Developing leadership at all levels drives firms through change

But leaders need to ensure employees don’t wallow in negativity during tough times

Leading in turbulent times: In February, the Strategic Capability Network hosted an event with Jim Clemmer, noted speaker and author of Growing @ the Speed of Change. He spoke about how leaders can use practical and inspirational action plans to help employees, and organizations, though tough times. For more information about the Strategic Capability Network, visit

Developing leadership at all levels drives firms through change

Tough times for leaders but stick with basics (Organizational effectiveness)

3 strategic areas worth exploring (Strategic capability)

Leading in turbulent times (Leadership in action)

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Developing leadership at all levels drives firms through change

By Shannon Klie

Change is the one constant in the world and organizations need to embrace change, and work with it, in order to thrive, according to Jim Clemmer, a practical leadership expert and author.

“Crisis can be an opportunity. We know that what we’re doing now isn’t working, so let’s do something different,” Clemmer told a group of HR professionals at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto last month.

“In today’s world, things are moving so fast that we’ve got to build flexible organizations that can adapt quickly and move quickly.”

And that starts by building leadership behaviours at all levels throughout the organization, said Clemmer, who runs the Clemmer Group in Kitchener, Ont.

Leadership as action, not a role

Leadership, as a behaviour, is about focusing on where an organization is going and taking the initiative to help it get there, he said. It’s focusing on values, strengths and core elements that need to be leveraged and built upon to move forward.

In turbulent times, it can be hard for employees, at all levels of an organization, to focus on the positive instead of wallowing in the negative, he said.

If a person is looking for problems, instead of opportunities, then she’ll only find problems, he said.

“Life is an optical illusion. Reality is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

The biggest challenge for senior leadership is to have, and keep, everyone practising these leadership behaviours and avoid what Clemmer calls “Pity City.”

“It starts with looking at ourselves as leaders and making sure that we are positive, optimistic, moving forward,” he said.

Then senior leaders can build leadership behaviours in front-line employees by engaging them, involving them and giving them the support they need to feel effective.

“It’s really defining ourselves and others as to what speaks to the heart,” he said. “Leaders tend to make people feel inspired, feel connected, feel valued in some way.”

That way, employees will embrace the change and see it as a positive move forward, said Clemmer. This is important because it is the people who drive the systems and technical expertise that move an organization forward, he said.

Visiting ‘Pity City’ — but only for a short while

But sometimes wallowing in the negative can be therapeutic, he said. So when people are having a hard time adjusting, leaders can give employees permission to take the “bitter bus” to visit Pity City.

But it’s important to ensure they don’t spend too much time there, said Clemmer.

“When we’re wallowing, we’re down in a pretty bad place,” he said. “We want to be careful not to live there.”

Involving employees in the organization so they feel a sense of ownership will help them get back into a positive mindset and start taking initiative to move the organization forward, said Clemmer. Encouraging people to focus on what they can control, as well as on their past accomplishments, will help them get out of Pity City, he said.

To do this, senior leaders need to focus on relationship management and have good emotional intelligence (EQ), understanding their own emotions as well as how others think and feel, he said.

While most organizations recognize the need to develop leadership, many aren’t doing so, said Clemmer. While leadership skills are often seen as “soft skills,” they’re actually very hard and often take people outside their comfort zone.

“It can be learned if the basic desire to learn it is there,” he said. But, unfortunately, someone with low EQ is unlikely to see the need to develop these skills, he said.

High-performance culture starts with values, vision

When developing a high-performance culture, organizations need to start with values, mission and vision. While most organizations have these written down somewhere, they’re not really alive in the organization, said Clemmer.

It isn’t enough to have the values or mission statement written on a plaque or emailed to employees — senior leaders need to demonstrate them on a daily basis. These values, and leadership behaviours, should then become part of management processes and systems, which eventually lead to front-line employees demonstrating the behaviours as well.

Once this happens, the organization needs to ensure there is continuous improvement as well as development activities to maintain the new behaviours, said Clemmer.

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Tough times for leaders but stick with basics (Organizational effectiveness)

By Tom Tavares

In what seems like the blink of an eye, Toyota has gone from leading the pack to apologizing on bended knee. Recently, a Canadian cabinet minister found herself in the spotlight for bullying and belittling behaviour. In the United States, Republicans and Democrats are locked in a venomous turf war, more intent on pointing fingers and laying blame than solving problems. These are not the best of times for leaders.

It’s no picnic inside organizations, either. Many companies are still reeling from the financial crisis in 2008. Mixed economic signals make it difficult for executives to strategize, managers are in a reactive mode fighting fires and employees are doing more work with less job security. The behaviour generated by all this negativity can heavily impact business performance.

Case in point: In response to eroding revenues, executives in a pharmaceutical firm became more protective of its turf, slowing new product development. High-potential managers — caught in a no man’s land — had their careers damaged. Employees were alienated by the atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

It’s understandable many leaders react to turbulent times by accentuating positives and downplaying negatives. However, what seems like common sense sometimes has unintended consequences. Consider a packaged goods firm where being positive was a cornerstone of the culture. Although the atmosphere was pleasant on the surface, the emphasis on seeing the glass as half-full produced a number of problematic trends.

In an effort to appear positive, management tended to downplay problems, which allowed issues to fester into crises. Leaders shied away from addressing conflicts and performance issues, which undermined teamwork and morale. When there was no good news to share, managers stayed behind closed doors. As a result, employees worked in a vacuum, wasting a great deal of time and energy speculating about when the next shoe would drop.

What can leaders do in turbulent times? In the words of Max DePree, the American author of Leadership is an Art: “The first responsibility of leadership is to define reality.”

When things are bad, say they are bad and remember change is constant. When things are good, say so and celebrate good fortune, but remember change is constant.

There is no end of advice to business leaders: EQ versus IQ, management versus leadership and quantum physics versus positive psychology. In difficult times, however, it pays to stick with the basics. Executives need to continually update management on priorities, so departments stay aligned. Managers need to coach employees on translating priorities into action. Employees can have a major impact on a business by recommending solutions to problems instead of complaining about them.

The quality of leadership is shaped by the behaviour of everyone in the company: executives, managers and employees. When problems are solved by those closest to them, it frees management from fighting fires and puts them in a position to anticipate changes. So stick with the basics and, most importantly, start now.

Tom Tavares is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and a senior organizational psychologist. In addition to managing in large corporations, consulting in varied industries and coaching executives, he is also the author of The Mind Field, published by Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected].

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3 strategic areas worth exploring (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

Jim Clemmer’s presentation stimulated thinking about personal and team development and touched on the steps to a high-performance culture:

• vision, core values, purpose or mission

• supervisor/manager/executive leadership behaviours

• looking at management processes and systems

• front-line staff leadership behaviours

• continuous improvement and organization development.

Three areas seem worth exploring from a strategic capability perspective.

Cultural prison: The stronger the culture, the more likely it is to become codified and rigid and the less likely it is to accept deviance, even if variance from the norm is important for future success.

Although an organization may advocate an open, positive and participative culture, those raising legitimate issues perceived as negative may be ostracized and marginalized. How can organizations balance the need for energy, commitment and positive engagement with the equally important need for warnings, whistleblowers and the courage to challenge whether the vision, mission and core values are being followed?

Those raising warnings may also be energized, committed and positively engaged but not be accepted because of their views. It’s important to celebrate what is working well and to embrace and deal with potential negative impacts.

Efficiency and imagination co-existing: Organizations attempt to instil order, repeatability and certainty. Innovation often takes the form of continuous improvement.

While continuous improvement has value, an incremental approach leads to commodity thinking. To be strategic and forward looking, organizations need to disrupt “the way things are done” and re-imagine their reality, customer base, products, processes and financial engine. Leaders at all levels need to understand and encourage both approaches for sustainability — standardization/continuous improvement and innovation/questioning.

Leap of faith with a safety net: Leading involves a willingness to take risks, such as giving up some degree of certainty and control. Humans create habits and organize their world. We seek to exercise control over our environment while at the same time acknowledging there is nothing certain except “death and taxes.”

We seek to reduce risk except under certain circumstances where there is something to gain. We then become flexible, resilient and growth-oriented. Think about teenagers or those seeking adventure. They assume significant risk, explore and are energized by growth. Those entering a relationship with another person, or having a child, enthusiastically and willingly accept a future with broader boundaries where they will not be in sole control.

How does one create an environment where risk is understood, accepted and encouraged at all levels and yet managed appropriately? Risk could relate to managing people, processes or other aspects of the business. Leadership training needs to teach that taking risk is OK but it is not the same as being a “gunslinger” or going outside the bounds of acceptable risk. Organizations must ensure leaders at all levels have the knowledge and tools to identify opportunities and risks and understand how to manage both.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at [email protected].

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Leading in turbulent times (Leadership in action)

By Trish Maguire

Jim Clemmer’s framework for “leading through turbulent times” incorporate basic human dynamics and underscore the natural human need for trust, meaningful work, contributing with recognition and participation in change.

Turbulent times require us to be willing and prepared to let go of patterns, behaviours and attitudes that are no longer conducive to collective economic growth and wellness, while accepting instability and increasing creativity and innovation

How serious are we about making sense of, and working to positively influence, our complex and ambiguous world? How determined are we to do things differently as the recession recedes? Is there a chance we, or our organization, will support the same ineffective processes and thinking that served to aggravate the situation? Or are we, as leaders of our organizations, only prepared to change content instead of taking the time to see through the illusion that anything needs to be fixed?

Frederick Winslow Taylor was one of the forefathers who ushered in the “scientific management” era, to treat people as an engineering problem where efficiencies became the priority. However, in Leadership and the New Science, Meg Wheatley pushed our thinking and perceptions by exploring the implications of quantum physics, self-organizing systems and chaos theory for organizational practices.

As a result, Wheatley helped us understand organizations are not mechanical machines made up of independent parts but a web of interconnectedness and interdependent relationships. Organizations are dynamic, unifying environments where people constantly work in relationship to information, people, events, ideas and life. Clemmer simplifies these findings and, in using practical tools, reminds leaders that to perceive the world differently, we need to learn and embrace new perceptual techniques.

As we learn to live with instability, we also need to develop a different understanding of independence and interdependence. Rather than maintaining rigid organizations, HR leaders have a window to learn how to integrate a balance between the present and future, build integrated systems that can resist most demands of turbulent change and create safe and flexible structures.

The opportunity is in understanding people’s commitment, sense of purpose and desire to engage in meaningful assignments where they can learn to work through differences, value them and build on their experiences.

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions, focused on developing customized talent management strategies for small entrepreneurial businesses. She can be reached at [email protected].

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Next executive series

Would you like to attend one of the upcoming Breakfast Series in Toronto? Here’s a look at upcoming sessions:

April: Management is broken — HR’s role in fixing it, with Tom Tavares, an organizational consultant and author of The Mind Field: What’s Missing in Running Our Organizations, published by Carswell. (April 14.)

May: The importance of values through crisis, with Jeannette Jones, vice-president of communications at Maple Leaf Foods.

Visit for more information. 

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