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Leadership

How ambidextrous leaders deliver performance and progress fast

Published 7 October 2021 in Leadership • 4 min read

Making your current business more efficient while also developing new revenue streams seems to many an impossible task, but with new ways of thinking it can be done. 

 

In our conversations with CEOs and C-suite leaders, we constantly hear that they have two tasks at hand: making the current business more efficient and effective, while at the same time developing new revenue streams often with a completely new business model. 

Most find it hard to achieve these dual goals, as the skills and the mindset needed to optimize existing business are exactly the opposite to those needed to create new opportunities. Yet there are leaders who have mastered this rare skill. 

We have studied them at work in both large and small organizations across industries, from pharmaceuticals to banking to telecommunications, in order to understand what enables them to optimize the businesses of today while building businesses for the future. We have identified them as ambidextrous leaders, with an uncanny ability to engage in opposing behaviors, depending on situational requirements – often in the time span of one meeting or phone call. 

What are these ambidextrous behaviors? While it’s easy to assert that leaders should aim to be ambidextrous, it’s far harder for them to achieve. Our research has shown that ambidexterity in five different dimensions is needed: (1) leading strategy, (2) leading execution, (3) leading stakeholders, (4) leading people, and (5) leading self. 

For leading strategy, ambidexterity requires that senior leaders are able to take advantage of short-term market opportunities within the confines of the existing strategy, but at the same time they must have the capacity to let go of their existing strategy to build a completely new one, and to know which approach to use when. 

When managing people, ambidextrous leaders have both the capacity to lead from the front, telling their people what to do, but also to step back and act as a coach

Ambidexterity calls for the ability to drive flawless execution, replicating best-in-class routines, while at the same time being able to let go of these routines in order to experiment. For stakeholders, ambidextrous leaders know how to follow formal procedures for dealing with them, but they also possess the capacity to work the informal network to achieve mutual goals. When managing people, ambidextrous leaders have both the capacity to lead from the front, telling their people what to do, but also to step back and act as a coach. And for leading self, ambidextrous leaders have the capacity to make big courageous leaps, while also having the ability to put themselves back in an equilibrium to find their quiet center. 

Becoming ambidextrous  

The vast majority of the leaders who we have studied achieved ambidexterity on some, but not all, dimensions; only 10% of them mastered ambidexterity across all five. And it was the latter group that was truly able to optimize their businesses of today while building powerful businesses for tomorrow. The good news is that ambidexterity can be developed. It starts with self-awareness about your cognitive and behavioral style.  

Here, we recommend 360-degree behavioral feedback on each of the five dimensions, and the behaviors associated with each, to provide a list of opportunities for you to become more ambidextrous. Next, we ask you to reflect on the feedback and your behavior patterns. 

Are you perceived not to be ambidextrous simply because you have operated in an environment where there was no opportunity to showcase such behaviors? Or perhaps it is linked to your personal style: do you not enjoy the uncertainty associated with big transformations or experimentation? Or is it the lack of underlying abilities to engage in some of the opposing behaviors listed above? 

Once this analysis is completed, you are ready to take action. If it’s simply a question of environmental conditions, we ask that you work hard to change your role. A shift from a deep operational role to one squarely focused on transformation will allow others to see your true skills and allow you to exercise your “transformational muscle”. 

Deep coaching

If it’s your personal preferences that stand in the way of ambidexterity, you might want to consider a deep coaching engagement. This will allow you to identify the origin of certain behaviors and pinpoint any fears you might have, and spot opportunities to approach these behaviors differently. If it’s a lack of skills in engaging in opposing behaviors, we recommend going back to school; by now every respectable business school has a course that will accelerate your ability to become a better networker with-out sacrificing your ability to follow protocol, or a better coach without losing your skill to drive from the front. 

In no time, your ambidexterity will improve. Join us in December for an exploration of leadership progression in Issue #04 of the magazine I by IMD. 

Authors

Misiek Piskorski

Misiek Piskorski

Professor of Digital Strategy, Analytics and Innovation and the Dean of IMD Southeast Asia and Oceania

Mikołaj Jan Piskorski, who often goes by the name Misiek, is a Professor of Digital Strategy, Analytics and Innovation and the Dean of IMD Southeast Asia and Oceania. Professor Piskorski is an expert on digital strategy, platform strategy, and the process of digital business transformation.

Ric Roi

Ric Roi

Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD

Ric Roi is Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD. He is a senior business psychologist and advises boards and CEOs on matters related to board renewal, CEO succession, top team effectiveness and leadership transitions.

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