Informed Intuition

23 September 2009 Charlie Wagstaff

Charlie Wagstaff, managing director, Criticaleye, explains why now's the time for leaders to trust their instincts.

Albert Einstein once said, 'The only real valuable thing is intuition'. In a world shaped by global recession, his sentiment has never been more relevant to organisational leaders. The new economic landscape requires a different approach to leadership from CEOs, namely the ability to respond instinctively and intuitively to the challenges of a difficult market. In an environment where speed, agility and flexibility are key to survival, the mix of leadership qualities, which were valued when times were good is no longer viable. What's clear is that in the current climate, the intuitive, responsive leader is set to rise to the fore.

Three core traits will enable the intuitive leader to stand apart as organisations tackle the challenges of a difficult market including the ability to respond with greater speed than their peers, the ability to challenge fundamentals and the ability to make bold steps in the drive for change. The real challenge for leaders is that the new business landscape has no precedent. What went before is no longer relevant and the leadership style has got to adapt. As organisations refocus and reorganise themselves to meet the demands of the new world, enlisting the skills of CEOs with this mindset will be a critical success factor.

Informed intuition

Leadership intuition does not mean taking uninformed or sporadic decisions, although clearly it often has a key role to play in the instance of there being insufficient data available. To be successful, leaders need to ensure that instinct is fully supported by information from the customer, consumers and employees who are customer facing.

"CEOs should ensure the mission and values of the organisation are understood across the workforce."

This means getting constant feeds from your target market and your employees. By tapping into what your customers and consumers are demanding and how those demands are being met by those who regularly interact with them, leaders will be in a strong position to use their intuition more effectively.

Knowledge gleaned from across and outside the organisation will mean CEOs can address key questions such as whether the product or service offering is right for the market, if employees are being correctly motivated to deliver the level of service required and what, if any, are the opportunities for growth. This, of course, is nothing new but the intuitive leaders will respond to issues arising from this information more quickly and effectively and ensure the structures are in place to achieve it.

Sourcing information – tapping into generation 'youth'

When identifying sources of information that will inform intuition, leaders would do well to pay special attention to the junior tiers of management including younger individuals that are likely to have greater interaction with customers or consumers as part of their daily life. Like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, where he hones in on the value of identifying future trends and innovations that are set to become mainstream, these individuals hold great information potential for the intuitive CEO.

In most cases, because of their more direct relationship with customers than board-level executives, younger managers are more in touch with what the market wants and full of energy and ideas on how to improve the products and services the organisation is offering. The intuitive CEO should recognise this and find effective ways of channelling and nurturing this raw energy back into the organisation. The influence of the younger generation on future business and culture is significant, but it takes a leader with instinct to enable younger managers and encourage new ideas to flourish.

Will intuition change the management structure?

What will more empowered younger managers and an intuitive CEO mean for the leadership team overall? The speed and severity of the recession clearly demonstrated that responding quickly, and with a sense of urgency, is now even more imperative to leaders going forward, especially in the private sector.

This does not mean that leaders will need to adopt a 'command and control' approach. But the fact that leaders and their organisations need to respond faster to changes in the market will mean that intuition plays a bigger role in decision making, both for the CEO and the board.

"Instilling a culture of intuition into the organisation will be crucial to its future success."

If business decisions are going to be made more rapidly, the organisation's structure will also have to change. A more intuitive management function requires a more intuitive organisation with the means to adapt quickly and flexibly. In practice, this will mean cutting out unnecessary layers of management and adopting a flatter chain of command so that processes and communications can be cascaded more quickly. This structure will also help when it comes to testing, and acting on, some of the information gleaned on trends in the market. CEOs should ensure the mission and values of the organisation are understood across the workforce and with that instil a culture of collaboration and praise of initiative, so that strategic goals can be realised in a timely fashion. The rewards system has then got to support informed intuition and not a culture of risk taking.

Above all, everything and everyone across the organisation must be focused on responding to your customers more effectively and track this using technology. The successful and intuitive CEO should make it their prime concern to centre the organisation on winning and retaining customers. Empowering the workforce to respond to customer needs will be key to success so in many ways; it is as much about passing on intuitive behaviour, and embedding it in the heart of everything the organisation does, as it is about using informed intuition to lead more effectively.

The future

For the intuitive leader, instilling a culture of intuition into the organisation will be crucial to its future success. It's about empowering people to take opportunities before the competition does.

Organisations should also be looking for ways to instil intuition into tomorrow's leaders, our next-generation of CEOs and c-suite executives. Although most leaders would say there have never been any hard and fast rules to being an effective leader one thing is clear. In the new world the global recession has created, decisions will need to be made faster, actions will need to be implemented more quickly and leaders will need to be more in tune with how the outside world impacts on their business. Giving future CEOs the skills to use their intuition will play a key role on whether these individuals are able to lead their organisations to success.