When private companies begin using military jargon to describe their organizational challenges, then it’s clear that something has shifted in the business landscape.
Specifically, the term “VUCA,” is being heard in more private companies, a military term which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. While it once may have been mostly confined to military operations and training, it’s now being bounced around businesses as more teams deal with a volatile and uncertain marketplace.
Three people who are very familiar with the term are Angie Morgan, Courtney Lynch and Sean Lynch, all former military personnel. They now coach companies that want to learn better ways to handle a VUCA landscape by modeling military leadership and organizational strategies.
“We’ve seen more and more companies using the term,” says Morgan, a former Marine. “I think many businesses were caught off guard by the disruption caused by technology and that’s what they’re seeing – VUCA situations.”
Companies also are seeing a change in worker attitudes with these disruptions. Workers are showing a willingness to step outside their comfort zones and embrace new skills that will help them do their jobs more efficiently.
A recent Accenture Strategy report of 10,527 employees in 10 countries finds that 85% of workers are ready to invest their free time in the next six months to learn new skills and 84% say they are optimistic about the impact of digital technology on their jobs. More than two-thirds think that technologies such as data analytics will help them be more efficient, learn new skills and improve the quality of their work.
While such initiative is important to business success, Accenture researchers say that organizations must help workers achieve such goals by investing more in technical and human skills involving creativity and judgment if they want to keep workers engaged and working to find solutions. Research by Gallup makes that case more urgent: only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs, meaning they’re interested enough in their work and their jobs to give 100%.
“The remaining 87% of employees are either not engaged or indifferent -- or even worse, are actively disengaged and potentially hostile toward their organizations,” says Ed O’Boyle, Gallup’s global practice leader for workplace and marketplace consulting.
Angie Morgan, one of the authors of The New York Times bestseller “Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Great Success,” agrees that organizations cannot afford to ignore those employees who are willing to take action and make their companies better.
“If by nature someone is initiative-oriented – but is micro-managed or stifled by the manager or company – then you won’t be getting the most from those people,” she says.
Morgan, a former Marine, wrote the book with Courtney Lynch and Sean Lynch, also former military personnel. They say the extensive leadership training that the military provides is critical to saving lives in the field, but also can be used to improve employee performance.
“I think a big part of what I learned in the military is that you have to look at your own performance. Do others trust you? Have you proven through your performance that you’re a leader? Or, are you late with projects and miss expectations?” Morgan says. “Taking that kind of responsibility and looking at your own abilities is what’s important.”
The authors, who advise top companies on organizational development and leadership, say that it’s important to realize that potential leaders or “sparks” aren’t defined by job titles, but rather by their job performance. Specifically, organizations need to look for those who are consistently high performers, follow through on their decision making and show a willingness and curiosity to learn, Morgan says.
“We’ll often hear from managers about those they think are high potentials, but then we point out others who show the qualities we talk about,” Morgan says.
For example, if a team member seems excited about a new venture – but then drops the ball on meeting expectations or deadlines – then that person isn’t a spark. On the other hand, the worker who asks questions, deals with obstacles and finishes assignments on time is someone who can help inspire and lead others, Morgan says.
“Those are the people that need to be encouraged,” she says.
Morgan explains that companies can’t reserve leadership training just for the management ranks or try to provide the right kind of project management skills in a two-day training session. Those are “events – not processes” and won’t help individuals learn and apply the behaviors that develop their influence, inspire others or drive results, she says.
“What gets lost in this approach is the opportunity to create organizational agility. Long gone are the days when one leader – or a few select leaders – called all the shots,” she says. “As businesses become more global and matrices change reporting relationships, organizations need to decentralize decision-making and depend on individual contributors to get the job done.”
Research by Tel Aviv University in Israel finds that employees are 26% more satisfied with their jobs when they feel powerful in their positions, while University of Illinois research finds that frontline workers are more committed to improving their organizations when they feel they have a high degree of autonomy in their jobs and trust their leaders.
“It’s always better when individuals are willing to hold themselves accountable,” Morgan says. “But managers need to hold them accountable, as well. If not, it breeds distrust and disengagement. People then hate coming to work because no one is held to rules and expectations.”
Morgan says that without leadership from within the employee ranks, then organizations will lose their agility and instead get bogged down in centralized decision-making and overdependence on managers to move work forward. That also means that initiatives will become stalled as global competitors will move in to take advantage of the inertia.
If organizations want to develop leaders at all levels of the organization to drive effective change and organizational efficiencies, the “Spark” authors suggest:
The authors note that in the military, there is no such thing as a human resources department. “HR is everywhere,” they say. “Everyone is a keeper of the culture. Everyone is prepared to mentor and to coach leadership development. That’s an important lesson to be learned.”