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adaptive leadership

5 Ways to Transform Yourself into an Adaptive Leader


The pandemic threw everyone a curveball. But if you look around, you'll see some firms are thriving, despite the need to change quickly. What's their secret?

Sep 16th 2020
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As we head into the last few months of 2020, one thing is certain: our profession, and our lives, have changed in ways we’re only beginning to comprehend. The pandemic brought about a rapid and far-reaching change in our priorities and ways of working. People who never thought remote work could work are making it happen. Those who previously relied on their team for help with technology are managing on their own. Professionals who felt most at home in transactional and compliance work are having advisory and consultative conversations with their clients.

Nothing could have truly prepared us for what we’re facing right now, yet one thing is clear: the firms that are thriving through this time are the ones with adaptive leaders who can change direction to drive positive results in their firms.

What is an Adaptive Leader?

Cambridge Leadership Associates defines adaptive leadership as,

“A practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of change. It is about diagnosing the essential from the expendable and bringing about a real challenge to the status quo.”

Now, consider the four attributes of adaptive leadership challenges:

  1. Multiple, simultaneous changes that impact each other in complex ways
  2. Differing perspectives: the challenges look different depending on your point of view
  3. Ambiguity: the path forward isn’t clear
  4.  Anxiety: pressure to do something

Sound familiar? Every leader in every firm right now is being called upon to be an adaptive leader.

How to Become an Adaptive Leader

Most traditional leadership programs today don’t teach adaptive leadership. They focus on things like problem-solving, delegation, project management, communication, and business development – all crucial skills for a leader. And yet, they’re not enough. Leaders need to be resilient, know how to influence up, down and across to get things done and lead change.

That’s a tall order, but it’s something that can be learned.

1. Think Like an Entrepreneur

Accountants have historically prided themselves on their technical knowledge and expertise rather than their willingness to take risks and entrepreneurial ability. But in today’s rapidly changing world, accountants at all levels of the firm need to think like entrepreneurs.

What does that mean? One of the most important skills of an entrepreneur is adaptability. They need to be open to learning new things and able to react to changing market conditions. They need to recognize when things aren’t working and shift strategies until they get it right.

When you find yourself wishing we could just go back to the way things were, you’re not thinking like an entrepreneur. Rather than holding on to one path or one idea for dear life, get passionate about finding the right solution for your firm and your clients – wherever it takes you.

2. Collaborate

Adaptive leaders aren’t lone rangers. They recognize that they don’t have all of the knowledge and skills needed to succeed. They assemble the best people on their team, solicit their ideas, and include them in their own thinking. They know what they don’t do well and seek out others with unique abilities that complement their own.

This collaboration can (and should) happen within your firm. But it can also occur within a peer network or with the help of outside consultants. Let go of believing you need to have all of the answers. Solving complex problems requires the collective input of many stakeholders, so listen and involve others in the decision-making process.

3. Learn Something New

Education has never been more accessible than it is right now. Many firms have canceled or postponed nonessential travel, so conferences, courses and seminars have gone virtual. This is an excellent opportunity to learn from the comfort of home, but don’t limit yourself to those that offer CPE. Learn a new skill or earn a new certification. Adaptive leaders are constantly gathering new knowledge to help them create value for their organizations and their clients, solve problems and accelerate transformation.

4. Listen to Your Clients

No matter your position within the firm, accountants are called upon to be leaders for their clients. The most useful way to lead clients is by listening to them. Listen not just to what your clients say they need, but read between the lines to know what they really need.

Your clients might be telling you they need to hire more people, but what they really need is to hire different people. It’s up to you to coach them to see the light.

Dig deep in your conversations. There’s no better time to really form a connection than when they’re going through major challenges. Use your emotional intelligence to feel what they’re feeling and help them navigate change.

5. Be Yourself

At some point, everyone looks up to someone they want to emulate. That might be another partner or manager in your firm, a leader in the community, or even a public figure like Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, or Steve Jobs. Being inspired by others is great, but don’t forget that your own unique talents, experience and personality are key components of the value you bring to the table.

For example, one firm leader I work with leans toward the introverted side of the spectrum. During the pandemic, he knew he needed to be communicating more frequently with employees, so he started recorded videos that could be shared firmwide. In these videos, he shared the firm’s plans, goals, and results – all excellent information that his team needed to hear. But what really got their attention was when his grandchildren interrupted filming, and his staff got to see how he interacted with his family. It helped them view him in a more human way than they had in the past.

Don’t be afraid to be human and transparent. When you feel comfortable being yourself at work, you allow others to bring their best selves, too.

The visions and strategic plans you had in place in January might seem like pipe dreams right now, but adaptive leaders recognize that they can change direction, get around obstacles and get back on track – even if the path ahead is a little different than the one they were previously on.

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