Five ways to turn adversity into advantage


    How can directors perform at the top of their game during times of uncertainty? Graham Winter, a four-time Australian Olympic team psychologist (three times as chief psychologist), founder of consultancy Think One Team, and co-author of Toolkit for Turbulence with Martin Bean CBE, outlines how to turn a challenge into an opportunity. 

    1. Calibrate for complexity

    A starting point is to recognise that complex challenges rarely follow a straight path. “Leaders need to recognise the difference between dealing with technical, linear challenges and issues, versus dealing with complexity, where things are shifting and changing. This requires an understanding of what it means to operate in complexity and to know that during times of turbulence, the executive team may not be able to provide the clarity that the board wants.”

    2. Build a high-performance framework

    Delivering consistent high performance requires three core pillars: alignment, collaboration and learning. “Alignment requires executives and directors to work closely together, rather than at a guarded distance. What is your role? What is their role and how will you operate in that grey space in the middle? What are your expectations of each other?”

    Collaboration can unlock potential and unblock barriers. “The board and executive team have got different but very consistent roles to play in this. The board looks at how to unlock value for investors, shareholders and community. Executives are equally interested in this, but they’ll also be thinking about their employees and operations in a more granular way.”

    Learning requires boards to debrief quickly and adapt to change. “Good boards play the issue, not the person. They encourage the executive team to embed a tight operating and debriefing rhythm. The more turbulent the environment, the faster you want that loop of aligning, collaborating and learning to keep spinning.”

    3. Normalise errors

    Errors will be made during times of turbulence, but you can learn from them. Winter quotes high-performance coach developer Ashley Ross, who encourages leaders to normalise errors. “In the sports arena, an error is an opportunity to get better. This is where psychological safety meets accountability. It requires an environment where people feel they can perform and learn. They can go big, but they also know they’ll be challenged and supported in equal measure.”

    4. Shift from reactive to adaptive

    Events such as COVID-19 have caused many leaders to take a defensive, fixed approach to solutions, but an adaptive mindset can present opportunities. Winter draws on the principles of flying — aviate, navigate and communicate.

    “If you’re flying a plane, a pilot will tell you the most important thing is to keep it in the air. You also need somewhere to land and to let people know what’s happening.
    If you put somebody else in that situation, often the first thing they’ll do is tell people they’re in trouble. That’s not the problem you need to solve at that stage. You need to focus on keeping the plane in the air.”

    The chair is vital in setting the tone.

    “To adapt to complex environments, the chair creates a tone where others can learn, where they can have difficult conversations, where they can operate at a high- performance level. They need to encourage participation and succinctly summarise and close out an issue in a way that brings people together, rather than dividing them.”

    5. Create models for response

    During times of disruption, the best decisions are drawn from well-prepared models. “I asked someone who had climbed Everest, what was the key to making decisions in high-stakes conditions? He said, ‘You don’t make the decision at that point. You’ve already decided on your choices, you just need to select one.’”

    In complex environments, decisions should be based on the mental models, not the environment. “During a cyber crisis, for example, you need to know in advance what your response is going to be, then you’ll navigate your way through. When a fire fighter goes into any emergency situation, they have their checklist of things they do. The same applies to the boardroom. What is your process for quick decision-making?”

    Turning adversity into advantage also requires directors to practise composure. “This is not always easy, so make sure that you’ve got core values to anchor on.”

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