The key to an unbroken C suite
Disruptions are inevitable in all businesses, often driven by changes in the global environment like COVID, recession, technology, or wars, resulting in a spiraling existential crisis for a business. While these disruptions are highly publicized, what doesn’t get enough attention is the important role management plays in determining the outcome of the crisis.
Faced with the inevitable difficulties of operating in a complex global economy, many organizations fail to adapt during these crises and end up exiting their business by merging or selling their business. His ability to get his organization out of crisis becomes either an entry in the list of challenges to overcome and an inspiring lesson for the next generation, or the crisis that sinks the ship.
For a business to meet ever-increasing market demands and survive inevitable downturns, it is imperative that the management team has the capabilities to match both normal and crisis times. In other words, both ambidextrous thinking and action skill are required. This ability to maintain and cultivate diametrically opposed behaviors is key to thriving. My hypothesis is that this ambidextrous capability is key to the long-term survival of any organization. It’s Yin & Yang.
Ambidextrous leadership begins with self-awareness
The starting point for building an ambidextrous organization begins with you. As a leader, you must recognize your own natural biases. Are you focused on growth or profit? Are you willing to take risks and like to invest in new areas, or do you seek to be efficient? What is your natural bias? Each of us has a dominant logic by which we think.
It has been said that “we don’t learn from our experience; we learn by reflecting on our experience”. Ambidextrous leaders have the humility to reflect and solicit feedback from others to understand their personal biases, strengths, and weaknesses. The most important thing for every leader is to know their weaknesses and to have the courage to recognize where their colleagues and team members can step in to strengthen a project or the organization. The key is to develop and exploit ambidextrous abilities as a team rather than trying to solve all the problems ourselves.
Once you know yourself, comes your team. Have you assembled team members who can perform in your areas of weakness and achieve long- and short-term goals for focus, growth, and retention? The best teams are balanced with creative minds and rational thinkers. They consist of diverse thinkers who can work in alignment toward a goal. A self-aware, ambidextrous leader has the strategic oversight to set a time and place for both types of reflection. While most meetings normally focus on growth, Fridays can focus on operations. But during a crisis, the priorities can be reversed by emphasizing operations.
Each organization’s unique footprint is shaped by how it balances opposing elements, such as creativity and discipline, to do its job. While leaders are responsible for being able to direct both efforts, they must also recognize when a situation calls for one rather than the other. Rather than getting caught up in differences, ambidextrous leaders create space to borrow from many approaches, allowing them to change at any time.
Support ambidextrous leadership in your C-suite
A common mistake leaders make is to surround themselves with others who have similar strengths and weaknesses. There is a misconception that like-minded leaders are necessary to achieve organizational alignment – nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the diversity of thought that really matters when making choices. You can see the dichotomy between a startup and a large organization.
Startups are bursting with ideas and creativity, but their weakness is a lack of disciplined execution. Too often we fail to recognize the core driver that is essential to turning an idea into a great business. While high mortality rates plague startups, large corporations excel at disciplined execution and operational efficiency. Yet they lack the innovation and speed to react to market dynamics. The detailed processes that contribute to the efficiency and scale of large companies tend to limit their ability to adapt quickly to the market. The bottom line is that organizations, leaders, and teams must demonstrate and master ambidexterity to thrive in an ever-changing world.
When considering whether you and by extension your business are ambidextrous, ask these questions:
1. Are you aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and do you take time to reflect and learn from your failures?
2. Are you comfortable expressing your weaknesses and asking for feedback?
3. Do you recognize your shortcomings and the importance of hiring people different from you?
4. Do you have rigorous debates and listen to the diverse points of view of others?
5. When faced with a challenge, do you leverage people with the natural strengths to achieve the goal?
6. Do you organize your weekly schedule and meetings to address areas where you are not naturally inclined to spend time?
When COVID swept the world, my long-term vision of building a century-old company was shaken. We lost 50% of our business in the aerospace sector. It was only the second time in our 25-year history that we faced an existential crisis. In addition, I worried about the number of our management team members and employees who would succumb to the deadly epidemic. In the midst of this uncertainty, we quickly shifted the priorities from experimentation and growth, which is our natural bias, to prioritizing performance and stability without compromising our cultural values. We had to lay off over 2,000 engineers, or 20% of our staff. We had to cut costs, salaries and many initiatives designed for growth. Many painful decisions had to be made. We had to act quickly to change the conditions.
Fortunately, our management team is ambidextrous, allowing us to adapt quickly to the crisis. While I don’t know if we are crisis-proof and able to survive all the future problems we will face, I know that we will continue to learn from our past to increase our chances of surviving and thriving.