What Executive Teams Need Now

Effective teams demand flexibility and creative thinking now. It’s possible for CEOs to hire for that—if they demonstrate some flexibility of their own.

Executives want team players—that’s a truism so true that it hardly bears much attention. There’s important work to be done in an organization, and people who lack a capacity to listen and collaborate don’t have a place in it.

But the definitions of “team player” and “collaborate” can be fluid, and these days much of the business literature seems to have shifted the meaning away from consensus-building and toward a capacity to reckon with uncertainty. That’s a challenge: Associations, like all organizations, succeed when they think years in advance, but they often hire for what a job demands in the moment.

Earlier this month, Nathan Furr, author of Leading Transformation, wrote in Harvard Business Review about what leadership teams these days require. In short, it means not having all the answers and being OK with that: Team members need an “ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, even to entertain it”; a capacity to synthesize diverse ideas and then create and communicate new ideas based on them; and an ability to serve as “chaos pilots,” people who can champion new ideas and initiatives, even if they get buffeted in the process.

No biggie.

You have to carve out time to think in the long term.

And there’s another hurdle, Furr suggests: The people in possession of these skills aren’t going to be immediately identifiable via their resume. “Similar to how many transformative business opportunities are found in unlikely places, the same is true about where you may find the best-suited team members to drive forward a promising new initiative,” he writes.

So the CEOs who care to assemble teams that possess this kind of flexibility may have to be “chaos pilots” themselves. But they’re not entirely adrift. Earlier this year I spoke with futurist Rich Karlgaard, a Game Changer speaker at the 2018 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition, about the new nature of team-building. His suggestion: Look for experience in a variety of places, and for liberal-arts grads who may have a little more training in fluidity of thought than a typical MBA program provides.

“Things like pattern recognition have now become more valuable inside of a company,” he said. “So has empathy. And you want pattern recognition and empathy in people leading projects. Spend some time in Silicon Valley and you can see a lot of people who are brilliant but who can’t make the leap into management. So people with these social skills become very, very important going forward.”

But beyond where you look for candidates, how you interview them may increasingly matter as well. It’s one thing to serve on a team and call that evidence of being a “team player.” It’s another to serve on a team in ways that demonstrate the open-mindedness and analytical abilities that future thinking will require.

That need is going to affect every association, whether its industry is feeling the brunt of change right away or sees it years off. In the latest issue of Associations Now, I wrote about how associations have responded to shifting trends in social media, from changing user preferences to scandals and policy changes that have scraped the gleam off of Facebook’s public image. Already, the story feels a little outdated—the fortunes and policies of Snap, Facebook, Instagram, and so on have shifted, and the social media leaders at associations will, once again, have to adapt.

But the need to adapt is evergreen. “You are working every day to keep trains running and to update things in the short term,” Meredith Barnett, digital communications manager at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, told me. “But then you have to carve out time to think in the long term and to revisit those goals and then plan ahead.”

Every organization has a communications strategy it ought to be revisiting regularly, and plenty more strategies besides—and the people leading them need to be more flexible than ever.  The only constant is change. That’s another truism, but is it what you’re hiring for, and what you’re encouraging people to expect when you assemble teams?

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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