Skip Navigation LinksHome / Executive & Enterprise / Thought Leadership / Leadership / Leading Your Talent in Uncertain Times

Leading Your Talent in Uncertain Times

By Elaine Eisenman, Dean of Babson Executive Education

In recent years, businesses have been facing increasing complexity due to trends such as outsourcing, virtual global teams, and the introduction of the millennial generation into the workplace. Under these conditions alone, it became unreasonable to simply train and develop employees to think and behave the same way they did in the past. To be static in this highly dynamic environment is a sure road to failure.

When you add the market crash on top of this already complicated business environment, you find the historic levels of uncertainty that companies report in our recent survey of 1,048 executives, managers, and individual contributors. For instance, 70 percent of the respondents say they are more focused on managing risk and uncertainty today compared to before the market crashed in 2008. (Figure 1) How can leaders—in the C-Suite and throughout Human Resources—ensure that workers effectively embrace uncertainty as a basis for growth and competitiveness? I offer three specific responses below; the first is aimed at HR leaders, while the second and third are aimed at all business leaders, from the CEO on down.

Leading Talent

First, identify the types of talent that can play well in uncertain environments. Here HR can be central to identifying both the new competencies needed for future success and the places that the people holding those competencies can be found. This is no time to be an order taker, so it is essential that HR leadership have a seat at the table where the future is being discussed and framed in order to immediately translate that vision into the people requirements for implementation. There is a need for new models of recruiting and hiring, for new forms of performance evaluation to better motivate increasingly dispersed and diverse work forces, and for new vehicles to train managers on the needs of the new work force. Another key requirement is ensuring that the company is nimble and flexible enough to identify and create opportunities and to minimize the risks of taking those opportunities. In light of all the changes that will need to be made and implemented, Human Resource leaders who can create and implement new strategic solutions to the challenges of new markets and redefined business models will be in high demand.

Second, build employee confidence in your vision for the future and your vision for how to get there starting today. Employees tend to focus mostly on the here and now through a lens of concern about their job security. As a result, the need for leaders to be optimistic and aggressive in pursuit of the future—while stabilizing the present—is paramount during uncertain times. While doing so, leaders need to be credible, honest, and accessible. Employees take their cues from their leaders and watch and listen more closely during uncertain times. Every little nuance is analyzed and dissected for meaning. In the absence of consistent communication and explanation, counter-productive and even destructive theories can develop to fill the void. Leaders may feel that it is obvious to everyone that times are uncertain and tough, and are often reluctant to make statements based on incomplete or premature results. But this time, more than any other, requires transparency and over-communication. Transparency does not mean revealing confidential transactions, but rather means being truthful about the situation. Employees are extremely receptive and appreciative of hearing “I don’t know” or “this is the most I am at liberty to discuss.” This honesty alone helps them understand that actions are occurring and confirms that their leadership is being proactive in a tough environment.

Third, embrace the role of leader as listener. While it is always important for leaders to hear bad news, during these times it is critical to be open to hearing things that may be uncomfortable and challenging. Leaders who surround themselves with advisers who create a barrier from all others increase the probability of the failure which comes for insulation and isolation. Leaders who open themselves to hearing and seeing the full range of not only the opportunities but also the risks inherent in new initiatives will minimize their chances of failure and maximize their chances for success.

To achieve this, leaders need to be willing to change their comfortable way of doing things. It may mean giving up a command and control style to become more facilitative of others. It may mean becoming the chief change agent and influencer. No matter what form it takes, these uncertain times mean that leaders must get out of their comfort zones and be as nimble and adaptable as they expect their organizations to be. No organization can be open to opportunity if its leadership is closed to discomforting feedback.