Building a resilient and innovative work force in a time of perpetual doubt

Scott Allen, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of Management, Boler School of Business, John Carroll University

Pick up the newspaper these days and serious economic turmoil, widespread political unrest and, frankly, just some weird weather patterns are pervasive.

How do you prepare your organization for the future when confronted with the challenge of perpetual doubt about how that future is going to look? How do you lead your organization when the path ahead is so uncertain? Your work force is one of your best hedges against an uncertain future, but it has to be developed into a resilient, adaptive and creative problem-solving team.

Although it is tempting to pull back from employee development efforts to reduce costs during periods of high economic uncertainty, investing now in your employees will have a big payoff down the road.

Smart Business spoke with Scott Allen, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management, Boler School of Business at John Carroll University, about how developing employees puts businesses ahead of the competition during any economy.

So where do you start?

First, preparing your work force for the future means you have to think differently about your employees. Every employee should be seen as a potential leader on any given day, which means developing leadership capabilities in each of them. Sending employees back to school, providing on-site training, or providing in-practice development opportunities become important mechanisms for developing the kind of work force you need.

Although it’s tempting to look at these mechanisms as costs that can be cut, these should be seen as opportunities to invest in a resource that can protect your organization from the economic and political stormfront you are faced with today. Second, as an expert in leadership development, I suggest four primary areas for developing a team-oriented culture in an organization: 1) skill building, 2) personal growth, 3) feedback opportunities and 4) conceptual understanding.

What are the future skills needed for a resilient and adaptive problem-solving team?

In addition to the obvious functional business knowledge and industry-specific content knowledge, the following skill sets are high on the list of just about every leadership development expert.

Communication Communication is always critical in an organization. As technology continues to change the way we can communicate, people in a team-oriented organization will have to be versatile and effective in every communication medium.

Analytics There are mountains of data available to everyone in an organization and the quantity of data available will increase in the future. The ability to translate data into usable information will create a work force that will mean the difference between being able to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and being left behind.

Language and culture Developing among your employees the skills and sensitivity for successfully working with people from other countries and cultures will substantially increase your organization’s effectiveness moving upstream or downstream in supply chains of the future.

Creativity and innovative problem-solving Economic hard times and global uncertainties produce myriad challenges for finding growth and sources of increased efficiencies. Once the ‘low-hanging fruit’ is gone, companies that have developed a culture of creativity and innovative thinking among employees will continue to grow and prosper through better problem-solving.

How can an organization enhance personal growth?

In our book, ‘The Little Book of Leadership Development: 50 Ways to Bring out the Leader in Every Employee’ (Scott Allen & Mitchell Kusy), we discuss leadership development in the new economy — leadership development that aligns with the flow of the organization and not against it. This approach develops leadership ability in real time while real projects are being completed. Creating a resilient organization in this economy means innovatively developing the next generation of corporate leaders on a dime, and on the fly. For personal growth, the trick is helping front line managers build a system of continual development that takes individuals and their team to the next level each and every day.

Think about your own organization for a moment. Are managers intentionally assigning their team members with challenging assignments, giving them opportunities for the personal growth that is essential for being able to adapt to changing environments? Each employee needs assignments, tasks and activities that take their knowledge, skills and abilities to new levels.

Where is the payoff for creating ongoing feedback opportunities for employees?

Consider the struggle your employees face when deciding what to behaviors to practice or what skills to develop. Are your people practicing the right stuff? Providing real time feedback means getting your employees where they need to be faster. Also, if you want employees to develop and grow, then the feedback should be provided in a way that encourages reflection. Just as football players watch videos of the game and the Army conducts After Action Reviews upon completing a drill, are there ‘de-briefing’ sessions that connect the dots, make sense of failures and celebrate the wins? If not, a learning opportunity has been missed.

What is meant by conceptual understanding?

Part of being resilient and adaptive requires a ‘big picture’ view. Too often, we define jobs as a set of tasks and then set the employee to work on those tasks. A resilient and creative team will need to see where their work fits in the bigger picture for the organization. Employees need to see how everything fits together. Companies who provide this ‘big picture’ find that their employees are a tremendous resource for problem solving during critical challenges.

Scott Allen, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Management, Boler School of Business at John Carroll University. Reach him at [email protected]