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Leading teams in a volatile world

Harley Hochstetler FIML has led teams on and off for the last two decades, through the challenges of the GFC to the isolation of the pandemic. He says that the volatility, uncertainty and change we’re experiencing now is bigger and faster than anything he’s seen before. No doubt, most would agree with that sentiment.

As the Executive Director, International Operations Hubs at Nielsen, Harley leads a global team with employees located in Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, India and Ukraine. He shares his insights on navigating teams through changing times and massive disruption in a volatile global landscape.

The only certainty is change

Inflation and rising interest rates. The rise of AI and the threat of cyber breaches. A looming recession. Climate change. Pandemic fallout. Culture wars. Geopolitical instability. Any one of these issues on its own is challenging enough. But each of these issues is converging to create a constant state of change and uncertainty for all of us. Living through it is hard. Leading through it adds layers of complexity.

“I have a team in Ukraine,” says Harley. “The individuals there have been extraordinarily resilient in the face of significant adversity. What is happening in Ukraine has not only impacted our team there but also the rest of the team. We had to upskill team members very quickly so they could support their Ukraine colleagues if they aren’t able to work.”

While undoubtedly the biggest change the team has been through, Harley says that the global economy is also a major cause for concern.

“Clients are tightening their budgets,” he explains. “And for us that means careful cost management and things like hiring freezes, layoffs and slowdowns on promotions. Naturally, people are concerned about what this means for them and their future career pathway.”

Essential leadership skills for managing uncertainty

There isn’t a region in the world that isn’t currently facing high levels of uncertainty. With waves of change, people develop a numbness. Harley says this numbness from continual change and unpredictability impacts engagement.

Leaders need certain skills to navigate their team through this ever-changing world. Harley identified three skills that he credits with helping him to steer the ship through recent times.

  1. Agility

“Agility is a mindset that has helped me immensely as a leader and it’s one I encourage in my team,” he says. “When things change or we lose resources, we respond by looking at how we can do things differently. That requires a willingness to do something new and different.”

  1. Continuous learning

“With the rise of AI and other technology, continuous learning is incredibly important,” he explains. “As leaders, if we’re not curious about what’s new, we’re going to get left behind very quickly.”

  1. Standing up for what is right

“It’s not always easy to fight for what you think is right,” he acknowledges. “We don’t want to make waves but if you think something is the right thing for your team, you need to stand up for it. There are ways to do that diplomatically.”

Developing a culture of safety

What Harley has done so successfully with his team is to create a culture of safety. He has built a foundation of trust that has helped them to face the current volatility together.

“I feel that to be a good leader, you’re not managing, you’re actually looking after and supporting each individual in your team,” he asserts. “It’s about taking actions and steps beyond what’s visible to them to actively support them in their roles. The early days of the pandemic is a great example of this. The work needed to be done and leaders needed to advocate for the right equipment and support for their teams.”

Building trust isn’t something that happens overnight. Thankfully for Harley, it’s something at the core of his leadership philosophy. At the heart of this is always doing what he says he will do and being as transparent as possible with the information he has at hand. Despite the geographic spread of the team, he prioritises regular check-ins and team meetings.

“Our timezones make it difficult for the whole team to connect regularly,” he says. “But we do catch up as smaller teams. For business announcements or global events, I give them my perspective. I feel I’ve worked sufficiently to build a relationship with my teams so when I do share my perspective, they’ll trust it.”

Leading by example

Leaders aren’t immune to the impacts of a volatile world. While you’re supporting your team members through change, you can be feeling the pinch just as much yourself. 

The added challenge for leaders is that change doesn’t happen in a bubble. Uncertainty breeds uncertainty and is experienced differently by different people. 

In times of uncertainty, Harley leans into his confidence in his worth and the value he offers the business. He admits that he’s weathered enough change to know that there are always new opportunities around the corner.

“One thing that’s difficult for team members is coming to terms with business decisions,” explains Harley. “They’re looking at their own situation, which is completely natural. But it’s my role to help them understand the bigger picture. To see that there’s still a career plan, even though this may slow that plan or delay it.”

Harley’s approach is to lead by example to demonstrate to his team that he cares about them as people and not just numbers.

“Even if I feel that something is going to be really tough, I need to balance my personal feelings with supporting the team,” he says. “I acknowledge their concerns and the challenge facing us. I  don’t shy away from those difficult conversations. But I also look for the positive in the change and the opportunities it may present us as individuals and as a team.”

One day at a time

In our current state, what will happen in the future is anyone’s guess. Harleys’ leadership insights will continue to be relevant and are arguably important skills for any leader to have in their arsenal, even in stable times.

It’s human nature to crave certainty. We thrive on stability, cling to routines and enjoy the feeling of knowing what tomorrow holds.

“My team members often ask me how we can plan when we don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Harley. “I’m as honest as I can be and tell them what I know. But I also tell them even when we don’t know what will happen in the future, we do know what we’re responsible for today. We know what we need to do today, so let’s do that excellently. If it changes tomorrow, we’ll adapt. Tomorrow is another day.”

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