How to be an Agile Leader?

Organizational Agility
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Hong Sun
Management Consultant, Canada

How to be an Agile Leader?

To help organizations to succeed in agile transformation, leaders at all levels need to be role models to encourage agility, and focus on developing four main capabilities of agile leadership: learning agility; empathy; thoughtful decisiveness; and digital literacy.

1. Learning agility:
Learning agility is a mindset and a collection of practices that allow leaders to continually develop, grow, and adopt new strategies to deal with the increasingly complex problems. It encompasses not only a leader's curiosity and ability to make sense of his experiences, but also his capability to convert his gained insights into helpful actions that increase his organization's performance.

How can a leader increase his learning agility?
- Learn from diverse experiences: a leader needs to seek more opportunities for learning from diverse experiences by exposing himself to various ideas and ways of working that are different from those in his current role. Taking non-executive roles is a common way to do this, especially in organizations that operate in multiple sectors. After that, the leader also needs to create space and time for making sense of this learning, through reflection, making notes, discussions with colleagues or creating a presentation to share with them.

- Learn from feedback: feedback is one of the key sources of learning. It can fuel a leader's desire to improve, help him develop the muscles of learning and become more agile as a result. To collect feedback, the leader needs to frequently have honest and open-minded conversations with people around him and with the customers, trying to know how people think about his behavior as a leader and how the products are performing for the customers. The leader needs to skillfully ask specific questions like "How did you feel when you read that email I sent out this morning?" "What are the least useful features of our new product for you?" These conversations are the most important source of feedback and provide essential data that help the leader and his organization to learn and evolve.

2. Empathy:
Empathy is a leader's capability to understand other people's points of view, feelings and emotions, and to place himself in their position to act or respond in a way that demonstrates this level of understanding. This in turn helps to develop trust and quality relationships in the organization.

- Building trust: a fundamental requirement for agile leadership to work well is trust—trust in the leaders, trust from the leaders, and trust between teams. A helpful starting point for a leader to increase trust levels in him or in his leadership team, is to give more trust. By starting to trust others more, the leader can create and increase other people's confidence to act boldly, to risk failure, to experiment and to learn. In the meantime, the leader needs to show that he himself is trustworthy, as the more people trust him, the more likely they are to take a risk and rely on the leader's support. To gain trust from people, the leader needs to be authentic, competent, behave consistently and communicate with integrity all the time.

- Quality relationships: high-quality relationships with people are the lifeblood of being an agile leader, as they enable the leader to create a connected organization that can adapt and move coherently along with the environmental changes. Empathy is one of the most important capabilities a leader can leverage to build quality relationships. For example, a leader with empathy is able to make people experiencing negative emotions feel heard and understood, thus treat the leader as a confidant; similarly, a pat on the back or a simple "Good job" from an empathic leader can make people feel appreciated and befriended. In addition, when a leader develops his empathy skills by focusing on difficult employees and engaging in walk-in-their-shoes activities, he can also simultaneously strengthen the relationship with those employees.

3. Thoughtful decisiveness:
High-performing CEOs stand out for being more decisive. They make decisions earlier, faster and with greater conviction. They do so consistently, even with ambiguity, incomplete information and in uncharted waters.

It involves five steps to be thoughtfully decisive, which reveals how decisiveness can help leaders be more agile in an intelligent way:
1) Pause: pause to breathe, reflect, and sense what is happening so as to fully understand the situation.
2) Consult: consult with trusted advisers and experts to gain their insight so that a more robust picture of the options can be built.
3) Decide: make the right choice among the options and decide how to move forward in the chosen path. Make the decision together with those who have been consulted so that the decision becomes theirs as well, which is a helpful way to gain commitment to act.
4) Move: move quickly to execute the decision with confidence, with the support and commitment from those involved in decision making.
5) Review: review and check what is happening on a regular basis and be willing to fail fast if the judgement turns out to be wrong or inaccurate.

A leader can create mindful moments to allow himself to be thinking effectively rather than being just busy. Another useful advice for a leader to achieve thoughtful decisiveness is to create enough time for high-quality decision making by reducing the time spent in meetings. Meetings should be as short as possible, focused on key topics, and with only those that need to attend. When senior managers are in back-to-back meetings throughout the day, with little time for thinking clearly or on a longer-term basis, it is very difficult to improve and to see early where the big and right decisions are.

4. Digital literacy:
Agility in today's digital age is intimately linked with digital ways of working. Leaders need to be communicating like digital natives, and developing their organizations to operate with ever increasing efficiency. Digital leaders constantly question the current rules, and are willing to think the unthinkable, eager to achieve breakthroughs in innovation in terms of both the customer experiences and the operating processes of the organization. One way to help a leader stay in tune is to find a digital mentor who can support his ongoing learning about all things digital.

Compare also: The 3D Agile Leader Model by Collet.

Source: Hayward, S. (2018), The Agile Leader, London, UK: Kogan Page.


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