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Today’s Business Landscape – Filled with Paradox

Leading an organization has never been easy. Increasing productivity pressures and demographic shifts have undeniably made it more difficult to be in executive leadership. During an economic boom, as long as organizations are in a prevailing growth mode, board members, shareholders, and the media take a hands-off approach.

However, when these pressures shift, corporate leadership is under intense scrutiny from all sides. Many executives are under pressure to reduce staff and cut costs while using their remaining employees to increase productivity, deliver innovation and build customer loyalty; all while maintaining a competitive advantage.

Lee Hecht Harrison (LHH) interviewed 100 of the top executives in Fortune 500 companies they serve. The individuals they surveyed came from 92 organizations within 14 industries. These leaders were in the top two levels of their organizations: 65 percent at the CEO, COO, CFO or President level. The remaining 35 percent directly reporting to them. Forty-nine percent (49%) were in their current positions less than five years.

The LHH format was, by design, qualitative rather than quantitative. Therefore, their report does not include a statistical analysis, but rather reflects the rich dialogue and content revealed during the interviews.

The Consensus or Not

While the 100 executives agreed that the leadership models they previously used don’t seem to apply anymore, there was no consensus on a new model.

Many leaders expressed a sense of having to “make it up as they go along”. LHH heard from each leader that they are analyzing and reflecting on the best approaches more than in the past, but no single solution emerged.

There was an expressed need for a new leadership framework. Why? Because business leaders today are faced with dozens of competing behaviors they must demonstrate. Think of them as paradoxes. The forces from these expectations create a scissor effect, each pulling against the other. Here are the three most frequently reported paradoxes in the market today:

Paradox 1 – Be more hands-on with the business, but less hands-on with the people.

As Andy Lock, SVP of Herman Miller, said, “The challenge is to maintain a strong sense of community — both internally with employees and externally with customers.”

Another leader put it this way “Controlling the business is important, but controlling the people may feel like “over-control” to key performers. Just when a leader feels back in control personally, employee relationships suffer.” Empowerment was frequently cited as a goal for better employee engagement.

Executives felt a need to find new ways to be inclusive. Also to help others develop by giving them increased responsibility to keep them engaged and committed to the organization. At the same time, executives are now more conscious of personally keeping their eye on the day-to-day business affairs in a way that’s even broader.

Paradox 2 – Seek diverse points of view, yet drive unified action.

Leaders cited the need to incorporate many different points of view while fostering collaboration and ultimately getting people to move in the same direction. They said it’s a challenge to focus on encouraging differences of opinion one minute and then shifting to bring people to action the next. It is especially complex in global companies, which have diverse values, customs, and business practices.

A recent research report published by Management Research Group (MRG), a Lee Hecht Harrison strategic partner, cited the differences between U.S. managers and European managers from nine countries. When global organizations are working across various geographic locations and cultures, MRG summarized, “Global leaders need to understand that individuals from other cultures may have vastly different views of what is appropriate or inappropriate leadership behavior. No one is right or wrong, and the combined perspectives of several cultures can lead to even greater success than viewing the world and its opportunities through only one lens.”

There are also more generational differences showing up in the workplace. Younger employees are demanding more input. They are quicker to challenge mandates that are handed out without their participation in the process. As one leader said, “There has been a fundamental shift that is both generational and economic. Employees are looking for their leaders to act on good principles. Corporate loyalty is now even more short-term and transactional.”

Paradox 3 – Promote experimentation and contain risk.

Many executives were promoted to senior management because of their technical skills, experience, and knowledge. They excelled because they “knew the answer.” Current leaders wondered about what their successors will need to grow into their own leadership roles.

A key component of developing the next generation is allowing them to experiment when they don’t know all the answers. Experimentation may result in mistakes but has other payoffs. As Phoebe Woods, EVP-CFO of Brown-Forman, says, “Move fast — you can correct a mistake, but you can’t regain lost time.”

Overcoming paradoxes to lead successfully

These are only the most prevalent paradoxes the leaders in the LHH study identified. Each cited additional examples of having to move more frequently between opposing behaviors to meet the wide-ranging needs of their organizations.

In the next article, I am going to present a leadership framework that just might address the many paradoxes you face.

Question: What are some of the paradoxes you handle each day?

Lee Hecht Harrison

Excerpts posted by permission. Established in 1974, Lee Hecht Harrison is a global leader in creating and delivering customized and fully integrated human capital solutions. With over 240 offices worldwide, Lee Hecht Harrison is dedicated to partnering with organizations and individuals, enabling them to maximize their performance and achieve success.

Lee Hecht Harrison is the flagship brand of Adecco Human Capital Solutions, a division of Adecco, S.A., the world leader in workforce solutions, with over 6,600 offices in over 70 countries and territories around the world.

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