You don’t expect to hear Donald Rumsfeld quoted at a biology conference on the Galapagos Islands.

However, that is exactly what happened in June of 2005, a few months after Rumsfeld’s infamous press briefing in which he spoke about the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” At the World Summit on Evolution, scientists mapped this logic onto some of the mysteries we as humans have been working to solve since Darwin. Namely, how did we evolve into animals that seek social connection as a basic tenet of survival? The answer isn’t short, but it’s certainly a provocative question to consider in terms of what high potential leaders most need to be learning right now.

At this moment, business (and where we are headed as a species, come to think of it) is full of uncertainty. If we went back in time to describe today’s violent political climate, global pandemic and hyper-reactive economic markets to someone from 2019, they might not believe us. The current competitive pressures have focused attention on what companies need to do differently to compete and survive. This involves confronting “known unknowns” that we can anticipate and plan for, as well as “unknown unknowns” arising from situations we could never have foreseen. Rapid change, never-before-experienced business challenges, and high levels of ambiguity make it very difficult to build and execute a strong business plan. There has perhaps never been a stronger case for building organizational agility, or the ability to renew, adapt, and change course quickly. But to truly be “agile,” leaders need to be proactive about establishing the right systems, networks, and practices that will help them respond effectively when they find themselves knee-deep in “unknown unknowns.”

While leadership teams are grappling with the chaos of unprecedented challenges, a few rungs down the ladder, an entire generation of future executives is watching, learning, and adapting to the current situation. Although experience can be the best teacher, when you’re in a crisis, it’s hard to take it all in. As COVID-19 continues to take a toll on people and nations around the globe, agility is key to fighting “pandemic fatigue” and moving the business forward. What should future executives be learning now that will most enhance their ability to navigate an uncertain future and help businesses thrive? How do organizations foster that agility and make sure those lessons sink in?

Getting the Team Together

This brings us to the abandoned water cooler. This crisis has people experiencing a lack of connection in all social realms, and there is emerging evidence that depriving people of peer interactions can lead to diminished interpersonal skill. When teams face brand-new challenges, some triumph and some flounder. The difference? Among other things, high-performing teams communicate transparently and effectively. Therefore, for leaders to master and leverage organizational agility, they require top-tier collaboration – now more than ever. Building strong internal and external networks is a critical component of both agility and establishing a culture that enhances business objectives. To do so, organizations must deepen future leaders’ insights into how their problems cut across organizational boundaries earlier in their progression towards executive responsibilities.

Most organizations allow peer interactions to happen naturally or by chance. However, high potentials and other savvy leaders proactively invest their time and effort in developing relationships that set the stage for exemplary collaboration. Fostering awareness of how HiPo challenges are shared by peers, and how they can coordinate collective action, benefits each individual and the team at large. Individual leaders receive help addressing their personal responsibilities while also improving their colleagues’ outcomes. To quote a classic adage: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Each leader realizes their success is dependent on their colleagues’ success.

There are many ways to help emerging executives gain these abilities. At Vantage, we take a peer cohort approach. Our Coaching Circles allow diverse groups of colleagues to come together to explore possibilities, generate new insights, develop their coaching skills, provide support, and establish accountability for their actions. In our work facilitating Coaching Circles for high potential leaders, we have established some clear guiding principles and best practices that can inform your own approach to developing a peer cohort:

  • The cohort should expose leaders to people and areas of the business they would not otherwise have exposure to, in order to broaden their network and perspective.
  • Group meetings should allow each leader to give and receive coaching under the supervision of trained coaches.
  • Coaching circles should be integrated with themes from performance learning sessions to assist in translating and applying the learning.
  • These meetings are most effective at driving business results when the problems leaders bring forth for coaching align with the facilitated learning sessions, the client organization’s competency model or leadership framework.
  • Creating reflective exercises to prepare leaders to coach their colleagues and receive feedback helps to maximize the developmental value of the conversations.

Loosely based on group therapy literature, facilitated group coaching is a powerful developmental tool that focuses on the shared experience and practicing new behaviors with peers.

Why Group Coaching?

The ROI of this approach is that it cultivates greater and more sustainable behavior change. Leaders receive a multidimensional perspective on their behavior and challenges, have the opportunity to routinely practice empathy, and are called to hold themselves accountable. The seemingly simple action of stating one’s intentions out loud to a circle of colleagues results in higher levels of commitment and follow-through with the learning. As a result of these sessions, we’ve witnessed powerful new leadership growth emerge in HiPo program participants. We have watched formerly unacquainted peers in different areas of the business partner on cross-functional initiatives of their design. Fundamentally, broad organizational awareness and systems thinking becomes embedded as a first line of consideration, rather than an afterthought when dealing with unprecedented circumstances.

Building these skills and perspectives into your future leaders may be the one edification that helps your organization thrive in the midst of global instability. Because increasingly, survival of the fittest is a group effort.

This post was co-authored by Eileen Linnabery.