Strategic leadership in Vuca environment

Robert Mandeya

AS Zimbabwe’s economy continues to tumble, business leaders are getting frustrated, as they try to cope with the volatility.

The continued toxicity in the political and economic environment has made it very difficult for business leaders to handle the business side of issues. There is a palpable implosion as the fiscal and monetary authorities continue to show signs of policy incompatibility bordering on discord and hallucinatory reactions.

One really cannot anticipate what comes from either of these institutions as they continue to throw reactive interventions to the unrelenting economic turbulence.

This has left most business leaders in distress. In this volatile economic climate more and more companies should strive to become “Velcro organisations”, in which people and capacity need to be reconfigured creatively and quickly without major structural changes. In this scenario, winners will not stop focussing on quality, cost and efficiency, but will be paying a lot more attention to agility.

Need for agility

The reality is our current environment is not showing any signs of dissipating anytime soon. The uncertainty is not going to blow away anytime soon. The term Vuca, coned by the United States Army War College, succinctly describes our situation in Zimbabwe today which is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Business leaders and CEOs are indeed struggling to lead in a Vuca environment. Most of the old rules do not apply now, in fact people connections matter at least as much or more than solid structures. I know just last week I wrote about the centrality of structure in organisational effectiveness and most could be wondering what I am talking about now. Here I am talking about networks. Boundaries around companies are shifting, forming global networks of complex stakeholder relationships. In this environment, a CEO should not have one lever to pull to create and sustain organisational success.

For instance, replacing less successful leadership talent with successful leaders from other organisations can help, but it is not sufficient. Rather, levers must be pulled in unison something David Nadler and Michael Tushman refer to as creating organisational congruence (Nadler & Tushman, 1997).

Achieving congruence

Leaders need to need to achieve the congruence needed to sustain success in a Vuca environment. This can be achieved only by making continuous shifts in people, processes, technology and structure. However, the situation in Zimbabwe is unique in that the national governance infrastructure itself is shambolic and shaky.

One cannot initiate any novelty without locating context of the national governance infrastructure. Leading this subtle and delicate balance of politics and economy requires the capability to sense and respond to changes in business whilst at the same time following the police pronouncements by the political players no matter how weird they may sound. Zimbabwe has never been short of these blueprints which however are never implemented with sincerity by the politicians.

We have had ZimAsset and now the Transitional Stabilisation Programme and it will be un-strategic for any business leader to ignore these policy documents. Responding to changes in the business and political environment with actions that are focussed, fast and flexible is what we mean by “leadership agility”. The political environment is part of our Vuca environment and, as such, cannot be ignored.

Unpacking leadership

While few would argue about the need for leadership agility, not many are able to articulate specific action plans for leaders to become more agile. Where do we begin? What levers hold the most promise for increasing agility on a sustainable basis? These questions compel some deeper insight.

Given our environment in Zimbabwe today, what is sustainable? I will attempt to explore some specific requirements for agile leadership, however these are not exhaustive. The few agile behaviours I will explore here are mere necessities in attaining agility. In these times of uncertainty, leaders must provide guidance and direction to their teams.

For instance, given the continued policy pronouncements and shifts, leaders must inculcate acute awareness of this Vuca environment in their teams by continuously engaging their teams on policy shifts and the implication thereof to business.

Taking time to unpack some of these developments with teams will provide clarity of issues which will, in turn, encourage creative problem solving mindsets. Sadly, leaders rarely work with team members on a face-to-face basis forcing them to rely on a range of virtual communication which are sometimes unreliable and not credible. Effective leaders must learn to balance the requirements of task completion and relationship development with equal finesse.

Secondly, leaders must not shy away from taking more risk by briskly connecting talent and moving information and knowledge enterprise-wide. This can be achieve by complementing full-time employees with part-timers, consultants, suppliers and even customers as part of the broader definition of the company’s workforce. This will bring in specific special skills on specific issues requiring expert intervention. Effective and efficient management models enable organisations to source, assess, assign and develop this mix of talent across various projects and initiatives.

Thirdly, there is need to maintain a company-wide laser-like focus on employee commitment. In this environment it is easy to lose the commitment of employees whose talent is most needed in times of uncertainty.

Some research by the Leadership Institute of Research and Development (LIRD) on employee wellness indicate that employee loyalty plunged by 90% from April 2019 to September 2019. With most employees trapped in economic malaise coupled with stagnant salaries, there is a major challenge in assigning accountability and focusing attention on strategic priorities.

Lastly, functional silos have no place in a volatile economy like that we experience Zimbabwe. As such, agility requires that organisation leaders model collaborative behaviour across departments.

Mandeya is an executive leadership coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Institute of Leadership, Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw/www.lird.co.zw.