What better demonstrates the imperative to be an adaptive leader than our experience of 2020? Against the torque of last year’s health, economic and social crises, we’ve had to pivot and swivel in ways that would shred us if we tried to stand fast. Absent a North Star to guide us and something to bring a measure of stability, those same forces can spin leaders in unproductive and regrettable ways.

The business case for building adaptive leadership skills is clear. Vantage Partners’ 2020 survey of human resources (HR) and learning leaders found that when leaders lack critical soft skills, such as communications, joint problem-solving, strategic thinking and collaboration, the impacts are felt in poor decisions, employee burnout, lack of buy-in and follow-through, and damaged relationships.

Training Leaders for Success

The fundamental challenge: How do we go about equipping leaders with what it takes to help themselves, others and the business? How do we help them not only do better but bring their organizations along with them? For already knowledgeable, successful people to develop the skills of an adaptive, collaborative leader, we must start by helping them make a few key mindset shifts and then connect them to specific behaviors they can try on for size, both in a safe practice environment and then in real-world application.

The experience of exploring those behaviors helps them test, validate and fine-tune those new assumptions — and, in the process, improve their own ability to exhibit the new behaviors. Seeing those behaviors then translate to real-world value convinces them it’s worth the effort. Finally, to make the new skills really stick, it’s important to anchor them in organizational processes. Embedding them in regular routines provides the necessary ballast to apply them even in the midst of chaos.

Developing Curious Leaders

Take curiosity. It’s hard to imagine how an uncurious leader could be adaptive or collaborative. If you are experiencing what one of our colleagues refers to as “an attack of certainty,” you can’t change your stance; look at a problem from a different perspective; or empathize with someone you are supposed to be leading, supporting or influencing. But how do you develop employees’ curiosity through training? Here is a simple formula:

    1. Let leaders experience the possibility of making an erroneous assumption.
    2. Help them recognize the assumption and reflect on how easily they jumped to it as the right conclusion or course of action.
    3. Give them an opportunity to practice and experience asking questions, listening and being curious about the answers.

There are a variety of ways to catalyze this mindset shift in the classroom. One puts participants in groups of three. One person works on his or her listening skills; a second acts as a foil, taking the opposite view of some “hot topic” that the listener feels strongly about; the third is a coach, empowered to gently nudge the listener if he or she strays from asking curious, non-loaded questions. Once, the supply chain vice president of a global mining company sat in the listener’s chair. After two or three gentle nudges, he turned around and said, “This is hard, isn’t it?”

Applying Training on the Job: Action Learning

Whether in a physical or virtual classroom, training provides only a partial answer. For leaders, arguably more so than for others, it can be hard to translate to their “day job” what they try in that safe training space. Showing curiosity instead of certainty — or seeing a failure as a necessary part of any process — is something most leaders will struggle to integrate into their practice without seeing real-world application and value.

Part of leaders’ learning journey, therefore, must include action learning: deploying new skills in pursuit of real, demonstrable value. Then, they can see for themselves how incorporating new skills into their regular way of working can help them be more effective. Action learning follows a pattern of acting, reflecting and reframing:

    1. Ask leaders to choose a challenging objective that is part of their job and that requires them to do something differently.
    2. Ask them to articulate how they will try out their new skill (e.g., curiosity) in pursuit of that objective.
    3. Create room for them to reflect on what worked or what didn’t and why — and draw a conclusion about what to try next.

That last step can be challenging, but one approach that works well is to create small group “learning sets” where each individual takes a few minutes to describe what he or she tried. Peers ask questions intended to facilitate the presenter’s own reflection, which he or she need not answer. The point of the learning set is not accountability but helping leaders learn from their own experiences and reach their own conclusions about what to try next.

After some iterations of that cycle, to measure progress against their initial challenging objective, ask learners for their honest (if entirely subjective) assessment of how much the new behaviors contributed to what they achieved. Also ask them to assess how their behaviors contributed to what others in the organization achieved. After such an experience, it is usually much easier to convince leaders that integrating new skills into their repertoire is well worth the effort. With that belief follows the commitment — of even very successful people — to make changes in themselves.

The Final Step: Embedding Learning in the Organization

Finally, embed the technique in organizational tools or processes. Once leaders have recognized the value of their new skills, the final step is building them into “muscle memory” so they become second nature even under stressful conditions.

For example, in industries constantly dealing with significant physical risk, such as oil and gas, many companies start every meeting with a “safety minute.” Regular discussion raises awareness and builds planning for safety into everything they do. One company takes this process a step further, turning the safety minute into a “learning about safety” moment, where the team reviews a recent experience (good or bad) and what they learned from it. The norms for that discussion are that participants may only ask questions to learn, not to prove they already knew better, to take credit or to assign blame. This regular practice in being at least a bit curious shows up in other meetings, where occasionally, you hear a leader say, before asking a question, “I’m going to treat this like one of our safety moments …”