With all the changes facing the health and human service field from major mergers and acquisitions, new models for care delivery, and new payment models, managing change can be the most difficult task for leaders (see Adjust Your Strategic Sails!). So, I find complexity leadership models helpful at this point in time. The theory is based on the need for leaders who can both run the current operations, while also building new program models focused on innovation and sustainability.
Complex environments require leaders to develop the structures and culture to enable adaptive response. Typically in times of change, leadership attempts to double down on hierarchical approaches and manage change from the top-down. This leads to a false sense of control for both managers and employees. Instead leaders need to run an organization with two parallel tracks. First, organizations must empower team members to take time to develop new business models and services lines based on their experience. Secondly, organizations must resist the idea that there are “winners” and “losers.” When team members are more concerned with failure than trying new innovations, orthodox business models remain. While these might return short-term wins, they will ultimately result in failure.
But personally, as a chief executive officer, I’ve found the need to manage complexity to be both tiring and stressful. What is the priority? Current operations and profitability? Or that strategic (and now money-losing) initiative that the future depends on? The challenge is dividing your time and attention—almost equally—between the two strategic issues. To do this, you need to find an internal leader (other than you) that can help to focus on both.
I turned to my colleagues who have been former executives to get their advice on how to manage this new leadership role. Although each took their own unique spin on complexity leadership, their were three pieces of advice that stuck out in everyone’s response – celebrate the noble failures, learn to live with uncertainty, and decentralize management.
Fail nobly – The response we got most often from our former executives was the importance of being okay with failure and making sure to celebrate failures when appropriate. Ray Wolfe, Senior Associate, OPEN MINDS (and former chief operating officer of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System) explained, “We often have cultures that reward those who sit back and do nothing controversial rather than those who try, fail, and learn. A noble failure can be an important tool and should be recognized and positively reinforced.” George Braunstein and Marge Conner-Levin both Senior Associates at OPEN MINDS (and former CEOs of Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board and Archway Programs, respectively) noted that failures are also learning opportunities for you, your agency, and your board. They represent a chance to try something new, learn from the experience, and to act differently the next time around.
Learn to live with uncertainty – Part of being a member of the c-suite is learning to be okay with chaos and uncertainty. Anthony Zipple, M.D., Senior Associate, OPEN MINDS (and former CEO of Centerstone of Kentucky) explained:
Leaders need to learn to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. Conditions change fast and leaders seldom have the luxury of a predictable environment. Even the best decision today may have massive unintended consequences tomorrow. Will a strategic alliance with another company allow my organization to compete in the future? Is a merger with a larger entity a good idea? Will a new value-based contract with an insurer result in a healthier bottom line or weaker cash reserves? What is the best EMR for the future? Behavioral health leaders need to make decisions like this today, knowing that it may be months or even years before they know if their decision was a good one. Living with that kind of uncertainty demands great personal courage and a high level of personal resilience.
Ms. Conner-Levin offered concrete advice on how to deal with uncertainty:
My best advice for leading through complexity is to not focus on the complexity issue or change issue. Both are constant and focusing on them will lead you to inertia. Instead keep your focus on defining what issue or challenge in the market place your organization can uniquely solve.
Decentralized management – Being a leader in a complex environment requires trust in staff members and colleagues. One person cannot run the day-to-day operations and be the visionary for the future. Instead, Mr. Braunstein noted that the most important role for the CEO is to set the strategic vision for the organization, and then to find people they trust to make this vision a reality:
The challenges we face as leaders in this current environment cannot always be predicted nor does the source of the change always make sense. It is important not to try to control everything in your environment, but instead have a clear direction for your organization, an ability to be flexible with implementation using multiple scenarios, and, as much as possible, shift more decision-making to the point of impact. Find and trust people who can implement these visions.
Mr. Wolfe elaborated on this theme, noting that it is impossible for CEOs to manage the day-to-day, while also being focused on long-term strategy:
Attempting to constantly shift gears between the day to day urgencies and your plan for change is personally exhausting. You need to have trusted management over day-to-day operations such that you can provide what little input that is needed in an hour or less. This kind of lean performance based operational system will be needed both today and tomorrow, so building it now is actually a strategic imperative.
Complexity leadership doesn’t come easily and it requires leaders to develop new skills. For more on meeting the leadership development challenge, check out these resources from the OPEN MINDS Circle Library:
- Who Do You Need To Lead An Agile Organization?
- Long-Distance Leadership
- Using A Meta-Leadership Approach For Value-Based Social Services
- Meta-Leadership In Action
- Using Feedback To Build Your Leadership IQ
- Collaboration, Connectivity & Complex Leadership
- Leadership Lesson #1 – Don’t Be Surprised!
- To ‘Win,’ Leadership Must Change
- Technology Makes ‘Lifetime Learning’ A Leadership Must
- Does Your CEO Have The Right Leadership ‘DNA’?
For more on building an effective leadership team, mark your calendar now for The 2019 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat, taking place September 9-13 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The week’s events will include leadership focused sessions, including “Succession Planning: Positioning Your Leadership Team For Future Success,” “Meta Leadership In Times Of Tragedy: How To Build Coalitions & Become A Community Leader,” and “Building The Next Generation Of Leaders: How To Develop The Leadership Team You need For Success.”