How To Lead (Better) During Times Of Change

How To Lead (Better) During Times Of Change
How To Lead (Better) During Times Of Change

Business leaders are responding to unprecedented challenges, but too many are still navigating them alone. Scott Bolderson and Mark Peters, managing directors at Protiviti UK, explore how leaders can improve their thinking, and cultures, to change the companies they run.


The list of leadership challenges keeps growing. In recent years, company executives have been pursuing commercial opportunities alongside sweeping changes to the environment in which they operate. These include demographic shifts, with five generations now in the workforce; the influence of technology on their businesses; and the globalisation and fragmentation of work itself.

They are enduring forces, happening before the pandemic arrived, but they have since been accelerated. They have also provided new opportunities for company leaders to embrace change and to find new ways of working, new business models and new methods of bringing people with them. As a result, leadership is now at a crossroads, and the health of many businesses hinges on what happens next.

The challenge: Most conversations about the future still happen in the boardroom. But chief executives, and their immediate colleagues, can be limited in their own thinking. The best ones know this and seek alternative perspectives, but at the other end of the spectrum, there is a common narrative playing out: ‘I’ve been here for 30 years. We’ve grown, made money and this is how we operate – why do we need to change?’

Get perspective(s)

Leaders need to change because answers about the future of their businesses lie elsewhere: outside the boardroom, in the minds of everyone in their care and beyond. Some of the brightest ideas come from those who have been working in companies for weeks, or even days. Empowering those people and developing their ideas can be incredibly powerful. They will challenge the narrative of the business, what it stands for and where it’s going.

These individuals often hold strong beliefs about culture, innovation, technology, society and the environment. They want to work for businesses that give them a voice and weave their beliefs into the commercial fabric. We have seen a step change in the financial services sector, for example, with banks talking about their work for the greater good. There are also traders arriving in the City of London who want to work on socially responsible investments.

Alongside their colleagues, leaders will also benefit from watching other sectors more closely. Traditionally, when companies thought about building cars, they looked at other car companies, and banks explored what other banks were doing. But they can also look at clothes manufacturers or energy companies, for example, to learn about customers, products and technology. They can learn from others about people and culture, too.

Culture as the fuel

We often work with organisations to understand what makes projects successful. They ask regularly if we want to see their frameworks, and we look at them. But we are also interested in meeting the people involved. We talk to project managers, those who will benefit from the work and even those who won’t. That exercise usually tells us if a project will be successful, and it resonates with a lot of people. We call it mechanics versus dynamics, and it’s the dynamics – or culture – that really matters.

But how can leaders understand culture better? Karen Jones, managing director at Denison Consulting, who spoke at a recent Protiviti Collaboration Forum, says that high-performing cultures start with a compelling vision – one that connects with people’s values, customers and even the way colleagues challenge each other. ‘How do you have a conversation that shows people you care about them as human beings?’ she asks. ‘I want to work in a company that allows me to flourish and challenge things. If we’re too afraid to have that conversation, then I think something’s wrong.’

She believes it’s important for leaders to know their culture by diagnosing it, discussing it, and prioritising the bits that tackle challenges. It’s absolutely OK to be vulnerable with the intention of caring for each other. ‘What are the good old habits that you want to preserve and strengthen? What are the bad old habits that you can let go and leave behind?’ she asks. Ultimately, people need to feel physically and psychologically safe. They need to be valued and respected and feel a sense of empowerment. If they have a sense of control over what the future looks like, they will be able to focus and grow.

A vision for organisational change

What matters now, more than ever, is a good dose of self-awareness in boardrooms. People who understand their experience, constraints and motivations will be able to embrace the views of others. It’s not always easy to balance the egos of an aspiring chief executive, or a chief operating officer who wants to hang onto their empire. But if the group of people at the top cannot be honest, open and self-aware, any conversations about the future will continue to be dysfunctional.

In the future, leadership and culture will be therefore informed by a wider range of perspectives. Over the past 18 months, we’ve all been tested to lead ourselves and our teams and make sure that we are acting with integrity and that we care for people and our businesses. There has been a need for more transparency and communication. It’s been important to share how the business is evolving and acknowledge that leaders don’t have all the answers.

All of this means that ‘wearing the cape’ is no longer the right approach. Chief executives and other leaders have got to be nurturers, counsellors and directors – all the while bringing people with them and setting the tone and direction. If they can do that and embrace a wider range of perspectives along the way, it will be easier for them to change the course of their companies in a fast-changing world.

But if their thinking remains constrained and their cultures undefined, then it will be harder for them to see what’s around the corner and that could ultimately be fatal.

Building a Brighter Future is a series of articles about helping companies to look forward. It has been inspired by Protiviti’s weekly Collaboration Forum, which ran online for 18 months until the summer of 2021. This article is the second in the series, which also explores innovation and the changing relationship between people and technology.