In times of uncertainty, the human instinct often leads us to use solutions that are safe and tested rather than stepping into the unknown.
As such, many leaders find themselves reacting to uncertain economic forecasts by cutting back rather than proactively investing.
It is precisely in times of uncertainty that organizations need bold leaders to align investments, source top talent, and foster innovation in order to gain a competitive edge.
Findings from the 2016 Deloitte Business Confidence Report show that more than half of all surveyed CXOs (C-suite) and CXO successors (CXOWs) believe they do not have the bold leadership they need at the highest levels of their organization.
The report, based on data from hundreds of cross-industry leaders, identifies six key behaviors that bold leaders regularly demonstrate.
Bold leaders regularly:
1. Set ambitious goals
Bold leaders demonstrate a relentless desire to excel and are able to create environments that stretch people to go above and beyond their natural limits. While adopting a more conservative approach for the overall business may be a smart play during periods of uncertainty, maintaining aspirational goals in those high-priority business areas can help sustain increased effort and motivation.
For example, during the 1980s, product delays and challenges in memory production led to a period of significant financial strain at Intel. During this time, the company implemented what they described as „the 10% solution,“ a request that their employees provide 10% greater effort despite 10% cuts to their paycheck.
While this was clearly a tough ask, most team members rose to the occasion, investing additional time on the products and pursuits that formed the backbone of the company’s success, leading them out of the woods.
2. Propose ideas their company might consider controversial
Widespread change simply cannot occur without challenging the status quo. Bold leaders do not let initial resistance prevent them from pursuing new ideas and pushing for needed change. However, less than half of CXOs and CXO successors reported proposing controversial ideas in their own organization. While groupthink (excessive focus on consensus) is problematic in any business, it can be particularly crippling during periods of unease, as it may give competitors a chance to step in and gain market share.
Founded in Wales the early 1950s, Laura Ashley’s clothing conjured up images of tea time in the English countryside. Founders Laura and Bernard Ashley maintained tight control over the business as it grew from a single shop to 500 stores worldwide. After Laura’s death in 1985, Bernard worked to keep her legacy alive, as Harvard Business Review reported.
However, times had changed, as had fashion. Women were entering the workforce in significant numbers and wanted practical, professional attire, and competitors were offshoring production to reduce labor costs. The company hired a consultant to update the brand and instituted a variety of cost-cutting activities, however, the 11 CEOs who took the reins over the next 15 years were slow to challenge the company’s beholden practices.
In the late 2000s, the company changed course to focus on furniture and housewares. This bold change invigorated a stalling business and serves as reminder that a willingness to challenge existing practices can determine a company’s survival over time.
3. Invite feedback from colleagues at all levels of seniority
Creating sustained improvements involves solutions that serve everyone’s interests. While quick action and decisiveness are often associated with bold leadership, these traits can isolate leaders and alienate their people. The most effective leaders seek feedback in a proactive and iterative fashion, incorporating the ideas they receive into synergistic solutions, paying attention to feedback that comes from both junior and senior colleagues.
When Alan Mulally took over as president and CEO of Ford Motor Company in 2006, he faced a tough reality. Ford was facing lost market share and serious production problems. In an effort to address these problems head on, Mulally began encouraging his team members to speak up about challenges early and often, rather than waiting to see if they could fix them alone. The leadership team, filled with independent and highly competent individuals used to managing their own operations, was initially slow to respond to these requests.
As they made the transition, Mulally served as an energizing and positive force, and when the team began respond, he was quick to praise their honesty and offer help, rather than assigning blame. By breaking the classically stoic leadership mold and inviting open communication from his team, Mulally was able to proactively overhaul Ford during the 2008-2009 recession and avoid the direct government intervention imposed on so many of their competitors.
4. Innovate and look for new ways of doing things
For bold leaders, the opportunity to drive improvements outweighs the fear of failure. They tend to remain open to a wide range of possibilities, constantly experimenting and never allowing themselves to be completely satisfied with the current approach. While nearly 60% of CXOs and CXOWs surveyed report that they look for new ways of doing things on a regular basis, fewer than 46% of CXOs and CXOWs said they propose ideas the company might consider controversial.
Ed Catmull, the cofounder and president of Pixar, is well known for embracing an experimental approach to his work. He freely acknowledges that all Pixar movies „suck“ when they are first conceptualized, and that is only through thousands of storyboards that the final product starts to come to shape.
Throughout the design process, Pixar employees are constantly experimenting with new approaches to get the designs right, often scrapping years of work if a vision doesn’t come together as effectively as expected. This is best embodied by John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, who says, „we don’t actually finish out films, we just release them.“
5. Take risks
A willingness to step forward in the face of ambiguity enables bold leaders to respond quickly to new trends and proactively redefine the market. With only 34% of respondents in the Deloitte survey reporting that they take risks, this is clearly a concept that is easy to understand but hard to put into practice. Leaders who find ways to take risks while considering the importance of context find themselves on the cutting edge and hone their ability to develop a competitive advantage over their more cautious peers.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s charismatic and challenging leader is famous for setting a punishing standard for his teams, and has created an environment in which risk is encouraged in the pursuit of improved performance. Stephenie Landry, an operations executive, became a famous example of this after proposing an idea to ship items to urban customers in an hour or less. Less than four months later, this previously mid-level manager launched Prime Now, a service which is pushing the envelope in the industry for delivery speed.
6. Build strong teams and empower them to success
While many leaders focus on innovating their products and services, they often forget that the ideas for these innovations come from their team members. Additionally, leaders are often fearful of a looming brain drain, expecting their top talent to flee for more innovative, technology-savvy companies.
An eyebrow-raising 63% of CXOs and 80% of CXOWs surveyed feel that 1 in 3 or more of their best managers will leave before joining the senior ranks. Bold leaders appreciate that employees need ample opportunity to practice and experiment if they are going to excel. As a result, they think carefully about their team composition, the conditions that foster growth, and how to provide support in the form of both mentorship and sponsorship.
Leaders who provide a solid base of support and an opportunity for challenge aid their organizations in the ongoing war for talent. In addition, the increased loyalty they foster often leads to retention and in turn, attracts other top talent.
One of the greatest challenges facing companies today is the fact that physical separation and heavy reliance on e-mail communication can undermine effective team dynamics. To improve team harmony and prevent frustrations that can lead to a staff exodus, Dharmendra Modha at IBM developed a detailed contract for each product describing each team’s responsibilities and identifying how the product would work in conjunction with products from other teams.
As a result, each team member feels they are working towards a common purpose. In addition, if groups propose different approaches to solving a problem, he divides the team and has them each pursue their idea. Objective testing identifies the best solution and encourages staff to experiment with the approach they think will work best rather than succumbing to groupthink.
In reading these stories, it would be easy to equate bold leadership with courage — attributing it to personality or temperament. This is particularly true in times of uncertainty, where being bold feels exponentially riskier, but this framing doesn’t tell the most important part of the story.
While some of the elements listed above may come naturally, those that don’t can be developed by understanding and incorporating what the most effective leaders focus on into your own decision-making process. Effective leaders are not great because they are willing to jump blindly or rashly into the unknown, but because they know how to think through complex challenges and know specifically what to think about.
This approach involves an ability to quickly identify the most relevant variables in any situation and prioritize action. Combine this knowledge with a willingness to experiment and a high standard for success and you have a leader who can confidently launch new products and services and adjust people processes in the face of uncertainty.