An Echelon Media Company
Thursday September 29th, 2022

Entrusted: Leading in an era of uncertainty and disruption

Ramesh Shanmuganathan Executive Vice President and CIO at John Keells Holding

John Keells Holding’s Executive Vice President and Group CIO Ramesh Shanmuganathan on organisational stewardship during uncertainty.

The act of stewardship by leaders in an organisation is of the essence, especially in periods of uncertainty and disruption, whereby truly achieving relevance, ensuring that individuals are aligned, and creating environments where people can improve their sense of well-being. Simply stated stewardship is a key requirement for great leadership and is a key differentiator in times of uncertainty and disruption.

In this interview, John Keells Holdings Executive Vice President and Group CIO Ramesh Shanmuganathan shares insights on organisational stewardship during uncertainty. Excerpts of the interview…

Why is stewardship critical for organisations? What aspects of stewardship are critical during uncertainty and disruption?

An evolving vision and purpose are important for any business due to the dynamic environment that we operate in, filled with uncertainty and disruption. In the past organisations have been focused on one attribute; shareholder wealth maximisation. This has contributed to contemporary ethics scandals, created a credibility and trust crisis for businesses and challenged the long-term viability as well as sustenance of organisations.

A stewardship model is a new, humane, and sustainable model that casts businesses as responsible stewards contributing to the wellbeing of all stakeholders – be they, customers, employees, partners or the community. The need is to act with positive ethics; partner organisations and social institutions; commit to sustainable goals and objectives preserving the environment with a focus on human wellbeing and humanity.

In a period of uncertainty and disruption, most will turn to their leaders for guidance, reassurance and for clarity about the organisation’s and their future. We have no immunity from these feelings of helplessness and apprehension fostered by events. As a steward or a leader in an organisation, though we share these feelings, it’s our behavioural traits and how we walk the talk that foster confidence and faith in people to look beyond those challenges. In my view, there are four critical aspects to this,

CONNECT

It is important to generate a feeling of trust with employees. This will not happen if your communications appear remote, artificial or disconnected. People need to feel a highly personal presence and connection. Leaders who reach out to their employees and foster warmth and support will be seen as credible sources of reassurance and information.

UNITE

Uncertain and turbulent times push us to seek comfort from the relationships and camaraderie that we have with people. It reminds us of the importance of the human community at large. People value this the most. They need to rally behind those things that bind them together. Leaders can pull their employees closer to the organisation by reinforcing what makes them unique and help crystallise a sense of belonging to energise them towards a common forward path.

This is also a great opportunity to foster and enhance team bonding and a sense of togetherness and resilience as an organisation. Leaders who leverage these opportunities emerge stronger and create a far-reaching impact for the organisation and its people by validating that they can collectively weather any storm by adapting to it.

INFORM

As people struggle to make sense of what they are facing and they are also seeking credible information and outcomes for themselves. This is also an opportunity to build an open communication platform and have regular open forums to foster information and knowledge sharing. It’s important to be honest and genuine in these communications, though at times leaders would feel greatly vulnerable doing the same. We must candidly acknowledge the downsides and the unknowns. This will create credibility when painting a picture of their organisation’s strengths and weaknesses and encouraging them to collectively act in shaping its future.

Most importantly, we must help people make sense of the changing conditions, anticipate the likely scenarios ahead, and make up our own minds about how to best deal with the situation by providing an assurance that we are in it together.

GUIDE

More than at any other time, people want leaders who are strong, decisive and comfortable giving direction. However, inconsiderate, or early calls without a holistic view can be hugely counterproductive since it’s seen as less humane and being profit-focused.

It wouldn’t make sense to talk about long-term vision and strategic plans when people are bracing for further bad news, or emotionally recovering from previous disruptions/disclosures. It’s always good to start with the basics. The first step is ensuring their well-being, aligning them to business-critical priorities and guiding them to rally around and contribute.

Thereafter, as things improve, invite people to think of what else could be done and solicit their input towards building a new future together by highlighting potential opportunities they have within the organisation.

To respond to the uncertainties and disruptions which take place, leaders must be able to change themselves and the organisation. What is your advice in terms of what one could follow in a period of uncertainty?

Most of us have gone through one of the greatest black swan events known to mankind. If there was ever any doubt about the importance of a leader’s ability to navigate change, uncertainty, and disruption, this event did justice in making it very clear why stewardship and leadership are critical.

Most of us often share the feeling of being stuck, ill-equipped, or overwhelmed as we face the growing challenges of our roles. To effectively lead others in an increasingly complex environment, we must first come to terms with our own unique circumstances, our fears, and our apprehensions whilst exploring the opportunities and options to navigate the evolving maze. This requires us to be open to continually learning, evolving, and growing with progressive steps.

DON’T FEAR THE UNKNOWN

As leaders, we are expected to have all the answers. That’s next to impossible. We are also wired to think of any uncertainty or disruption as a risk or threat. This creates anxiety in us as we feel stressed when faced with unfamiliar situations or circumstances. This is more so for successful leaders who fear failure.

These have been significant barriers for leaders to learn, adapt, reimagine, remodel and grow in the face of uncertainty and disruption. As leaders, we must try and manage these feelings and must learn to acknowledge and embrace the discomfort as a normal part of our learning. This shift in our mindset can, itself, help ease the discomfort by taking the pressure off of us to have all the answers.

LEARN TO MANAGE COMPLEXITY

We must acknowledge all complex challenges and contain interdependent elements, some of which may be unknown and may change over time in unpredictable ways. Action or change in one direction can result in disproportionate and unforeseen outcomes. The way to address a complex challenge is to make assumptions and then work together on the most viable option and iteratively improve on it. We must acknowledge that there are many options, but no assured outcomes. We need to be comfortable exploring solutions through trial and error which requires our willingness, humility, and ability to act, learn, and adapt.

FOCUS ON PROGRESS

In an evolving and complex environment, context continually changes and it’s important to focus on progress rather than on perfectionism. We must be comfortable making mistakes and recognize that we have the ability to continually course correct. The key attributes which stand in the way are people who are focused on perfectionism, egos and desired identities. We need to ensure these people and their concerns are managed better toward the anticipated outcome. It’s important to have the organisational leadership exposed to driving change and be comfortable with not being perfect for the benefit of progress. Most of the time, they look for safety nets and assurance that their careers are not at stake. Leaders must look at these as opportunities to learn, professionally grow and create new vistas for themselves.

NO QUICK FIXES

We tend to oversimplify complex challenges so that they seem less daunting and easy to address. We break them into components based on past experience anticipating this will make it easier to solve them. This is a potential pitfall because it narrows your view and leads you to miss the nuances of the present challenge.

Leaders must learn to balance their need for action with a disciplined approach to understanding both the core problem and their own biases. They also must appreciate that any complex issue takes time to resolve.

WORK AS A NETWORK

Many of us feel isolated as we face continuous change and uncertainty, and more so because of our implicit belief that we need to solve all issues ourselves. As the complexity and volume of our workload increase, our natural tendency is to double down on our focus and individual efforts. It’s important to acknowledge that when facing challenges of this magnitude network-centred leadership and stewardship is vital. The lack of it, where the full scope of issues and interdependencies are unclear, can lead to disastrous consequences.

It’s important to cultivate and develop a network to gain better insights, perspectives and options. There is an inherent limit for each of us regarding what we can know and our ability to have an objective perspective on any given situation. Yet, we can exponentially expand our knowledge and perspective by cultivating and connecting with a network of peers and colleagues — each with their own set of experiences and perspectives.

TAKE A HOLISTIC VIEW

We often get stuck in complex challenges by being too immersed and failing to take a holistic view of them. It’s always good to back up and take a broader perspective and a systemic view, to consider them from different angles and under varied assumptions. From this elevated vantage point, interdependencies and larger patterns are observable, potentially revealing unforeseen obstacles and new solutions.

This more holistic perspective allows for greater adaptability and course correction. Regular practice of this type of exercise helps to build your and your team’s capacity to see the bigger picture and be more agile.

Managing an organisation is a challenge, at any time, let alone a period of uncertainty and disruption. What are some of the key attributes of leadership that help you to navigate them during a period of change?

Uncertainty and disruption are always challenging. It is incredibly stressful for everyone at an organisation. For those in leadership, this poses the added challenge of needing to assuage fears and provide a sense of stability for themselves and their teams. Navigating change can make us doubt our effectiveness as leaders, but it is important that we learn to sit with this discomfort in order to face it.

We tend to resist uncertainties or disruptive changes because it is uncomfortable, it makes us anxious, and we feel that we are not in control. This also generates a range of emotions polarising views and opinions and leads to strained relationships and the compromising of the network effect. This requires great skill, flexibility and adaptability from leadership to provide stewardship and lead through any period of uncertainty or disruption. It’s also noteworthy that this presents a great opportunity for any leader and his team to create the next point of inflexion for their organisation.

In my view, there are certain critical attributes helping the leader navigate through periods of uncertainty and disruption. There is a strong correlation between them and how teams are led to creating a bigger network effect for the organisation.

BE HONEST AND GENUINE

In uncertainty, people worry about what is not known and catastrophize about what might happen. Anxiety increases in the desire to find definitive answers. It’s good to focus on what is known. Provide clarity and direction for yourself and your team and be honest when you don’t have the answers. Stay open to possibilities and opportunities, prepare for different potential outcomes and be flexible as new insights emerge.

BE HUMAN

In uncertainty, we are often under pressure and lead from stressed behaviour. Blame, judgement and criticism increase as people disagree with polarised approaches.

Recognise how your emotions impact your behaviour and that of others in the team. Look after yourself and take time out when you need to. This might be as simple as taking a deep breath in the middle of a meeting to stay grounded. Do whatever serves you and the team. Above all, be kind, always.

LEAD FROM YOUR HEART

In uncertainty, people get triggered by how others respond differently. You may avoid trying something new not guaranteed of success, but there can be no guarantee in uncertainty. Have the courage to step into the unknown wholeheartedly and with enthusiasm. Be willing to fail, recover and try again. Encourage others to do the same.

BUILD TRUST

In uncertainty, trust is often broken when people resist change and views are polarised. There is a tendency to mistrust anyone with a different opinion, leading to disconnection and a dispersed team. Trust that disconnection and resistance are part of the process of uncertainty and find ways to help people feel safe to share their experiences. Trust that everyone is doing their best and make space for differences of opinion.

BE A GREAT LISTENER

Uncertainty, fear, polarisation and stress cause people to speed up and stop listening. Differences of opinion can lead to conflict, breaking trust. Pay attention to what is unsaid, to the values and beliefs that underpin how people behave. Seek to understand the experience of others as it may differ from your own. Understand other perspectives and be willing to change your mind.

BE A CO-CREATOR

In uncertainty, people become polarised as they try to create certainty and have rigid opinions about what is not known. It’s good to encourage exploration, collaboration and experimentation. Be willing to slow down and explore the here and now. Let go of the past and create the future from the known and include all the voices in the system.

BE ENGAGED

In uncertainty, we often disconnect at times of polarization to create safety. We avoid people who think differently. There is a tendency to connect with those who think and behave like you. Reach out to those whose approaches may differ and may challenge you and your thinking. Notice where people disconnect, give them space to do so when they are overwhelmed and help them re-engage. Ask for help when you need it.

CREATE SPACE

In uncertainty, we have a tendency to move away when it gets uncomfortable or we push through discomfort with intense action. Be willing to stay in the heated discussions and help others stay engaged. Take time out when you need it but stay engaged with the team. Create space for people to disconnect to reduce their overwhelm. Encourage them to re-engage as soon as their stress reduces so they feel valued.

The period of uncertainty and disruption is also an opportunity to leverage technology to survive, sustain and grow. What are your thoughts on this?

To thrive in an increasingly uncertain world, organisations need to be able to innovate quickly and periods of uncertainties and disruption are the opportune moments for this.

Every business must continuously review, reassess, and revalidate its strategies as its operating context changes. The strategies businesses adopt would change depending on the circumstances and the environment in which they operate. A period of uncertainty and disruption forces leaders to ask themselves fundamental, even existential, questions about the future of their businesses.

The key to thriving in times of uncertainty and disruption is to focus on making your organisation resilient and robust whilst focusing on reimaging and remodelling the way you enhance the ability of an organisation to adapt, develop and evolve.

If an organisation is agile and nimble and is able to reconfigure itself at the speed of changing context, then that organisation becomes ‘Robust’ to be resilient and remains standing as the ground shifts beneath them and is able to turn the disruptions powered by megatrends to their advantage.

This ‘Robustness’ is built on six key dimensions of an organisation – purpose; culture and strategy; leadership and talent; financing and investments; process and organisational dynamics; ecosystems and networks; and technology and data.

The mantra is rapid innovations powered by digital which leverages and cements what we discussed above. Making effective use of technologies such as cloud computing, mobility, and artificial intelligence is key to creating a platform for rapid innovation for any organisation. Today the key differentiation is the speed of innovation which is anchored on how digitally enabled an organisation is and its Digital Quotient. Key digital pivots organisations ought to be focusing upon to enhance the speed of innovation are pinned on the following,

FLEXIBLE, SECURE INFRASTRUCTURE

Leveraging cloud computing for scalability, agility, and cybersecurity to protect data, applications, and infrastructure—and to lower the risks of innovation.

DATA MASTERY

Using data and analytics to generate insights that can enhance efficiency and effectiveness, guide product development, and support new business models.

DIGITALLY SAVVY, OPEN TALENT NETWORKS

Secure, flexible access to the talent and skills necessary to evolve and grow a digital business.

ECOSYSTEM ENGAGEMENT

Working with business partners to gain access to resources such as intellectual property, technology, or talent that can help accelerate innovation.

INTELLIGENT WORKFLOWS

Leveraging automation to increase efficiency and effectiveness and free up resources to focus on higher-value tasks such as creating new products.

UNIFIED CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE

Delivering a superior customer experience built on deep data-driven knowledge of the customer.

BUSINESS MODEL ADAPTABILITY

Expanding the business models and revenue streams that can help a company adapt and thrive in changing conditions.

The period of uncertainty and disruption has always amplified how critical agility and rapid innovation are for an organisation. I believe this is one key reason why corporate investment in digital transformation remains a significant and compelling one for organisations to stay resilient, reimagine and remodel their way. Simply stay ‘Robust’.

In closing, it seems that any given week provides ample reminders that, as leaders, we cannot control the degree of change, uncertainty, and complexity we face. However, adapting to them in the most effective means possible and as fast as we can redefine who we are and stay relevant. We can only do so if we continue to improve our ability to continually learn, grow, and more effectively navigate the increasing complexity of our world.