How to develop the agile leaders of tomorrow
This article was first published in HR Zone
Economic, climate and pandemic pressures have created an environment of constant challenge for today’s businesses. In response, many see organisational agility as the way to increase resilience and speed recovery from events – be they sudden ‘black swans’ or slower-evolving challenges.
It's a tough job...
But embedding organisational agility is tough. It requires the right leadership – not just at the top of the organisation, but right through it. It is these leaders that you’ll need to motivate and guide people through some of the biggest challenges they face. This means understanding that what defines great leaders today might not be what defines them tomorrow.
Everything the team does is ultimately about creating value for the customer, even if they’re not in directly ‘customer-facing’ roles
For many, it will mean rewiring a career’s worth of assumptions and habits. The people who lead teams will need more than technical skills or specific sector expertise. In a traditional corporate environment, these attributes are the foundation of a successful top-down, directive leader. But agility calls for flexibility, empathy, on-the-spot problem solving to remove barriers, and more.
There are three ways you can ensure you have the right leaders to make a success of organisational agility:
1. Reset your definition of leadership
Traditionally, leaders were centre stage at the heart of the team, with all activities and decisions flowing through them. Now, no matter the team’s function, the dominant figure is the customer. Everything the team does is ultimately about creating value for the customer, even if they’re not in directly ‘customer-facing’ roles. The leader’s job is to guide and coach the team to do that, even when competing issues feel more urgent.
Instead of getting mired in traditional managerial tasks, leaders must be able to step back and look for continuous improvements in how the team works to create value. That means empowering them to make decisions. While old-school leaders’ authority flowed from mastery of technical skills, agile leaders can’t hope to have in-depth knowledge of all the specialisms in their multi-disciplinary teams.
Their job is to see and overcome blockers, define the team’s vision and values, and encourage everyone to add to their skills and knowledge continuously. They must also embed a culture where people feel able to bring their whole selves to work, free to flag up issues and risks without fear of repercussions.
Those organisations best placed for resilience or crisis recovery have a leadership mix of traditional knowledge and skills blended with new ideas
A good example of this is Rentokil, a pest control company that migrated its IT to the cloud, by implementing agile ways of working. Leaders received tailored coaching to support their transition that focused on taking away distractions and making sure teams centred on the most important things, as well as becoming more collaborative.
This approach helped deliver a new digital platform at speed across 12 countries, giving Rentokil the capacity to meet its immediate expansion targets, build stronger relationships with customers and becoming more responsive and efficient.
2. Enhance know-how with new knowledge
Those organisations best placed for resilience or crisis recovery have a leadership mix of traditional knowledge and skills blended with new ideas. There’s a balance to strike between old and new ways of solving problems.
Agile skills mapping will help here. That will tell you the attributes your teams need in place – such as the ability to work collaboratively, take on new challenges outside specialist areas, and being comfortable with change. It will also show the gaps in your teams and let you decide whether to fill them by developing existing people’s skills or looking outside the organisation.
All too often, we see values fall into the background in the rush to deal with ‘the closest crocodile’
The latter can be difficult in areas where highly skilled people are thin on the ground, like cyber security. So, a culture of continuous learning will be vital, along with apprenticeships and partnerships with external knowledge centres.
Another example is a global bank that we have worked with to help embed organisational agility. It filled half its leadership roles with candidates from outside, as well as reshuffling the senior team and losing some well-respected and liked figures.
To stop resentment or uncertainty brewing, the bank moved quickly and emphasised the changes were to support the new way of working, with all its potential benefits. The different perspectives and experience of the newcomers have quickly stymied dissatisfaction.
If you need to look outside for new people, one powerful attractor is a strong sense of purpose and values in the business. Leaders will need to champion both. All too often, we see values fall into the background in the rush to deal with ‘the closest crocodile’. For organisational agility to succeed, this isn’t an option. Without core values, there’s less trust, and more chance that team members will revert to following their own interests in challenging situations.
3. Promote the next generation of leaders
With leadership redefined and systems in place to bring in or develop the right skills, the third part of the leadership puzzle is to recognise potential. This can be a political minefield, as it might mean looking past today’s star performers. But it’s necessary to deal with this head-on – because you will be entrusting your organisation’s resilience to these people.
You’ll need people who are committed to what you want to achieve with your organisational agility journey, as well as exemplifying your values. They’ll show this by how enthusiastically they embrace change, and in how they respond when the pressure is on.
Bringing new leaders to the fore means continuous investment in their skills
Rather than wait for these situations to arise, you can find out more about your would-be leaders through training and role-play that replicates challenging scenarios. Character is a better guide to leadership potential than technical skills.
For example, the Defence Cyber School developed a Cyber Foundations Pathway which involved working with a broad and complex stakeholder network to identify the required skillsets at each stage of the Cyber career stream. Scalable training pathways that could be tailored to the individual role’s requirements were developed, this ensured that Defence can generate the right skillsets on an enduring basis.
Bringing new leaders to the fore means continuous investment in their skills. This must be business as usual for everyone rather than an occasional event or a formal scheme. It can happen easily through situations that create mutual mentoring relationships.
However, you might also have to work to create these opportunities by bringing people with potential into decision-making processes where they wouldn’t normally feature. That’s part of building tomorrow’s team, today.