into action. You need to answer the question ‘How can I take responsibility for my behaviour when faced with VUCA? What can I say and do?’. This requires a focus on expressing your own intentions, needs and non-negotiable values (we call it Intentionality). It may need to include clarification of the benefits these needs and values bring to others. Such ‘intentionality’ is even more convincing if it includes an awareness of how you may be perceived by others from different organisational or cultural backgrounds. Recognising how our own behaviour may be seen as challenging reflected in the eyes of others can be important for trust-building – a critical upfront investment in creating value in a VUCA context.

Other-awareness and Connectivity. In terms of the ‘Your way’, you need to ask yourself ‘How does VUCA impact on those who I interact with? What do they need?’. How does, for example, the spirit of adventure and resilience of your international partner compare with yours? How do they respond in a crisis? What aspects of VUCA are going on in their local context? To what degree are they primed by culturally-motivated instincts that drive them to avoid uncertainty and dislike learning by mistakes? In terms of the ‘outer world’, such ‘other-awareness’ is again not enough.  You need to respond to others and answer the following question ‘How can I create value with others when we face with VUCA? What can we build together?’ In certain cultural contexts, despite one’s natural impatience to get down to the task in hand, a willingness to work on the personal relationship-building through an informal chat over a meal, at the start of a call or around the coffee machine might provoke the right climate for progress.

In TCO International our approach to Global Agility has been shaped by examining ourselves and those effective leaders and professionals that we have met and worked with, by answering the question that I asked myself at the beginning of this blog: how did I get here? The answer lies neither in the opposite poles of a planned strategy, on the one hand, nor a bungee-jumping spirit of adventure, on the other. It lies in a structured framework of choices that an individual can implement as they are challenged in the moment with the new people and unknown paths that this global context increasingly presents us with.

Are you curious about the choices you can make when you need to influence people in an unknown environment? Start by testing your Influencing Agility. It takes just a few minutes and it shows you both your default influencing style, and the related opposite that would allow you to become a much stronger influencer.

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