Article: How can leaders build accountable teams in a VUCA world


How can leaders build accountable teams in a VUCA world

In a round table of industry leaders from various verticals hosted by Lee Hecht Harrison under the “LEAGUE OF LEADERS” initiative, leaders threw light on ways to build accountable teams in a VUCA world.
How can leaders build accountable teams in a VUCA world

The world that we know and work in is experiencing a period of unprecedented change and disruption — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA) have become the new constants. Organizations across industries and geographies are experiencing disruption in the form of new digital technologies, sweeping demographic changes, increased regulatory pressures, political and economic uncertainties, threats from non-traditional competitors among many other disruptions and changes. To thrive and not just survive, businesses are undertaking transformations to steer their companies back to growth, accelerating growth in new markets, or in some instances, making revolutionary efforts to ensure their survival in today’s environment. 

They are redesigning the ways in which they work, moving away from the traditional hierarchies in favor of a network of high performing teams that are being rapidly assembled to quickly respond to the market changes and deliver on the overall strategy — such teams are becoming the central cohesive source of driving successful transformations.

This is validated by a survey conducted by the world’s leading integrated talent development and transition company, Lee Hecht Harrison (LHH) in association with Human Capital Institute which polled more than 250 professionals and revealed that over 92 percent feel that high performing teams are essential to the success of an organization.


This is a radical change compared to a decade old set up when the strategy was driven from the top and teams were informed of the details on a “need to know basis” — and were only aware of a small piece of the overall strategy that they were responsible for delivering. These teams worked in silos and often centralized team structures, which allowed them the luxury of finding their own pace and comfort level of working with one another. Their understanding and clarity of the ‘big picture’ strategy was limited and their commitment to delivering on the overall business results, minimal.   

Today, things are distinctly different. Teams are made up of members from across the globe, they are decentralized, they are cross-functional and members move in and out of teams on a continuous basis. Their success is driven by their shared values and culture — they have complete clarity and insight into the goals and projects they work on, and there is a free flow of information and feedback.  The expectation of these teams is also far greater; long gone are the days of a “need to know basis”, today, these teams are held accountable to drive immediate business results and show measurable impact against the overall business strategy.  

But how exactly can organizations build accountable, formidable teams that deliver and outperform in the VUCA world? What are the critical components of team accountability in the VUCA world and how can leaders set the tone for the same? 

This was the question probed in great depth at an industry roundtable organized by LHH as part of its initiative “LEAGUE OF LEADERS”, a discussion moderated by Marco Valsechhi, Country Manager & MD, The Adecco Group, India, in the presence of leaders from various organizations such as Wockhardt, Thysennkrupp, Johnson & Johnson, Welspun, Citibank, L&T Hydrocarbon, Armstrong, Menarini, Enrich among others, along with Ian Lee, CEO, Asia Pacific, The Adecco Group.

Are teams prepared to drive change and deliver results?

The discussion kick-started by inviting views on how prepared today’s teams are in the VUCA world. With the changing pace of digitization, no team can say it is completely prepared. Ian revealed that the APAC region is a mixed bag itself and not all countries are well prepared to keep pace with the fast pace of change. Digitization is just one part of the story. Organizations have to now understand that they have to be continuously changing the ball. Interestingly, on similar lines, an industry survey conducted by LHH found out that 88 percent of business executives/CHROs rated their teams as average-only and 6 percent of them rated their teams as truly exceptional. 


It may not be about teams at all!

An interesting observation made by the group was that it’s not about the teams. As organizations begin to grapple with operating in this new structure, it is important to understand the connection between the leader and the team – if teams are not delivering or performing, it’s not always a TEAM issue, but could be a leadership issue. The dilemma is that most of the leaders are not able to understand that this new way of working requires a new kind of leader – and it is possible that even the most experienced leaders and business unit heads may be the wrong people to take charge of these teams. 

In order for teams to be successful in driving transformations they need to have leaders who are committed to actual leadership – managing people, inspiring teams, addressing performance issues and building culture. 

However, what Research lead by Lee Hecht Harrison has found is that most companies have a weak leadership culture; in fact, only 27% felt they had a strong leadership culture. There is widespread agreement across industries that if a company has a weak leadership culture, this creates risk. The organization will not be able to drive change, achieve long-term sustainable success, or attract the best talent.  Lack of accountability at the leader level can have a cascading effect throughout the team.

The delegates concurred that to lead in a VUCA world, one needs to have clarity and execution of speed. What helps in such volatile times is driving the organization with a purpose. If the purpose of the organization is absolutely clear right from the CEO to the last man on the front, then everything falls in place. To drive this purpose, Leaders need to communicate – they need to ensure that their teams speak the same language of trust, and have a sense of belonging, an understanding of the big picture & what it means to contribute to it. 

Crisis Management takes center stage- Aligning stakeholders and building resilience in self and teams,  helps leaders to prepare their teams for all dire situations and enhances their capabilities to bounce back from any setback. 

Leaders also need to understand that while they need to learn from the merits of their old business models, they also need a firm foot into the future and bridge the gap between the two. As one delegate put it, living in the glory of the past is a thing of the past.  

The role of leaders in building accountable teams

In order to prepare teams to drive change, it is of paramount importance to understand what exactly do prepared or accountable teams do.  Two factors that came out clearly were Shared Purpose & Alignment of thought process-right from the CEO to the front line- this is what accountable teams build upon. These teams focus on the far-reaching effects and not just the task at hand. They are aware of the impact of their work, which leads to accountability. 

Another feature of accountable teams is they have the courage to talk freely, challenge and give feedback.

These teams are transparent and are comfortable with “bad news” and managing consequences. In such teams, the ‘bad news Santa’ is not reprimanded. Instead, they are courageous and comfortable with setbacks and are self-aware. These teams acknowledge individual & group strengths &  address developmental areas candidly through feedback. The drive for results ensures that people are enablers, not roadblocks. 

Collaboration, be it across teams, geographies or even across companies, is the cornerstone of team success.  Accountable teams are open to asking for help and are proactive in creating knowledge sharing platforms among themselves. Solidarity and singularity of purpose and trust, sharing and caring is a hallmark of such teams. These teams majorly focus on customer centricity. 


What can leaders do to build accountable teams?

The one most important thing leaders can do to build accountable teams is to know what their teams expect them to do rather than only giving their team the clarity of what they need to do in order to be accountable. If leaders themselves are not modelling accountable behaviors that deliver outcomes, then it is less likely that their teams will recognize the efforts that are needed to drive and deliver their mandate.  LHH’s Leadership Accountability Gap Survey Leadership that included  2000 business executives worldwide revealed that 73% indicated that leadership accountability is critical to the success of their organizations. Yet, only 31% responded that they were satisfied with the degree of accountability demonstrated by individual leaders.


Setting the tone

A leader’s job is not only to drive the change and success but also to own the failures, to support, to coach, to communicate, and to drive the same understanding across the board. In this respect, a leader should not drive competition in the team. Rewarding behavior that fosters competition among individuals in the team will only lead to the team collapsing. A leader’s responsibility is to care, coach, and support the team when it fails.

Diagnosing and addressing gaps

Every leader needs to know the aspects that need to be amplified in the team. From demonstrating the organization’s values, building talent and capability in the organization, and empowering people, leaders also need to train their teams to identify risks in the organization. Leaders have to walk the talk, be consistent, and should be able to translate the company’s vision to their teams and align it with their individual visions. A leader has to show his/her team how what they do fits into the bigger picture and adds to the results and how it is a valuable contribution. Another important mandate for the leader is to measure and review the teams’ outcomes as it is important for building accountable teams. 

Driving Commitment

Lastly, leaders should not be insecure. Leaders should have a sense of security of their own jobs and imbibe the same in their teams. If the leader is able to show that he is invested in the growth of the team and believes that if his team grows, he also grows — such trust will drive commitment and engagement. Ultimately, leaders should allow their teams to make their own decisions, allow them to make mistakes, focus on driving a feeling of commitment in their teams rather than forcing their own ideas.

(This article is based on the third round table conducted under the “LEAGUE OF LEADERS” initiative by Lee Hecht Harrison (LHH) in association with People Matters at Mumbai on 6th March, 2019.)

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Topics: Leadership, Culture, #PMRoundtables

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