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How Will Disruptive Leadership Save Your Business?

By Bruce Watt, Ph.D.

In the ‘90s and early 2000s, disruption was changing the markets left and right, but many corporate leaders turned their heads the other way.

For example, digital photography was taking the world by storm, but Polaroid was too focused on its success with instant-development cameras to focus its attention on digital. Likewise, Blockbuster was basking in its success with a video rental store in every town while video on demand, streaming services, and rental kiosks quickly began to take over the market. Bookseller giant Borders continued to build larger and more expensive retail stores while online book sales and digital books were quickly becoming more popular with consumers.

These companies share a common storyline: their leaders made a decision to focus on their traditional way of doing business rather than leading, or at least quickly responding to, disruption in the market. In every case, those decisions led to bankruptcy.

The good news, however, is that leaders today are much more conscious of the threat of disruption, and are looking for ways to be the disruptors instead of being disrupted. In this two-part blog series, I’m going to explore how companies can save their businesses by developing disruptive leadership within their organizations, starting with taking a fresh look at high-potential programs.

DDI research indicates that 65 percent of companies have a high potential program, but 68 percent say they are not highly effective. One reason for such dissatisfaction is that the often-outdated processes many organizations use to identify high potentials are not calibrated to identify gamechangers in an age of digital transformation. (Many companies are still using systems designed in the 1950s, an age of commercial stability.)

Now, companies must seek a new type of “high potential leader” – the gamechanger, the internal entrepreneur, the disruptor. In this new era, growing disruptive leadership often means investing in developing the potential of individuals who "look wrong" but are in fact "just right."

Somewhat predictably, companies looking to build disruptive leadership start by asking the following questions:

  • What’s required of a disruptive leader, and can we identify individuals who will be gamechangers for our company’s transformation?
  • Can we develop, or more importantly, accelerate the development of these disruptive characteristics?
  • How does a disruptive leadership strategy affect our existing teams?

Surfacing disruptive leadership

The first challenge to identifying disruptive leaders is creating a clear picture of what kind of leader you are looking for, and a specific and objective set of data for assessing individuals against such a profile.

At DDI we have been a partner to many multinational companies as they try to develop disruptive leadership within their organizations. As we have immersed ourselves in these companies, our understanding has evolved both through our experience working with these companies around the world, and the data we have gathered. We feel we have probably answered the prerequisite questions and are now really gaining an appreciation for what enables these disruptive leaders to reach their potential and achieve transformative disruption that is truly building the future of their companies.

Our assessment of hundreds of leaders from some of the most innovative global companies has shaped our understanding that disruptive leadership is:

  • a coupling of business savvy with highly refined interpersonal, collaboration, and influencing skills.
  • an intense and competitive ambition, willingness to take risks and embrace ambiguity—coupled with curiosity, empathy, and an elite level capability to manifest this curiosity through open questions.
  • linked to an insatiable appetite for learning and self-insight

Once we pinpoint potential for disruptive leadership, the next step is to determine how to accelerate the development of those individuals who possess this potential. Too often, these high-potential people are put into groups with other highly talented professionals, who engagingly talk at each other while competing for a solution. A scarcity of ideas is not the problem for most of these high potentials. Rather, it is monetizable ideas that derive from a true and visceral empathy for customer dissatisfaction.

It’s imperative that the next step for these high-potential disruptive leaders is not to talk about disruptive ideas, but to give them the skills and opportunity to enable them to truly leverage innovation.

Get disruptive leaders in the game

We call disruptive leaders “gamechangers” but too few have actually played enough of the “game” to change it. Usually, getting them in the game means customer immersion and developing an obsession with innovation from the customer perspective that permeates into the organization.

One of the greatest barriers to innovation is the lack of information about the business required to really offer ideas of value. The “game time” with organization’s customers is absolutely critical in allowing disruptive leaders to identify and act on opportunities for new products, services and markets. They will be encouraged to look beyond the boundaries of the traditional business models, capitalize on emerging trends, and take calculated risks.

This critical game time should be linked to developing key skills designed to drive profit margin, ensuring the company will be able to monetize new innovations. According to DDI research, five skills are particularly important to drive revenue growth and profit:

  • entrepreneurship
  • business savviness
  • driving execution
  • decision making
  • leading change

To smooth the transition and set a clear example of expectations (and mitigate the risks of putting the newly identified gamechangers in charge immediately), the game time can first be simulated in a safe environment through classroom action learning, as part of the development program for disruptive leaders. Such immersion allows leaders to assume and experience various strategic leadership roles and models, gain self-insight and peer feedback, and think about application to their own business issues and strategies.

Finding and developing disruptive leaders is just the first step to driving innovation and disruption within your company. The next part relies on creating the right team context and environment that will enable disruptive leadership to thrive. Be sure to check out part two of this blog post on how disruption must be a team game.

Register for the webinar “The Lost Promise of Leadership Potential” to explore a different and holistic approach to unleashing potential.

Bruce Watt, Ph.D., is vice president for DDI’s operations in Europe, India, Australia and DDI’s MNC Global Centre of Excellence. He has recently discovered bicycle touring and after some initial ventures in the UK hopes to more find time to explore Europe by bicycle (and maybe even India).

Posted: 29 Nov, 2017,
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