Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.

Welcome to the 39th step, or the 39th episode of Leadership in Chaos. This is the beginning episode of a mini-series called Leading Teams in Chaos, and we’ve chosen to do this for reasons I will explain very shortly.

One of the advantages of doing the podcast in real time, every week or 10 days, is that as the COVID story has written itself and has unfolded piece by piece, the podcast has been able to monitor what’s going on and respond in real time. And if I look back over the past year or so, the COVID story reads a little bit like the hero’s journey. It’s written itself, and as far as I can see, we’ve had five chapters, and the fifth chapter is why we’re focusing on building teams and leading teams in chaos.

Chapter one, when we had the chaos, suddenly, like a trap door opened up underneath us and thrust upon us, chapter one was about shock and denial. Instantly, we froze. We quickly moved into chapter two, which was characterized by the need to survive. And as part of chapter two and our survival mechanism, it’s remarkable what some people, some organizations, were able to accomplish, by applying what’s possible thinking. Some organizations went from being, most organizations, should I say, exclusively office-based to, within a very short space of time, exclusively remote.

Chapter three, then, was the chapter of false hope. Where, as we got towards Christmas, we got towards the end of the year, we conned ourselves into believing that if we could make it just until Christmas, 2021 would be a whole new vista. Vaccines were on the way, there was the release of restrictions for Christmas for most people, and optimism was high.

This was followed by chapter four, which came from January until now, which was the relapse. And this was really characterized by depression. It was January, lockdowns had been re-installed, numbers started to escalate all over the world, kids were forced to stay home, and the vaccine wasn’t the panacea that we all thought it was going to be.

But in the last few weeks, I’ve seen the start of chapter five, which we could call green shoots. Our business at Flow and Greenline is characterized by helping leaders and managers navigate their way through change.

But we’re a very good bellwether for the economy, generally, because we only get engaged or approached whenever leaders and managers have time to consider. In the last two to three weeks, we’ve seen a noticeable uptick in activity across the globe across our businesses. Where we’ve taken on between eight and ten new projects in industries varying from packaging to investment banking, pharma, tech, government agencies, satellites, and drinks companies. Irrespective of industry, they all have one thing in common. As a leader, they’re all left with a completely changed set of conditions and circumstances to manage. They’ve all been affected either by restructuring, downsizing, merger, acquisition, creation of new divisions, or a change in business model. What’s common is that leaders are now faced with the challenge of rolling up their sleeves with a new set of people, with a new world, and are asking the question, what next?

Many leaders are now working with a very, very different-looking team to the one that they did one year ago or less. We can see the impact of when a team loses just one player, just look at Virgil van Dijk’s absence from the Liverpool team, and how that completely changed their performance this year. And many of us are dealing with the absence or the change of more than just one player.

So, for the rest of this episode, I’m going to focus on where you start as a leader, with your team, rolling up your sleeves on day one, at ground zero, in building and leading your team.

The North Star, ultimately, to leading a team, is built into an equation that I shared way back in a previous episode: E = C L x C O. Where the E stands for Effective team leadership, it is equal to C L, which stands for Clarity, times C O, which stands for Commitment.

Your role as a leader is to build clarity and generate commitment in order to be most effective at leading a team. Remember that 10 out of 10 Clarity, backed by zero Commitment, equals zero, where you have high levels of communication, but everybody is ignoring it. Equally, 10 out of 10 Commitment to something that’s unclear is still zero; it’s just like ignorance on fire.

So, let’s start with Clarity. Here’s your basic checklist for what you need to be clear about the most: the where, the What, the Who, and the how.
The Where being, where’s the destination? Where is the place, and what are the outcomes that will tell us that we are successful?

The What relates to strategy, from where we are now, to where that place is, the destination. What’s the road? What’s the route? What’s the strategy? And along there, what are the priorities, which are the milestones that are going to indicate that we get to there.

The third part of Clarity is Who does what? What are the roles, who does them, who’s responsible for what, and accountable for what, and where there are overlaps, how do we manage the overlaps.

And the How, is governance around, what are our expectations around behaviors and attitudes? What are our ways of working? What’s okay? What’s not okay? This is particularly acutely needed in an environment and at a time when we’re all working remotely, and different organizations have different views and attitudes on how to manage that particular ball of yarn.

So, in summary, where are we going? What’s our destination? And why is it there? What’s our path towards getting there, and what are our priorities? Who does what? And what is okay and not okay in terms of how we operate?

Simply by ensuring Clarity on those items, as a leader, has a direct impact on Commitment, which is the other side of the equation.

There are many reasons why people will be uncommitted. Many factors influence that, but chief amongst them, very frequently, is the fact that people are unclear. After all, how can you commit to something, when it’s unclear what it is you’re committing to?

And in general terms, in my experience, it’s the absence of Clarity that has the highest impact on people’s Commitment levels. For evidence of this, you’ve only got to look at the social obedience and how it’s been eroded and the commitment to restrictions that have been imposed by the government because of their lack of clarity in the last number of weeks. So, leaders’ responsibility for creating Clarity is simple in principle, based on what I’ve just described.

The fun starts, of course, when you try to create it with a team of people who are different, diverse, and human by definition. And the most common question that I get asked around this is, when you’re responsible for Clarity and creating Clarity, do you ask or do you tell? It’s a little like asking the question when you’re playing golf: do you use a three-iron or a pitching wedge when you land on the fairway?

And the answer obviously is, well, it all depends on the location and the lie of the ball.

The continuum between asking and telling, or put another way, as a leader, being directive versus being consultative, is exactly that. It’s like all the irons in the bag: as you’re going through your golf round, there’s a continuum from one end to the other. If you are too directive, you will sacrifice buy-in and Commitment, and if you are overly consultative, you won’t be effective or get things done on time.

So, as a rule of thumb, what I would recommend is that when you’ve got a very strong view, you err on the side of being directive. What many leaders, weak-willed leaders, often miss is that it is the mandate of the leader and the responsibility of the leader to make the judgments, to set the tone, to set the direction and to make the hard calls. However, when you do that, you need to check to determine the level of buy-in that you’ve got across the board.

The times to be extremely consultative are on those occasions, and in this time of uncertainty, there are many, many of these, where there is no clear right or wrong, and more views are better than fewer views. Make sure you have the right people in the room, not any more than you need, gather the opinions and views of everybody open and honestly, and then make a decision.

The advantage to using the consultative, or the style of asking, is that the process of the conversation, is a way and a means of building the Commitment already intact.

Knowing when to direct and when to consult is a key strategy in building Clarity and Commitment and an effective team. Of course, establishing Clarity around the where, the what, the who, and the how can only be done through conversation with the team and agreements reached during that conversation.

Be under no illusion. The outcome of the conversation and the decision to create Clarity are less important than the conversations that happened to get there. It’s through the conversations themselves that you build the buy-in and the Commitment to the final agreement, or you don’t.

Of course, building Clarity and Commitment to those decisions is not a one-off event that takes place in an offsite and is separated from the daily grind. The Clarity of these agreements and the Commitment to those agreements is dynamic, not static, particularly in a world that has never been as changing as it is now. So, it requires constant reviewing, checking, and consultation, and that, essentially, is the main definition of your role as a leader within the team. Getting to these agreements, maintaining them, and getting the buy-in and Commitment on a continuous basis means that you become the CCO, the Chief Conversations Officer. And that’s not as easy as it sounds, as many of you are aware.

So, in the next episode or episodes of our mini-series on Leading Teams in Chaos, we’ll discuss hosting those conversations skillfully and how to deal with resistance to change.

So, I’ll leave you with a quote from Charles Handy, who describes a leader as someone who “shapes and shares a vision that gives point to the work of others.”

Until next time, stay safe, stay sane, stay connected.

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