Leading teams through turbulent times and change

Jack Orchard and Dee Cooper, joint Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of Agar Management Consultancy, share their three top tips for leading through turbulent times

Leading teams through turbulent times and change (constant change!) is tough. The pressures on the higher education sector right now are significant, and harnessing the collective strengths of our teams is key. Staying true to our values as individuals and organisations can sometimes feel at odds with an external policy environment and an overriding feeling that higher education is out of favour.

At Agar, we believe:

  • change and uncertainty are the new norms (yet we still strive for certainty, trying to create solutions that ‘fix’ problems – perceived or otherwise)
  • If we are to adapt, we need to recognise the opportunities that change offers, accepting that uncertainty brings tension, yet it can trigger positive adaptation
  • Leaders should seek to ‘hypothesise’ rather than ‘strategise’ in response to a rapidly changing environment. 

‘Feeling safe is a need; a prerequisite for creative thinking and a growth mindset. Feeling certain is a preference and can limit creativity and innovation’ 

Porter and Davis (2020)

 Here are our 3 top tips for leading through turbulent times:

Create a climate of psychological safety at a level which contributes to steering an organisation through disruption, transformation and implementation of agile ways of working.  Often described as ‘challenger’ safety, this taps into the human desire to make improvements.  How would your team rate themselves on this checklist?

  • Collaborate effectively across silos and expertise
  • Consistently speak up with ideas, questions and problems
  • Effectively engage in explorative dialogue on high importance topics
  • Engage in conflict without fear of reprisal
  • Respond effectively to change in our environment

How can you take action to improve ratings?

Amy Edmonson, leading Harvard academic, talks about the importance of psychological safety.

Play to individual and team strengths but also be aware of areas for development and, crucially, what is most required ‘right now’ (this obviously needs regular re-visiting).  Are you a self-aware leader? Are your team members?  Your team as a whole? Do you intentionally consider what leadership approach is required?  We find the model below a helpful framework in this context.  What percentage of time do you spend ‘doing’ each type?  Does that play to your strengths as well as meet current requirements? 

Take the challenge and think about the percentage time you currently spend in each quadrant – and what percentage of time you want and need to spend in each quadrant.

Cultivate a coaching culture with a growth mindset

A coaching culture enables radical organisational transformation by building conversational and coaching skills on a daily basis. It creates a climate where people can freely:

•       Give and receive feedback

•       Support and stretch each other’s thinking

•       Challenge each other with support, and stress-test ideas where appropriate

•       Engage in development conversations that are short in length, but strong in impact

It’s an organisational competency for leaders at all levels to develop and is an organisational imperative – not a ‘nice to have’ that happens if there is sufficient time.

Psychological safety, self-awareness and a coaching culture are foundational in a growth mindset . . . and a growth mindset will truly help individuals and teams navigate change and turbulence.  The graphic below illustrates how – by changing words and, therefore, mindset – we can support teams to be empowered yet take responsibility.

Agar Management is a proud sponsor of the AHUA Spring Conference 2024. If you would like to find out more about how Agar can support you to lead teams through turbulent times and change please get in touch: