How can leaders become more agile? Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader, offers advice to HR directors in HR magazine.

Agility has become a highly-prized leadership attribute. We live in a digital world and we need to adapt our leadership approach so we can create organisations capable of succeeding in this fast-moving environment.

Technology, and what we can do with it, is transforming human behaviour and how we communicate. It also raises questions about who, or what, is in control. It feels like time and space is shrinking and the time we have as leaders to think and respond to changes around us is in danger of diminishing in parallel. The extraordinary pace at which we now operate is driven by mobile technology, the internet, innovative apps, and intelligent systems. In this environment, we need to create new ways of working that help us to respond to unexpected challenges and opportunities with speed and accuracy. In short, we need to be more agile.

What does an agile leader do?

Agile leaders are skilled at connecting people to perform better. They are also adept at disrupting the way people think. Being an agile leader means being an enabler and a disruptor at the same time. This is the agile leadership paradox.

Agile leaders are connected leaders. They know how to connect with their team, customers, colleagues, and wider stakeholders. They also know how to connect with societal trends that are shaping a new reality around us—a digitally accelerating, politically unstable reality that creates novel opportunities and raises the threat of obsolescence across products and whole sectors. In this new reality, agile leaders make choices that define their business success or the achievement of their goals on a day to day basis.

In our digital world, where customer experience expectations are increasing at an ever-faster rate, leaders need to help others to embrace uncertainty and to flourish by working in ways we hadn’t even heard of five years ago. For some this may mean incremental change in response to competitive forces. For others it may require wholesale reinvention.

Many of the organisations I have researched and worked with are seeking to succeed in an ever-increasing context of disruption. This includes the digital transformation, economic uncertainty, and political upheaval. This disruption creates opportunities for major commercial or service delivery advancement. Seizing these opportunities is often fraught with risk. Not seizing them can be riskier still. In this digital and politically unpredictable world, agile leadership has never been more relevant.

The agile leadership paradox

So, to become an effective, agile leader you need to be both an enabler and a disruptor. But what do enablers and disruptors actually do?

What do enablers do?

1. Provide clarity of direction: Talk to people about your organisation’s purpose, so that priorities are aligned and there is a shared resolve.
2. Build trust and demonstrate empathy: Engage others by communicating in an authentic way.
3. Empower others: Devolve decision-making responsibility, coach others and develop their capabilities so they can step up.
4. Work together: Collaborate effectively to bring diverse people together and achieve shared goals
5. Develop learning agility: Encourage people to learn from their mistakes and nurture their skills.

What do disruptors do?

1. Question the status quo: Cut through bureaucracy and re-imagine the operating model to drive efficiency.
2. Be bold and decisive: Be optimistic, confident, and determined to achieve your mission.
3. Develop digital literacy: Understand enough of what is going on digitally to be able to support it effectively and use advances in technology to drive innovation and efficiency.
4. Create new ways of thinking: Embrace radical possibilities, bust silos and challenge tribalism.
5. Stay close to customer trends: Understand the ever-evolving customer experience landscape.

By combining these counter-intuitive leadership approaches of the enabler and the disruptor, leaders can create in their teams and organisations the strength and movement needed to be truly agile. You can use the points above to consider where you are on the path to agile leadership. Are there any areas where you are particularly strong, and any where you feel you have a long way to go? Thinking about this will help you to identify the areas you need to focus on to boost your own agility.

Agile leadership never stops

Agile leaders obsess about continuous improvement. They are intolerant of inefficiency and balance a keen awareness of customer needs with a desire to minimise the time needed to serve these needs. In an era of big data, they practise the critical interpretation of data to see the patterns, to learn about what motivates colleagues and customers want. This focus on learning, getting better every day, and assimilating new ways of thinking, being and performing, is at the heart of the agile leader’s mindset.

© HR magazine 2019.

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