Adaptable Leadership in Times of Change: Webinar reflections
On Wednesday 21st October we were delighted to co-host Stuart Crooks CBE – Managing Director of Hinckley Point C – with our friends at Thomas Thor Associates.
The webinar featured a conversation between our very own co-founder and Sales Director, Dr. Austin Swain, and Stuart Crooks who is leading the construction of Hinckley Point C – two nuclear reactors which will provide low carbon electricity for around six million homes. Austin and Stuart spoke engagingly about adaptable leadership in times of change, covering topics such as diverse thinking, overcoming biases, empathic listening and leading with purpose.
The webinar content was primarily designed for an audience of leaders and future leaders within the UK nuclear industry. However, the fascinating insights that ensued are relevant to leaders and managers in all industry sectors. A watch of the recording is seriously worth your while and, to whet your appetite, here are some of the headlines from the conversation.
Embracing diverse, agile thinking
Stuart spoke about the importance of remaining open-minded to diverse ways of thinking, particularly in this post Covid-19 world. He reflected on how, as leaders, we are all shaped by our history. Yet the world has moved on since the pandemic hit and we need to break free from our histories to move with it. Things that previously seemed impossible have now become possible, for example home working and “doing more with less”.
For Stuart, tapping into the diverse thinking of his project team – different people from different orientations – has rapidly enabled a more agile approach to managing and leading:
“The traditional approach of an engineer is you have a plan A, a plan B, a plan C. They’re all linear. Agile thinking is much more about saying ‘people think in different ways’. The more diversity you can have in your executive team and your Board, the better chance you have of reacting to a very uncertain situation.”
Alongside this diversity of thought it is also important to have “the courage to make change happen” he said.
Austin built on Stuart’s opening comments from a social psychology perspective, talking about “the perils of group think”. Although we are instinctively birds of a feather, and we flock together, we need to be watchful;
“If there is a lack of diversity, the quality of decision-making hits a ceiling. We’re less likely to disrupt, let alone challenge.”
The conversation then turned to the importance of recognising our biases with Stuart giving the example of remote working vs. office working. As a leader, if your value system is about face-to-face, you might only notice (and potentially recognise and reward) employees who turn up for work. The people who you’ve ‘seen’ doing a great job.
Stuart talked about now becoming more outcome focused, rather than input focused, in this new world of work. What matters most is the contribution and value that people bring to your business:
“As a leader in today’s society…our value system is borne out of sitting in an office, watching people do what they do… We now have to think more intellectually about how well we set those performance targets; how clearly we are communicating to people about what they’re delivering, and then how we value and evaluate that at the end of the year…
I had to really think about my biases, i.e. you’re in the office, you’re like me and therefore you’re good… I now realise that some of the best work on this project has been done by people I haven’t seen physically for months. I’ve learnt to value the work that they do much more, and the fact they’re not in the office doesn’t mean they’re not contributing. Indeed, some have been far more productive.”
Confirmation bias, Austin agreed, is a big challenge for leaders – we tend to pay attention to and interpret information that supports our historical views. This is especially true during times of crisis when we’re more likely to default to what’s familiar.
Stuart spoke about listening as a key leadership skill during the pandemic. As a leader, your first instinct might be to protect your business, but you also need to truly understand how people are feeling. Data can be interpreted by different people – same data, different messages – depending on their mindset and personality type. Some people feel OK to come to the office, others are too nervous to leave their homes and we need to be sensitive to that:
“You have to change your bias from ‘I’m the boss I’ll ask the questions’ to ‘I’m the student I’m going to listen and learn’”
Listening is vitally important, agreed Austin:
“As leaders listening is a basic 101 skill… But in this medium we’ve got to really work on our listening skills. We can have surface listening, or we can have accurate listening where people feel understood… but what you’ve been talking about is empathic listening where people feel they’ve been listened to so well that ‘they really understand my reality’”.
Leading with purpose
In closing, Austin asked Stuart about his perspective on ‘purpose-led leadership’ and its significance right now.
Stuart reflected on the importance of caring about the higher order of things. In the case of Hinckley Point C, it’s about building a facility that will help the fight against climate change:
“To be part of this management team, this executive team and this workforce you have to care about what you’re doing… Every day is hard but the purpose is worth it.”
It is, Stuart said, about developing the value-system in people, as well as the technical skills. Getting people to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and why it’s important. This will generate more rounded, value-driven leaders rather than individualist leaders.
Austin concluded by highlighting two of the big psychological motivators – belonging and meaning – saying“If the ‘why’ is big enough, we’ll put up with any ‘how’”.