Ambidexterity: The Key to an Undisruptable C-suite

When faced with the inevitable struggles of operating in a complex global economy, many organizations fail to adapt.

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Disruption is inevitable in every business, often driven by changes in the global environment like COVID, recession, technology or wars, resulting in a spiraling, existential crisis for a company. Although these disruptions are highly publicized, what doesn't get sufficient attention is the significant role that management plays in determining the outcome of the crisis.

When faced with the inevitable struggles of operating in a complex global economy, many organizations fail to adapt during these crises and end up exiting their business by merging or selling their company. One's ability to steer their organization out of the crisis becomes either an entry in the list of trials to overcome and an inspiring lesson for the next generation or the crisis that sinks the ship.

For a company to meet the ever-increasing demands of the marketplace and survive the inevitable downturns, it's imperative the management team has capabilities suited for both normal and crisis times. In other words, both ambidextrous thinking and acting competence are necessary. This ability to hold and cultivate diametrically opposite behaviors is essential for thriving. It is my hypothesis that this ambidextrous capability is key to the long-term survival of any organization. It is Yin & Yang.

Ambidextrous Leadership Begins With Self-Awareness

The starting point of building an ambidextrous organization begins with you. As a leader, you must recognize your own natural biases. Are you growth-oriented or profit-focused? Are you risk-prone and like investing in new areas, or do you seek to be efficient? What is your natural bias? Each of us has a dominant logic by which we think.

It has been said that "We do not learn from our experience; we learn from reflecting on our experience." Ambidextrous leaders have the humility to reflect and solicit feedback from others to understand their personal biases, strengths and weaknesses. Most important for each leader is to know their weaknesses and have the courage to acknowledge where their colleagues and team members can step in to strengthen a project or the organization. The key is to develop and leverage ambidextrous capabilities as a team rather than trying to solve all challenges ourselves.

Once you know yourself, then comes your team. Have you assembled team members capable of performing in areas of your weaknesses and performing both long-term and near-term focus, growth and sustainment goals? The best teams are balanced with both creative minds and rational thinkers. They consist of diverse thinkers who can work in alignment toward a goal. A self-aware, ambidextrous leader has the strategic oversight to set a time and place for both kinds of thinking. If during normal times most meetings are focused on growth, then Fridays can focus on operations. But during a crisis, the priorities may reverse with a primary emphasis on operations.

The unique thumbprint of every organization is shaped by how they balance opposing elements, like creativity and discipline, to do their work. While leaders are tasked with being able to steer both efforts, they also must recognize when a situation calls for one over the other. Rather than get caught on differences, ambidextrous leaders create space to borrow from many approaches, enabling them to shift at a moment's notice.

Supporting Ambidextrous Leadership in Your C-suite

A common mistake made by leaders is to surround themselves with others who have similar strengths and weaknesses. There is a misconception that like-minded leaders are needed to achieve organizational alignment — nothing can be further from the truth. It is the diversity of thought that truly matters while making choices. You can see the dichotomy between a startup and a large organization.

Startups are filled with ideas and creativity, but their weakness is a lack of disciplined execution. Too often, we fail to give credit to the back-end engine critical to transforming an idea into a great business. While high mortality rates plague startups, large businesses excel at disciplined execution and operational efficiency. Still, they lack the innovation and speed to react to market dynamics. The detailed processes that contribute to the efficiency and scale of large corporations tend to limit their ability to adapt to the market quickly. The bottom line is that organizations, leaders and teams must exhibit and master ambidexterity to thrive in a constantly changing world.

When examining whether you and by extension your company are ambidextrous, ask these questions:

1. Are you aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and do you take time to reflect and learn from your failures?

2. Are you comfortable expressing your weakness and soliciting feedback?

3. Do you recognize your gaps and the importance of hiring people who are different from you?

4. Do you have rigorous debates and listen to others' diverse views?

5. When faced with a challenge, do you leverage people having the natural strengths needed to achieve the goal?

6. Do you arrange your weekly calendar and meetings to address the areas where you are not naturally inclined to spend time?

When COVID swept the globe, my long-term vision of building a 100-year-old company was shaken. We lost 50% of our business in the aerospace segment. This was only the second time during our 25-year history that we faced an existential crisis. Additionally, I was concerned about how many of our leadership team and employees would succumb to the deadly outbreak. Amidst this uncertainty, we swiftly shifted priorities from experimentation and growth, which is our natural bias, to prioritizing performance and stability without compromising our cultural values. We had to lay off more than 2000 engineers — 20% of our staff. We had to cut our costs, salaries and many initiatives designed for growth. Many painful decisions had to be taken. We had to act swiftly to change conditions.

Fortunately, our leadership team is ambidextrous, allowing us to adjust to the crisis rapidly. While I do not know if we are crisis-proof and able to survive all the future problems we will face, I do know that we will continue to learn from our past to increase our chances to survive and thrive.

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