Over the past few years, and especially in 2020, top leaders have been challenged by health crises, social justice issues and economic troubles. The C-suite has had to expand their traditional roles of finance, operations or marketing to take on new responsibilities and learn new skills. Alignment and collaboration have been key to addressing remote work; employee well-being; non-diverse leadership pipelines; environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals; culture transformation; and even real estate planning.
“A CEO and leadership team must be fully committed to owning the changes as an aligned team,” said Brian McNamee, former chief transformation officer at Amgen in Los Angeles. “Visible cracks in the alignment will sap the energy of the people in the teams below them who are being asked to do the difficult work of making changes stick.”
Added George Barrett, board director at Target and former chairman and CEO of Cardinal Health in Columbus, Ohio, “For top executives right now, it’s no longer just about horsepower. It’s about adaptive capacity.”
To develop greater adaptive capacity, consider these three strategies.
1. Always Be Learning
Learning and risk-taking go hand-in-hand for top leaders. Leaders need to be humble enough to open themselves up to learn quickly and take risks, yet be decisive enough to make imperfect decisions and recalibrate as needed.
“The role is exciting because you get involved in more conversations, but it is humbling because we’re learning along with everyone else,” said Pat Wadors, chief talent officer and CHRO of Procore Technologies in Santa Barbara, Calif. “You’ve got to be okay with not being perfect—directionally accurate, not perfect.”
Matt Breitfelder, senior partner and global head of human capital at Apollo Global Management in New York City, encourages CHROs to constantly pilot, test and scale solutions in the same way that a tech firm develops a new product. “Create a beta version, test it with a well-selected group, abandon it if it doesn’t work and scale fast if it does,” he advised.
2. Embrace Empathy
The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes has been eroded, yet leaders can combat that with empathy.
“Empathetic workplace cultures retain the best people and enjoy higher productivity,” said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, President and CEO of SHRM in Alexandria, Va. “I liken empathy to a muscle that can be strengthened—and a competency that CHROs can build into a company culture.”
Kathleen Weslock, CHRO of Avalara, a tax compliance company in Seattle, made it her mission to lead with empathy. “I realized that to truly lead with empathy I had to be willing to leave my ego at the door and just listen and be quiet at times.”
3. Coach the C-suite
The CHRO plays a unique role in the C-suite as the coach and advisor of the top leadership team. The CHRO must balance constructively challenging peers and serving as a confident to the same group.
According to Ted Bililies, Ph.D., managing director and chief talent officer of AlixPartners, a New York-based global consulting firm, the best coaches are able to see the underlying and interrelated systems as work, highlight the company’s purpose and values, and strategically plan for talent needed over the long term.
“You need to be the convener of the C-suite to pull people together and ask for help,” said Beth Comstock, New York-based board director at Nike and former Vice Chair of GE. “You need to say, ‘A lot is expected of both of us. Here’s what I can do, here’s where I need your help, here’s what we can do together.’ You need to create that dynamic.”
Skills for the Future
The ability to deal with change with resiliency, clarity and proactivity will not diminish in the future. In fact, those skills will become even more valuable.
Patricia L. Lewis, executive vice president and CHRO of UnitedHealth Group in Minnetonka, Minn., explained that the best CHROs in the coming years will know how to deal with ambiguity, solve problems without all the information and rally teams to do new tasks. “We’re used to focusing on proactive skills, but because the environment’s going to continue to change rapidly, there’s an element of agility that is going to be important.”