Leadership Values in Action: Becoming an Agile Leader
We’ve heard a lot about organizational agility in recent years, as the ability of a business to adapt, survive, and thrive in uncertain or complex and changing environments.
But what does it mean to be an agile leader?
If your responsibilities include leading and managing others, and your organization focuses on agility as a core value or expected competency, it’s critical that you develop this skill.
Agile leadership isn’t a preferred area of experience that is just “nice to have.” According to the author of The Rise of the Agile Leader: Can You Make the Shift?, Chuck Mollor, agile leadership is a necessity for today’s organizations. If its leaders aren’t nimble, responsive, and quick-thinking, an organization cannot possibly hope to rapidly evolve to meet business challenges.
Change isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s the one thing we know we can count on to be part of our professional lives every year, quarter, and month. While many perceive change as a negative factor, it can also be a great force for good. And research has shown that leaders who don’t embrace change pass along their negative perceptions of that change to their team members, practically guaranteeing initiative failure from the start. How we as leaders approach and adapt to change makes a difference to all employees. Leaders set the “agility agenda” and, increasingly, the executives I coach are asking for support in strengthening those muscles that support and guide change.
Agility as a Core Value
When I speak with leaders about agility, I place it in the context of a core value of their organization, not just as a personal ability.
If your company wants to meet business objectives successfully, the culture needs to support a willingness to change direction and focus when warranted. These changes should enable healthy evolution of practices, products, and processes to maintain or improve market position.
As a leader, what can YOU do to support successful changes in direction and focus when needed? How do you ensure that agility is a positive aspect of your company culture that supports achievement of goals and forward momentum?
It’s often helpful to look at “dos” and “don’ts” when it comes to behaviors that support a specific value. Let’s take a look at both.
Agility Dos and Don’ts for Leaders
A leader who is agile…
- Considers an obstacle or setback as learning experience
- Asks questions to gain clarity
- Guides productive discussion toward a shared goal
- Adapts with a positive mindset to competing demands and shifting priorities
- Adjusts their behaviors and attitudes that could slow progress
- Is able to manage themselves with grace when in an unpleasant circumstance
- Is willing to try new ideas, even ideas outside of their comfort zone
A leader who is not operating with agility…
- Resists change
- Is afraid to try new approaches
- Refuses to learn from mistakes
- Is easily halted by obstacles
- Avoids post-mortems to identify successes and improvement areas
Recently, I coached a leader about an upcoming change to a key process within his division. This change involved forecasting for sales, revenue, and expenses. His initial reaction to this updated approach was less than favorable. In fact, it was hostile. The leader expressed concern that this change would take time away from focusing on business imperatives and would create more work for their team, and he was objecting to its adoption. During our session, I helped him reframe this perceived challenge as an opportunity and understand the reason for the adjustment. Changing market conditions made it necessary to keep a close eye on the top line and the bottom line concurrently to continue to make margins that were acceptable.
We worked on looking at a different way of completing the work necessary while leveraging the knowledge of his team to get the work done quickly. This served multiple purposes: it helped the leader identify key talents on the team who could make this change happen effectively and efficiently, it enabled him to think in an agile way to embrace a necessary change and it prompted him to communicate this change to team members as an opportunity to manage the business in changing conditions while remaining profitable, something that is extremely important to the entire organization. We transformed what the leader thought was a roadblock into an agility exercise. And it all happened while keeping pace with the speed of his business.
How Leaders Model Agility
In any industry, on any given day, if a leader is in the company of team members, they can find an opportunity to model agility.
Imagine a scenario that may feel like a setback, a surprise, or a stop sign. How can you handle it so that those around you feel empowered to tackle similar circumstances in their roles?
In working with leaders, I find that they are all comfortable with telling their team what needs to be done. But only the best leaders help them also understand the “whys” of the “what,” along with establishing “points of discussion.” These are when team members reach areas that were not previously discussed, and next steps are unclear. A quick discussion at these forks in the road can bring the leader (and others) up to speed about important nuances or information that could impact other decisions. Helping leaders become more flexible and agile in their thinking has become a critical skill that will keep businesses successful while navigating daily challenges and changes.
Agility in Action
Here are a few more examples that you might find helpful.
A customer is having difficulty using a new product purchased from your company and is calling to complain. What agility behaviors could you model in this situation?
- Listen to understand and provide options that suit the customer
- Manage your reactions with grace when in an unpleasant circumstance
- Adjust your behaviors or reactions that may slow progress and resolution
- Take away key learnings from this interaction and reduce the likelihood of other similar complaints
You developed and communicated a process that your team uses regularly. Someone shares with you that the process isn’t effective. You have not heard this feedback before. You don’t believe that it is true. What should you do to model agility behaviors?
- Manage your reactions with grace
- Asks questions to gain clarity
- Guide the discussion toward a shared goal
- Be open to trying new ideas, even if they are outside your comfort zone
We know that our jobs, our companies, and the industries in which we work will not stay the same. Leaders, you owe it to yourself to invest in the skills that will serve you as you navigate change in professional settings, now and in the future. Agile thinking leads to empowered performance. Together, they feed a culture that supports business success.