Finding The Gray Rhino: Effectively Anticipating Changes As Women in Leadership

Michele Wucker, CEO and founder of Gray Rhino & Co., says how you handle looming changes makes all the difference.

Michele Wucker, CEO and founder of Gray Rhino & Co., says how you handle looming changes makes all the difference.

Are you a Chicken Little or an ostrich?

In a simple quiz, The Gray Rhino CEO and Founder Michele Wucker has outlined personality traits and solutions for you to discover the ways as a leader you identify and act upon obvious threats or upcoming shifts on the horizon.

To be the most effective leader, you don’t want to unnecessarily fear ubiquitous threats like Chicken Little, or hide your head in the sand like the ostrich. You do want to be a game warden who handles the gray rhinos and tames them as they arrive. You for sure you do not want to be the pancake who is trampled by the rhino.

But what is a gray rhino exactly?

We all have them in our professional and personal lives whether we acknowledge them or not. They are looming shifts that can be disruptive technologies, megatrends in business, the impact of demographic changes, new leadership or increasing competition.

“Some do better at anticipation of gray rhinos than others,” says Wucker, author of The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore. Wucker has been a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and also a Guggenheim Fellow.

“It takes a certain corporate culture and decision making culture,” to see and act upon the change factors, says Wucker, who spent decades as a financial journalist and think tank executive. What is optimal is a diverse and inclusive corporate culture not only made of “yes people,” but those who “prioritize long term goals and do not miss the forest for the trees.”

The goal as a leader or individual entrepreneur is to be proactive, Wucker says. And when you see a big change approaching, she suggests not to be defensive or ignore it, but to work to minimize and manage the risks. And move in the appropriate direction with the necessary knowledge.

The classic example of a company with leadership that was trampled by a gray rhino? Kodak. The undeniable leader internationally in all things film and photographic for generations, Kodak invented the digital camera, then put it on a shelf to concentrate on its film business. It went bankrupt.

A great example of a leader who sees and handles the gray rhino well is Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Wucker says. Lagarde famously said the 2008 financial crisis could have been averted if it was handled by the Lehman Sisters, not the Lehman Brothers.

Yet, Wucker adds, “It would be best if it was Lehman Brothers and Sisters because a diverse group of men and women can avoid group think.”

Women in leadership do look at gray rhinos differently, Wucker says. “There is a gender element. Women see risk differently, and are more likely to be aware of it and they are the ones waving the red flags.” However, “They are not always likely to be heard.”

Women see risk differently, and are more likely to be aware of it and they are the ones waving the red flags

In her recent book, “How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not, and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices,” author Therese Huston delineates the different approaches women make even in their own assessments.

“There’s an enormous double standard when it comes to how men and women are perceived as decision-makers, and those differences can hamper much more than a woman’s career. One obstacle is the common perception that women are indecisive, encumbered by their need to build consensus, weighed down by a lack of self-confidence and an inability to handle stress. The fact that Huston’s book even exists reinforces this point,” Sheelah Kolhatkar writes in the New York Times review of the book.

Women leaders express “a willingness to ask questions and definitely have a willingness to be wrong,” Wucker says. “They have a real self-awareness of their own limitations. Women delve into research and look harder at facts and are better listeners,” she says.

So what is your gray rhino? According to Wucker’s The Gray Rhino, these are the questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you aware of and adjusting for the biases and blind spots that shape your decisions?

  • If your employees and managers are afraid to speak up about threats, will they also stay silent about opportunities?

  • Do people around you -people on whom you depend- listen to warning bells or let them go unheeded?

  • Do managers do risk analyses to “check the box,” but never follow through on steps to prevent them?

  • Do you give people credit for avoiding a preventable crisis? Or do you blame them if they try and don’t get it right the first time?

  • How accurately can you weigh the costs of acting in time versus doing too little or nothing at all?

  • Do global issues feel both overwhelming and distant?

  • Do you feel you have the power to affect the obvious problems facing you, your company or community?

“Gray rhinos are value neutral,” Wucker explains. “They sound scary but they also help you to avoid costs and see opportunities. As they say, one door closes, another opens. So if you see a new technology coming in, if you ignore it, you will be obsolete. So the sooner you embrace the new, the better off you will be.”

Check in with people who know you the best and do a regular pulse check maybe once a quarter, or every six months

And if you feel that you have blinders on when it comes to envisioning your own gray rhino, Wucker suggests you seek out friends and advisers who can likely see it more clearly.

So ask who do you have around you who is willing to tell you what you might not want to hear?  “Check in with people who know you the best and do a regular pulse check maybe once a quarter, or every six months.”

Gray rhinos are not just in the professional sphere, but can also arise in your health, relationships, finance and housing buckets, Wucker says. “The best is to look to see if you are where you want to be. Then, let’s say if your start-up fails, if you ask yourself if one year from now, in hindsight, what would have been the cause?”

The best advice, Wucker says, “is to look ahead to look back.”

Certainly, everyone has a gray rhino or more in her life. “Some people have more than others,” Wucker says. “Some people have larger ones.”

The correct word for a group of rhinos, Wucker says, is a “crash of rhinos.”

And that, she agrees, is funny.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon