Lost in VUCA Without the Right Mindset: How to Cultivate One When You Are The CEO
“You are not given a dream, unless you have the capacity to fulfill it” – Jack Canfield, American author, motivational speaker, corporate trainer, and entrepreneur
When you are the CEO, there are more eyes on you. The voices in the room keep growing. But so do the voices in your head. And while you knew very well that embracing challenges is perhaps the first job of a CEO, there you are – confounded – as you juggle frogs.
Time to cultivate the CEO mindset, as they say.
The mountains we face: Changing nature of challenges
Is this because the challenges have become even more daunting, or is it because they are unknown?
A little of both. Thanks to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times we are in. This has made straddling between meeting near-term and long-term goals difficult.
Whether you are a startup or an established company, just meeting existing targets is not enough. You must also ensure your organization is future-ready to deliver ambitious growth targets. The number of hats you are expected to don as a CEO has increased. You need to be an effective leader that ensures mutual and synchronous growth of individual teams and the company; be adaptable to address unfolding situations; meet the expectations of the various stakeholders; and foresee and prepare for potential disruptions.
Approaching the uphill
How can CEOs prepare themselves to handle the ever-growing pressures?
The VUCA times indicate that no one-size-fits all approach will work. For each CEO, the circumstances and challenges differ. Therefore, there is no one magic formula that the CEOs can tap into and pullout plausible solutions.
The only way out of the conundrum is to develop the right mindset. The situation may not be in your control, but your thinking is.
But developing the right thinking is not easy. You have to work on it.
How can a CEO cultivate the right mindset?
(i) Bring out the radical seeker in you. Seeker of what? Critical skills.
Time for schooling?
As a CEO, you need to constantly upgrade your skills – domain expertise and soft skills – especially given the uncertain macro environment. It is important to stay up-to-date with the latest industry trends, market dynamics, and emerging technologies. Tap all the resources available to you – attend industry events, network, and stay connected with experts in relevant fields.
Work on strategic thinking. Increase your data-driven analytical skills to make informed decisions.
Similarly, work to enhance your soft skills, such as negotiation, conflict resolution, empathy, resilience. Strengthen your emotional intelligence. These skills will help you handle emotional disturbances well, of the self and others. You will know how to diffuse situations that have a penchant for flaring up during unstable times.
To develop the right mindset for dealing with uncertain times, you need to be emotionally strong and sound expertise-wise. This will give you the confidence to handle uncertainties.
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Are you a liability? You will be if you don’t see big, if you cannot visualize the big picture. Go beyond the daily operations and processes. Draw the bigger picture by rising above the details. You may shoot back saying, but all CEOs do this—what’s new?
Well, the new for you is to foresee the potential disruptions and how you can adapt or embrace these. This is how Apple and Steve Jobs kept their product mojo. When companies were laying off people in a recessionary environment, their teams were ideating about how to come up with products that will compel people to loosen their purse strings.
Say, you are a marketing agency and you see AI making rapid advances and disrupting the marketing content space. Think two steps ahead how this could impact your organization and how will you rather embrace this technology. Talk about it with your key stakeholders. Give them the free hand to run trials and come up with suggestions. Understand the plusses and where to exercise caution.
Brainstorm with your team. Include people of diverse opinions. Connect with the people in your network to understand distinct lines of thought. Talk to the people in your team. This will help in shoring up each other’s blind spots. Assess.
Read extensively to understand trends. Look within to discern patterns. Observe social media discussions. Assess what’s happening. READ BETWEEN THE LINES! This is where the insights lie.
Once you see what others overlook, you would’ve hit the jackpot. You will realize how adopting AI across processes will position you better in the market, or in the eyes of your clients. It could help you offer better or wider services, streamline processes, and eliminate repetitive or time-consuming tasks.
You may then want to actively start working on re-positioning your organization. How you can make it more relevant in a rapidly changing environment. This will make you revisit your mission/vision statements. You will start aligning your people better in line with the objectives of the organization.
You say you are agile- so what? Every CEO talks about it. How will you be different?
Set yourself apart by assessing how much of the agility you’ve talked about you can actually vouch for in your approach or organization? Are you doing the math right? Do you know of the ambiguities in your domain of work? Are you doing the reality checks and assessments on time? Do you know what potential disruptions can occur? And, are you preparing to address these?
What are the situations that are not in the playbook? Can you spot the trends and make the strategic moves that will keep your business relevant?
Are you humble in accepting your vulnerabilities and make amends? It’s as important to know what you don’t know, and to accept that a junior in your team may know more than you do in a certain domain. You can do this even when you continue to provide a strong and positive direction to the team.
Do you have a clear understanding about your organization and where you want to take it, even though you may not know the way exactly? If yes, you will always step in at the right time to prevent your team from going overboard.
Say you are pitching for a new marketing product to a client. During internal discussions, as may happen, we sometimes oversell. If a junior member in the team points this out to you, how do you address it? Rubbish it, or understand the requirement and gently place it before the team to not hurt any egos? Your flexibility in acknowledging will drive the venture in the right direction.
Today, organizations are at the epicenter of change and uncertainty. Only agility will help you navigate through it. Do you have the right checklist of attributes of an agile leader: adaptable, open-minded, engaged, listens more and speaks less, quick at execution? Assess how you fare against these.
There are inherent risks in making decisions in an ambiguous environment. But with an agile approach, you can avoid costly mistakes.
(ii) Be vigilant.
Take calculated risks. Assess the situation thoroughly. Suppose you want to invest in a new product or undertake expansion. In the normal course of events, you would do the regular due diligence and proceed – you can afford some risk-taking. But these are challenging times. One misstep and it could backfire severely. So, increase the quotient of caution in your approach. Check, refer, confer with as many colleagues or experts as possible and then make a calculated move.
Your workplace culture is the backbone that will help you withstand any adversity. Ensure the spirit of the workplace is not compromised. Keep your employees motivated. Make sure the various practices to create a holistic work culture, for example DEI-related, are up and running. For instance, if you emphasize on inclusivity, make sure it is practiced. Address any rectification immediately.
This will make your employees feel safe and engaged. Knowing you have their support will free up a lot of mental bandwidth for you to focus on other aspects that assume greater importance during turbulent times. Say you have to take a difficult decision of laying off some people. If people see you as a genuine leader and your communication is transparent, however bitter the pill for them to swallow, the issues will be a lot more ironed out.
As a CEO, you need to be mentally aligned with the people in your organization, as much as they need to be with you. So, when you communicate, be clearer in your views. Also, listen to what they have to share. This is specifically important when dealing with VUCA times. You can afford to be a little lax at other times. Not now.
Transparency in communication helps in building trust. When you know you have the confidence of your people, it will help you think right.
(iii) Fight the wind as the mighty oak – and break, or be the willow that bends?
Resilience is complete only when it is of the body and mind, both. Cultivate it to navigate effectively through the challenging times. Recharge and refresh.
Just as you focus on promoting mental wellbeing and mental health at the workplace, practice it on yourself, too. Some steps could be:
Introspecting. Reflecting on your thoughts, emotions and reactions helps in understanding your own chain of thinking and responses. Engaging in mindfulness or breathing exercises also helps in reducing stress. Plus, there are other stress management techniques, such as your hobbies or other activities (like games or some form of physical exercises).
Prioritizing health by taking care of food and sleep habits. While it may be difficult, but having a semblance of work-life balance, as opposed to a workaholic lifestyle, can go a long way in reducing stress.
Staying intellectually engaged. Keeping the company of good books and people who fire your intellect and drive you to think differently are good resources. If you have, avail. If you don’t, build and connect.
Take the help of your peers, mentors, or advisors. Leverage their guidance and perspectives to develop intuitive understanding.
CEO mindset is more talked about than applied. This is because it requires active thinking and efforts to implement. Also, it is often relegated to the background under the assumption that the CEO automatically knows what to do and how to deal with situations.
Not always true.
The uncertain times that we are in today do not give us the luxury of choice. Becoming a CEO may not be something you’ve actively aspired for, but sometimes the role could just fall into your lap. There’s the double whammy of uncertain times and lack of choice. Walking away may simply not be the answer.
What do you do then?
You prioritize and cultivate the mindset. After all, having the right mindset is the foremost skill for a CEO to have.
Go beyond the natural confines of your role and responsibilities. Take a 360-degree view of the organization. Look beyond the regular scope of functions. Engage the stakeholders and key influencers. Leverage data and technology to expand your leadership skills.
You will gradually develop the insights that come when the thinking is right. Again, there are no magic formulas, nor a one-size-fits-all approach. Developing a mindset is an ongoing process. It is not just a personal attribute. It is a catalyst that influences the organization’s tone, culture, and vision. The right mindset for the CEO, therefore, is the stepping stone towards leaving a legacy of achievement and impact.