Prepare for change with contextual leadership

Issue January/February 2016 By Susan Letterman White

Most people must learn to make difficult changes to their thinking and behavior before they can transform their habitual efforts into successful efforts. Leading your organization toward success means encouraging a large group of people to make difficult changes to their thinking and behavior. This is changing when change is hard.

It's never easy to change the comfortable and familiar ways in which people have learned over time to think, feel and behave. Consider the development phase of the talent cycle as an example. Many seasoned lawyers shy away from giving direct face-to-face feedback to less experienced lawyers about what they are doing wrong and the workplace behaviors and work products that are acceptable. Instead of mentoring, a lawyer may choose to provide written feedback on a brief that makes the brief look like it returned from a bloody battle with life-threatening injuries. On the flip side, instead of thinking of the written feedback on the brief as a gift and clear indication of what the seasoned lawyer wants to see, the less experienced lawyer may interpret event as unfair and unhelpful criticism. We gravitate toward familiar ways of thinking and behaving, regardless of their usefulness.

Gravitating toward the familiar is common and shows up in the data we notice and how we make sense of it. For example, lawyers learn the art of targeted noticing. They begin with a position and notice the data that can support or undermine their position. A vast amount of data goes unnoticed. In today's world of volatile and uncertain change, this is a problem for a leader, who is tasked with designing and implementing an organizational strategy to improve performance.

Today, the success of any organization depends on leaders who think and act differently when it comes to noticing and making sense of data. We need leaders who are adept at collecting broad intelligence. This means that we need leaders who have the skills to notice as much as possible and make sense of the data in multiple ways, because we do not yet know what is and is not important. Invariably, doing so requires collaboration among people with diverse perspectives and leaders who are adapt at developing and managing this level of organizational diversity.

Although we may think that leadership is the exercise of formal authority to direct others with clear communication, that style of leadership is not sufficient, especially for leaders seeking to collect broad intelligence. We have learned to think that we are all equal, which has many pros and one con. The formal authority previously termed leadership is no longer as powerful as it used to be. When everyone is equal, nobody is an expert and nobody has enough power to assume his or her clear directives will be followed. Astute leaders know this and, consequently, learn the art of contextual leadership.

Learning from mistakes

Sometimes the de facto leaders of an organization have followers, people who will fall into line and respond with behaviors that are aligned with the wishes of leaders. More often than not, they have a variety of "others" in the organization, many of whom have their own strong agendas driving their behavior. Some "others" are followers, while other "others" are bystanders and obstructionists. Some of these people are easy to identify, while others are hidden within the organization and only obvious using social networking mapping software that can generate a visual display that identifies the highly influential and connected people.

Today's successful leaders spend less time trying to directly influence others in their organization and more time becoming aware of and adjusting the elements of their organizational context, such as the visible and invisible structures that connect and organize people and the processes that drive the decisions people make about what to do and how to do it. These structures and processes have a profound effect on organizational dynamics, politics and culture. It has become a mandatory leadership skill to understand and change organizational structures, processes, policies and culture.

The following example of effective contextual leadership was offered at a recent conference. The chief talent partner and chief talent officer in a global firm experimented with different ways of structuring talent management processes until they found the options that worked best for their firm. They caused a lot of discomfort, which is actually an incredibly valuable driver of intentional change, and made mistakes, which are part of an effective strategy design and implementation process. They led by aiming change at the elements of the context within their control - the array of structures and processes that fell within their talent cycle - and it worked. Contextual leadership includes a willingness to make mistakes and cause others discomfort.

Contextual leadership is what it means to be a leader in today's law firms, law schools and law departments. Do not expect deference to expertise or formal authority, because the meanings of these terms and the power, formerly associated with such roles, has changed.

Expertise today means someone with a skill in high demand and low supply in the marketplace. Expertise allows one to price one's services without sensitivity to the effects of the downward pricing pressures of commoditization. It also supplements the power of formal authority to lead others. People will listen and follow the directions of an expert because they assume that person knows something they do not and is trustworthy. Expertise based on the ability to collect data, analyze it in a linear, logical way and use it in a rote or rule-based manner, is narrowing because it's easier and cheaper for technology and a large group of people to do the same thing. Thus, that type of expertise is not as valuable or powerful as it was.

Formal authority also doesn't command the trust it once did because of a cultural shift in the deference given it. Examples are seen in decreased formality in how people address one another regardless of age, hierarchical role or professional status, the blurring of formal boundaries, the diminished sense of organizational loyalty and the shrinking scope of the "taking-care-of-others" attitude demonstrated by highly publicized organization closings and massive job lay-offs.

Consequently, leadership that works is contextual. A successful leader in today's legal industry is aware of every force exerting influence on the thinking, feelings and behaviors of the people in the leader's organization and aims adjustments at those factors.

Susan Letterman White, JD, MSOD, is a Boston-based organization development and change management consultant with more than 25 years of experience working in the legal sector, consulting sector, government and higher education.