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Advancing to Senior Leadership Roles.

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Category: Academic Insights

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Studying why women are underrepresented in leadership roles is a massive undertaking, so join Dr. Nadya Fouad as she sheds light on a perplexing issue.

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Leadership Plasticity™ – Adaptability. Resiliency. Results.

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Category: Leadership

By Christine McMahon, a business strategist and adjunct professor at UWM’s School of Continuing Education.  Her focus is to help leaders build strong, adaptive cultures that drive growth and profitable revenue. She can be reached at 414.290.3344 or via email at: ccm@christinemcmahon.com.


The economic climate today continues to challenge leaders. “The pace of change is accelerating at such a rapid rate, that it’s difficult to cope. What made us successful in the past 5 – 10 years won’t make us successful in the future,” states Rodrigo Jordan, founder of Vertical at Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Conference.

From 2008 through 2009, business leaders were challenged beyond what might be defined as reasonable. Those who understood the severity of that change, adapted by making some heart-wrenching decisions that enabled their businesses to weather the storm and be positioned for growth.

McKinsey Global Institute senior fellow Eric Beinhocker says, “Markets exhibit periods of relative calm and stability, which are interrupted by stormy periods. Such disequilibriums make it difficult . . . to survive for long periods . . . strategies, skills or cultures tend to get finely optimized for stable periods, and then suddenly become obsolete . . ..”

A leader’s ability to adapt their organization in a period of rapid change in an effort to maximize growth and profitability is what I call Leadership Plasticity™.

Plasticity is the ability to adapt or to mold to a new shape without losing innate strength.

Stormy periods require that organizations adjust but not compromise core competencies; to mold to a new shape without losing innate strength.

Rapid change is here to stay. Leaders who embrace plasticity will optimize the collective talent of their team and be poised for growth.

The five essential elements that must align for change to be sustainable include:

1) Vision
A compelling vision inspires and motivates. For an employee it justifies how they invest their time, effort and energy. Employees want to make a meaningful contribution. Vision puts meaning in their work and answers the question “Why am I doing this?”

2) Values-Driven Culture
Harvard Business School’s Kotter and Keskett found that companies with strong adaptive cultures outperformed companies with rigid or weak cultures. Their study revealed that revenues grew four times faster, the rate of job creation was seven times higher and stock price increased 12 times. This is epitome of plasticity applied to culture.

According to Beinhocker, “Strong cultures are only valuable if they exhibit adaptive and learning qualities. Otherwise, they become a liability during periods of accelerated change.”

Culture is your brand and adaptability is necessary to move beyond survival and embrace ongoing renewal. Values represent the anchor that supports how employees engage with one another, with their customers and how they work.

3) Human Capital
The challenge facing many businesses today is that employees are not fully engaged. Gallup’s Employee Engagement Survey shows that only 29% of employees are fully engaged, 54% are not engaged and 17% are actively disengaged.

Human capital represents a company’s greatest asset and possibly its only competitive advantage. When a company’s values align with those of its employees the result is a measurable increase in productivity and creativity.

4) Communication
Communication links vision, culture and human capital around the strategic objectives. Clearly understood and well-timed communication provides the roadmap that directs employees’ investment of time and energy.

Collaborative, inter-disciplinary communication fosters new pathways to excellence. This framework promotes honest dialogue, idea generation, problem solving, decision-making and flawless implementation.

5) Resiliency
Resiliency is emotional fortitude, not a genetically fixed trait. It’s the ability to work through the issue and find a viable solution.

Studies by INSEAD Business School, France, shows that a leader’s behaviors and attitude are contagious. How a leader demonstrates resiliency, will serve as the model that employees will follow.

From personal experience, I can attest to the distinctions between how male and female business leaders inherently approach each of these core disciplines. Having been the only female in three male-dominated businesses for over 12 years, the distinctions may be subtle but their impact is significant.

For example, women generally cast a wider net and include more team members into the discussion. I broke “common law” and invited participation from all levels of the organization when developing a vision statement for my sales division – only senior management had been involved prior. The benefit was that the people closest to our major stakeholders – customers and suppliers – offered perspectives that had we overlooked that would have produced a more narrow vision. We were BIG dreamers!

I’ve also perceived that women typically view their team as a collective unit of talent rather than as a hierarchy of authority. Talent not titles matter most.

From personal experience, I know that women also listen differently – we tend to listen for the meaning behind the words because we want to know the motive behind the message (a positive by-product from talking with girlfriends for hours about relationships!). Only with that proper insight can we decide the appropriate response.

Novel and innovative ideas emerge through a diversity of perspectives. What brings ideas to life and sustains them over time is having a compelling vision supported by strong values, effective communication and the right people leveraging their collective talent, who in the face of adversity, grow a steel backbone. That’s the power of leadership plasticity™.

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