Anticipate and Navigate: Critical Skills for Uncertain Times

As the leader, you must look beyond the horizon, capturing a vision of a future that others cannot yet see. As that future materializes, however, there are bound to be a few surprises.

From Wall Street risk committees to companies re-examining their European marketing strategies in the midst of the eurozone crisis, the twin skills of anticipating and navigating are essential in uncertain times. As the leader, shouldering much of the decision-making responsibility, these skills will help you stay strategic and forward-looking, while also being agile and responsive in real time.

Anticipate: A ‘Team Sport’ Grounded in Reality

The first skill, anticipate, begins with today’s reality. You recognize that the seeds of change and challenge are in the here and now. The better your view of today, the more effectively you will be able to plan and prepare for tomorrow.

To anticipate, you need to know what covers the surface of your world, but you cannot be omnipresent. Others, particularly employees on the front lines and closest to the customer, can be your eyes and ears in places where you cannot be. It’s up to you, therefore, to make anticipating a team sport—empowering other to speak up about what they see and hear.

Warren Bennis, a revered scholar on leadership who has the ear of CEOs and U.S. presidents alike, believes that the skill of anticipation should be practiced at every level of the organization. “One of the issues with anticipating is getting people to feel free to talk,” he explained. “It’s about listening and encouraging dissenting views.”

And, as more people feel empowered to speak up, their feedback may very well become the initial warning that signals the need for course correction. Effective organizations rely on high-touch feedback gathered from and delivered to the team; about what is going well, what can be done better, and what needs to change.

Navigate: Responding to the Realities of the Moment

Gone are the days when annual and biannual strategy-setting sessions were sufficient. The world is increasingly real-time. Navigation skills are crucial for you, as a leader, to chart a course forward based on what you anticipate, while also responding to the realities of the moment.

I draw a parallel to surfing, which requires a high degree of focus and balance. Once you pick your wave in the moment and you’re up on your board, you absolutely have to look straight ahead to the horizon. If you lose that forward focus, you’ll fall. The same as is true for a leader. You must choose the “wave” that will bring the organization that much closer to its goals. At the same time, you can’t be so immersed in the here and now that you lose momentum or balance.

Navigating in uncertain times in the wake of the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression can feel as treacherous as sailing in uncharted waters. With economic (and stock market) arrows pointing in all directions, you must be nimble and objective.

Navigation takes clarity to see opportunities, honesty to admit mistakes, and courage to make real-time decisions to forge a new way forward. With navigation, setting strategy becomes perpetual in the form of thoughtful decision making in the midst of a changing environment.

Among the many CEOs and world leaders with whom I’ve met, one of the most skilled navigators in today’s changing landscape of social media is Jeff Weiner, CEO of professional networking site (NYSE:LNKD).

“When an organization is growing very quickly, you want to make sure that you stay as focused as possible,” he explained.

In the midst of change, from the subtle to the dramatic, you must focus on those opportunities that will increase the likelihood of achieving success. The degree of difficulty increases the more things you try to execute simultaneously. To illustrate, Weiner shared an analogy: “If you are about to launch a rocket and that launch trajectory is off by even inches, the rocket is going to be off by miles out in orbit. Mission is what starts that trajectory. Strategy and navigation are what enable you to stay focused on maintaining that trajectory over time.”

Moving Forward by Anticipating and Navigating

As the leader, you will never have a complete view of the future. And yet, you must anticipate what lies beyond the horizon, past what others can see. As you move forward, you will encounter rocks and shoals, storms and tempests, but also fair winds that will fill your sails. Navigation happens in the moment, with adjustments in speed, altitude, and direction.

No matter how well you anticipate, expect the unexpected. Navigate around, over, under, and through it, to reach the ultimate goal.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive recruiting firm and a leader in talent management solutions.