Leadership agility in times of change: Leadership Essentials (Part 9)

Today’s leaders are increasingly challenged by highly volatile, changeable environments. They need to do more with less and execute with precision in environments marked by major uncertainty, flux and growing complexity. To do this they need to build agility to ensure they adapt and lead in a way that ensures the organisation is well positioned to respond to these challenges. Being agile in the face of this tsunami of change is far from easy. However, our research and decades of experience, have revealed that the following 7 keys to agility will help leaders find their truth north in times of unprecedented change:

Be clear on the outcomes and purpose of the change

Agile leaders engage employees and other stakeholders in clarifying their ‘picture of success’ for the change. They also explain the rationale for the change – why it is important and how it will create value for the organisation and customers. This vision, and high level goals, will provide a roadmap for the change efforts and ensure activity, decisions and behaviors are aligned and focused. Without this clarity, change is unlikely to succeed as people won’t be clear on what the end result is supposed to look like and the benefits of changing.

Build an agile culture  

To build an agile and adaptable culture, leaders need to move their teams beyond developing their job-specific functional and technical skills.
They need to encourage people to learn to be ready to change their goals, mindset and skills as external and internal conditions change. This involves challenging old assumptions about how things work and being open to learning completely new skills and ways of applying their strengths to find smarter ways of getting results. To do this requires a curious and open-minded approach, what Stanford Professor of Psychology, Carol Dweck, calls a “growth mindset”. Just like a top athlete or performing artist, this positive stretch and continuous learning will help people reach the upper limits of their potential and ensure they remain agile to adapt to whatever is thrown their way.

Focus on the positives

Positive energy is the fuel for successful change so leaders need to help people power their way through the challenging aspects of change by focusing on the positives. They can do this through focusing people’s attention on their strengths, successes, ideas and possibilities. These are the positive change capacities that will help people feel empowered and confident enough to move forward. Pessimism and a negative mindset should be surfaced and confronted as it will only breed fear, inaction and a sense of helplessness, obstructing change efforts. Agile leaders recognise that they need to accentuate the positives and inspire others to support the vision by emphasizing positive consequences and benefits of aligning around the change.

Support people through change

Leaders need to have the social and emotional intelligence to tune into how change impacts the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of their employees, customers and other stakeholders.
Psychologists have found that employees often get emotionally stuck in the early phases of the change process, undermining any meaningful transition. Resistance stems from a variety of sources including confusion about what to do, a perceived loss of status and control, uncertainty about the future and stress arising from increased workload. Resistance takes on many forms and can range from grumblings and passive-aggressive resistance to outright anger and hostility.
Leaders need to understand how people are feeling and offer support and encouragement to help people through the transition. Better practices include:

  • Explaining the reasons for change and why it is important to achieving the company’s vision and goals.
  • Listening with genuine empathy to the concerns, issues and challenges people face and helping them work through these.
  • Highlighting the risks of not changing and the benefits of the new situation
  • Offering people practical support to help them make the transition (e.g., coaching or mentoring).
  • Acting as a role model to help people understand what the new behaviours and attitudes should look like and why they are important for success.
  • Building a group of ‘change champions’ or advocates and using these people to persuade those who are slower to adapt.

However, if all these attempts fail leaders will, as a last resort, need to be directive and tell people how they need to change, especially if the need for change is urgent or resistance is stubborn and unreasonable.

Improvise and experiment  

Agile leaders are entrepreneurial in their mindset and approach. They don’t plan every aspect of the change from beginning to end in minute detail and then implement it. Instead, they assume effective change is a zigzag process and pilot different solutions to see which is best in the eyes or employees, customers and other stakeholders. This approach recognises the importance of “failing fast” and involves improvisation, rapid learning and iteration to continuously improve and hone plans, products, and processes. This process should be made as engaging for employees as possible and can, in many cases, be fun as well as challenging. Once the best solution has been tested and adjusted, it should be documented and shared with other people in the organisation to ensure changes are implemented across the business.

Leverage team strengths

Agile leaders recognise that increasingly complex problems and challenges can only be solved through more fluid, efficient and collaborative teamwork. Rather than having a stable membership, agile teams are formed around specific projects and challenges to ensure rapid turnaround of solutions, giving these organisations a significant competitive advantage. Team members are diverse and drawn from different parts of the organisation to ensure all the relevant skills, knowledge and experience to tackle the specific problem.   Increasing popularity of the “hackathon”, a sprint-like event lasting one day or longer in which coders and others team up to design new software or resolve problems, is an example of how agile teams can work. Other sectors could benefit from such collaborative and creative forms of teamworking.

Measure and reward progress

It is important for leaders to show people that the promised change outcomes and benefits are actually being delivered. Therefore, leaders need to ensure they uncover and share improvements. Even small wins should be captured as it is these small wins that will ultimately lead to bigger shifts.

Leaders should ensure these changes are shared on a regular basis during team meetings and on appropriate social networks, for example via SharePoint or a team WhatsApp group. Specific efforts and behaviours that drive change outcomes should be singled out and recognised. Monetary and non-monetary rewards (including time off, gifts and ‘red letter’ days) can also be used to reward significant contributions. This will encourage those who are slower to change to get out of their comfort zone and try out new ways of working. It will also speed adoption of the change by employees, creating a ‘tipping point’ effect where the majority push the change forward.

Ghandi famously remarked: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Agile leaders understand and accept that they world is changing very fast. They recognise the importance of role modelling effective attitudes, behaviours and priorities that are important to tackle change positively. They move beyond vision and words, to action, experimentation and continuous improvement, ensuring they draw on and optimise the strengths of their people to create a future which is better than the past.

James Brook

Recommended Reading
Bridges, W. (1991). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.
Dweck, C.S. (2008). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Kotter, J.P (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.