CEOs in uncertain times: Challenges and opportunities for rebel leaders

Juan Luis Polo

9 December 2022

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If you ask three executives from completely different sectors about the current state of their companies, the challenges they face or how they practise leadership in complicated times, it’s easy to fall into the same old clichés and platitudes.

However, Javier Martín, from Donte Group, Marisa Palacios, from Bioscience, and Juan Fernandez-Aceytuno, from Sociedad de Tasación, have demonstrated that they’re not the typical CEOs. This could be related to either having to reposition a brand that’s been damaged by previous management, just like the case of Javier, or they’ve overcame internal barriers by making diversity their main flag, as Marisa, and lastly, they’ve dealt with a succession in MBO format from uncertainty and courage, as in the case of Juan.

These situations are what shaped them to have a rebellious leadership style and are a reference for their teams during a time when organizational transformation is more relevant than ever. Here at Rebel Thinking, we’ve had the opportunity and the privilege of chatting with them.

From being a boss to a leader.

What are the characteristics that a leader must have today? A complex question, no doubt, because there isn’t just one magic formula for all leaders.

Marisa talks about authenticity, that honesty has the ability to permeate customers and her own team. She also mentions the importance of courage, a particularly relevant aspect at a time when decision making has become a “risky sport”, given the uncertainty of the context in which we live. Last but not least, Marisa also highlights the importance of the human element. Having emotional connection is one of the many elements that drives people, possibly now more than ever.

For Juan, he believes that one’s a “leader by listening”. Active listening, which adapts to what is in front of us, is one of the strengths we must cultivate the most in order to be better leaders. And together with the defense of listening, a clear commitment to communication, with which I couldn’t agree more. Communication to our teams is an art in itself: without unnecessary alerts, without fear on our part and knowing that it is a great source of trust when it is developed correctly.

As for Javier, he argues that a leader is someone who makes an impact. He’s the one who does things differently. Who is a non-conformist, and does not take the first result for granted. Although this type of person can be “tiring”, it’s their ability to achieve more than what is expected of them that helps them to have a greater impact. But, for everything to work, planning, and its proper execution, must be at the base of the organisation: otherwise you end up going around in circles without getting to the right place.

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Resistance to change, one of the biggest obstacles.

But, is having a good leader enough to drive a company’s transformation? What are the main obstacles that organizations face today when it comes to transformation?

As Marisa rightly points out, the things we don’t have control over are infinite. No matter what decision we make, all of them will bring complications and force us to face difficulties along the way. However, there is one obstacle that all our CEOs, because of their rebellious vision, have had to face one time or another : resistance to change. An obstacle, moreover, that’s difficult to combat, because it is intrinsic to our very nature: we need certainty and stability in our day-to-day business, which creates an attachment to our “way of doing things”.

In order to improve this situation, and solve the discomfort generated by the fact that our habits are being made public, Javier proposes a model based on try and learn. Sometimes, behind our refusal to change lies a lack of knowledge of how to do things differently. This model seeks precisely to provide tools and training to take the step, always avoiding penalising failures, since tolerance to error is key in a culture of constant transformation.

Another of the most common difficulties when we seek to explore areas and activities hitherto unknown to our organization is what Juan calls “paralysis by over-analysis”, which occurs when we want to have all the answers before tackling change. It is time to take steps in the chosen direction, despite the uncertainty. If we don’t, it may be too late when we move.

The value of being Human-Centred

When we speak of maverick leadership, we do so with full knowledge of the facts. We know firsthand what it’s like to dare to try new ways of working and make courageous decisions in difficult times, and that is why we can only see ourselves reflected in the challenges posed by Marisa, Juan and Javier.

Although their experiences show us that there is no single recipe for success, at Good Rebels there is a common denominator: a leadership style that puts people at the centre. Empathy, active listening, tolerance for error, and, in short, the ability to understand people’s motivations and fears so that they can give their full potential is what brings clarity in these uncertain times.