Dec 9, 2020

Is agility the only sustainable leadership advantage?

2020: the imperative of our time, when the world changed for everyone, everywhere. Region by region, country by country, we stared in the face of a global pandemic, the ongoing uncertainty and subsequent pace of change impacting every business. For some it’s been terminal, but for the most agile it has meant surviving and, in some cases, thriving.
It’s proved an incredibly challenging time for leaders, a time when businesses spiralled downwards with the impact of Covid and those able to climb back up are doing so with agility. Businesses and economies have been turned upside down. It’s not about big versus small, it’s about fast versus slow. It’s been the challenge of many leaders’ careers, but also exciting. 2020 has pushed us forward and accelerated change beyond our wildest imaginations and it’s now about the absolute pace of continual change – a trend that won’t change anytime soon.
As we approach the end of this defining year, my observations are of people who are fatigued, emotional, weary at the lack of human connection, frustrated at the social capital that’s ebbing away and leaders fearful for those facing job loss or, for those unable to work at home, those working in environments where lack of social distance could lead to impending threat of infection. But also of businesses and leaders who are relishing the pace of change and grasping opportunities to move forward quickly.
Pandemic winners and losers
Jeff Bezos has said, “In today’s era of volatility, there is no other way but to reinvent. The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility. That’s it. Nothing else is sustainable. Everything else you create someone else will replicate.” Unfortunately, the pandemic has hit those businesses that lacked the foresight and agility to respond or reposition.
The retail sector has seen businesses dive or thrive. Those with a multichannel or high online presence and established logistics have benefited in the pandemic – online supermarkets such as Ocado, Tesco and Iceland and online retailers such as ASOS, Boohoo and Amazon. Burberry rose to the pandemic challenge and made PPE, demonstrating agility and emotional connection to their audience.
But the pandemic has accelerated the demise of the high street. Intu collapsed last month, leaving 17 shopping centres such as the Trafford Centre in Manchester seeking new owners. The high street discount chain Primark always avoided selling online, believing that basket sizes were not viable, but the pandemic showed up the fragility of its single channel model. And this week saw Arcadia Group, owner of Top Shop, Burton and Wallis, fall into administration, a victim of its analogue approach in a digital world, and also the collapse of Debenhams, ‘caught in a straight-jacket’ with too many high street stores and long leases to be agile and adapt towards online retail. As the pandemic and economic uncertainty continues, other businesses will follow.   
What do these winners have in common? Agility. What do the losers have in common? Inability to adapt to a rapidly changing world. As Anita Roddick said, “Speed, agility and responsiveness are the keys to future success.” How right she was.
There are two types of agility at play; emotional agility and business agility. And the best leaders I’ve worked with balance emotional agility and consistency to drive business agility. But leaders need to balance these seemingly conflicting traits; too much consistency results in rigidity, too much agility results in lack of focus. It’s by balancing the combination of consistency and agility that leaders can become strategic, delivering on an organisation’s purpose and goals but changing course when the situation demands.
Traditional change versus agile change
There’s a stark contrast between the pace of typical change management projects and the rapid change and innovation that is stimulated by a crisis. 
Typically in a major transformation programme, leaders build a business case, share the bright shiny vision as a universal panacea, mobilise teams of people, influence the supporters and stakeholders, create potential metrics for success, and start user testing, stress testing, inspiring communications and detailed line by line project plans for chronological roll out at a pre-determined time.
The fundamental difference between transformation pre coronavirus and transformation in the weeks and months that followed, was the sense of urgency precipitated by the crisis. The future of the organisation was hanging in the balance. Leaders in major corporations that I work with had never experienced this emotional or indeed existential pressure for change. Critically, this time the business case and ‘desire for change’ was so much more necessary than any diehard desire to cling on to what was.
This was a crisis, no one was focusing energy on fighting to keep the old. This change was critical, urgent, immediate. And it was all about building the new with agility and pace. The pandemic has put leaders centre-stage and great leaders will be remembered for their human leadership; for inspiring their people and igniting a sense of common purpose, for reimagining and reigniting the business and ultimately reaching a different pace and place. 
Agility and pace come hand in hand
In my article, “Six years, six leadership trends: Connection, disruption and accelerated change,”  I talk about leadership pace and agility being the key to navigating the current climate. More than ever, leadership is about being agile in the now while being strategic for the future. It’s about understanding where you are going and what you need to do right now to get there and stay on track – or change track, if that’s a better way to get there. It’s about people; building new relationships with ‘unlike-minded’ people with different expertise and thinking to bring agility, balance, new ideas and energy.
As an Executive Coach I’m often a change agent for my clients, introducing them to other leaders who have similar issues or could offer greater insight into a situation quickly. The power of connection has become increasingly important for agility when navigating new situations and uncertainty. It’s now about the absolute pace of continual change – a trend that won’t change anytime soon. 

Agility with stability
Conventional leadership teams exist to create profitable, innovative solutions to problems. The job of an agile leadership team is different; its purpose is to build and operate an agile system and enterprise, where innovation, experimentation and learning run in parallel to existing business operations.
Building an agile business means finding the right balance between standardising operations and pursuing innovations to achieve business goals. Agile leadership requires leaders to create a carefully balanced eco-system that delivers both stability and agility - running the business efficiently and changing the business effectively. This dual approach incorporates continuous improvement and will improve business results, unleash the potential of employees, enhance job satisfaction and ensure that the business survives and finds a ‘new and different normal'.
Volatility requires agility
Some leaders have seen the pandemic as a catalyst for change and have seized opportunities to grow the business and themselves. Others have become stuck, the requirement for rapid change is overwhelming and they clutch on to the ways things were always done.
Ensuring the business survives, or even thrives, requires strong and agile leaders who demonstrate quick thinking, collaboration and agility when riding the storm. Agile leaders adapt, predict and respond to situations quickly - but they must ensure they stay focused on their vision and strategic goals, regardless of the disruption around them.
Agility can create fragility
Agile leaders must also ensure they consider the psychological impact of change on those around them who are less agile – as the research from Google showed so emphatically people need psychological safety at work to perform at their best and leaders need to counter the stress and anxiety that the nature and pace of change can cause.
We are born with a basic need and desire for psychological safety and it never lessens or goes away. For many workers, these psychological fears have increased as a result of the pandemic, the threat of infection or even death has increased our fears for physical safety. Healthy thinking can become distorted as a result. Compliance or fear of breaking the rules can dominate normally healthy thinking around people, values and good outcomes.
Agile leaders driving the change agenda at pace should be aware of those employees who don't cope well with change; those tired and stressed employees who fear not being able to keep up, deliver or even lose their job.
It’s a leader’s role to guide us through change and uncertainty, to help make sure that we stay safe, we don't crash, and that as individuals and organisations we can succeed however difficult it may seem.
Reimagination and transformation
Bill Gates said, “Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react and reinvent.” Successful organisations are leveraging these challenging and uncertain times to reinvent, reshape, and reimagine how they operate.
Leadership for me is all about relationships and thinking things through. I am well aware of the irony of reflecting at pace right now. Most leaders are required to be resilient, agile, think fast and make quick decisions to navigate uncertainty and complexity yet they suffer from limited time to think. But it’s the thinking and collaboration with others that will enable us to do the right things to resolve issues now and have the most impact on the next normal, however long that paradigm lasts.
There are huge learnings that are still emerging from the pandemic. The leaders I work with are realising that their organisation has been able to operate at an unimaginable pace and with resilience, agility and innovation. The companies that are doing it right - those that will thrive have agile operating models underpinned by an unshakeable sense of purpose. To maintain agility and pace and continue to innovate as we come out of the crisis and as uncertainty continues, agile leaders will be expected to adapt, predict, respond to situations more quickly than ever. Agility needs to be hard-wired into the fabric of the organisation’s leadership and culture. 
For leaders, 2020 has been the greatest test of leadership ever imagined. Taking time to think and reflect on the emerging crisis, the immediacy and focusing on survival, whilst at the same time, imagining what the future might look like, requires clarity of thought, clarity of decisions and clarity of communication. Going forward, what do we need to remobilise? Where? When? And who do we need to be as a business as we emerge from the ongoing uncertainty? Clarity of vision, reimagining and reforming the business requires agility to make it happen.

So how can leaders ensure change continues to be delivered with pace and agility?

1.     Be clear, be transparent
During the pandemic, we have felt like strangers in a very strange world. Clarity of the goals and the business reasons for change has been essential. And for me, it’s all about clarity of output, not input. The University of Oxford and AstraZeneca team were really clear on what they needed to achieve – the output – and why. They were absolutely clear on their shared purposed to collaborate and develop a user-friendly vaccine at no profit. They are also the first to publish their full data and such transparency instils trust.

Transparency about the why is essential. Transparency around decisions and giving everyone access to the data builds trust, understanding and a sense of being in it together.  Such radical transparency shifts the focus to the output and end game.

Einstein said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning”. Critical information seeking, and acting on information with agility and pace, will prevent leaders from leaping before they look. Less about blind faith and more about making informed decisions.

2.     Connect with purpose
If everyone understands the why, it’s then about connection; people connecting together and connecting to the cause. Leaders need to demonstrate the courage to connect and be human, to do the right thing and lead with honesty and compassion. Connection builds trust and engagement in responding and adapting to the situation with pace and agility.

3.     Experiment and adapt
Some of the organisations I work with have achieved amazing things in response to the pandemic. But this urgency and pressure is often much weaker or missing in traditional organisational change efforts. How can leaders instil a greater sense of urgency in change and innovation?
The solution is to experiment and use the learnings to adapt. Corporate Rebels have identified a trend for successful organisations to move from planning and predicting, to experimenting, adapting and embracing change every day. Better to experiment and take a series of small yet calculated risks rather than risk not moving forward.

Think about change not as a big project but as a series of small experiments to quickly learn what works, what doesn’t, and what it takes to get the desired output. Small experiments create a greater sense of immediacy and urgency than a long, drawn-out change process.

4.     Embrace difference, eliminate group think
Idea-resistant cultures and leadership group think can paralyse agility. Group think is the nemesis of ideation. Lack of adaptability stems from the culture set by leaders. Enabling leaders to focus on their best independent thinking and to share their thinking, their ideas and experiences with others, can enhance agility and eliminate the dangers of group think.
5.     Set juicy, ambitious goals
Set ‘juicy’ goals with an emotional connection from the head, heart and hands - not just about data, but real connection to ensure people understand the why and to give people a reason to connect and commit. In a crisis, goals are short term, high priority, and challenging; there is a sense of urgency and that they must be achieved. Build juicy goals into all change efforts to position the change project as something exciting and critical for the organisation.

Stop talking about SMART goals, they undervalue ambition, narrowly focus on individual performance and exclude the importance of reviewing and refining goals throughout the year. In a world where agility and pace is key, FAST beats SMART. Set FAST goals; goals that are frequently discussed, ambitious, specific and transparent.
6.     Be there, be present
Whether in crisis or transformation, leaders need to be there for the journey. This requires leaders to stay involved; be in the process, be with their teams, stay close to their people, engage them, inspire them, help them to solve problems, join them in celebrating successes and dealing with disappointments and work together to stay on track.

The continuing personal involvement of agile leaders sends a critical signal to people that the change effort is critical to the organisation’s survival or success. It also increases the pressure to succeed by knowing that leaders are paying attention and counting on people to personally deliver.

I asked one of my most valued associates, an expert in leadership assessment, about the importance of agility in leaders.

Helen Sweeney, Helen Sweeney HR Consultancy
Human Resources Consultant, professional in assessing and developing Senior Leaders, Executives and Boards and driving Culture and Climate Initiatives in organisations:

“Throughout my career in industry and consultancy, I’ve been recruiting and developing executives using behaviour frameworks that include agility as a key competency for leaders. Change and agility have always been key requirements for organisations implementing change and transformation in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, but the need for agility has certainly accelerated in response to the unparalleled events of 2020.

What do we mean by agility? For me, agility is the ability to adopt thinking and behaviour to suit the requirements of different situations, see the value of an alternative view and be receptive to changing circumstances. 

I measure agility using competency based interviews and psychometric assessment. Indeed Saville Assessment has created a new tool in Wave to specifically measure agility in the workplace during times of change; Resilient Agility. Agility can help you survive, resilient agility can help you thrive.

KPMG reported in their Global CEO Outlook 2018 that 59 percent of CEOs believe acting with agility is the new currency in business. What followed this year with the global pandemic has made the requirement to be agile even more paramount. The winners in the pandemic are those organisations that have adapted quickly and the best leaders demonstrate agility. Agility is therefore a critical leadership competency, one that will help to differentiate leaders now and in the future. 

Organisations are going through transformational change. Agility has always been one of the 18 key competencies I look for in leaders, but it’s now essential for all CEO and leadership roles. The most effective leaders will have a natural predisposition and preference for change, but agility can also be developed through targeted leadership development interventions.”
In summary
As we are fast approaching the end of the year, it’s been useful to reflect on 2020. We have seen examples of unimaginable success but also some huge losses and more often than not agility has been at the heart of leadership and business success. Survival and sustainability has become dependent on responding to the pandemic with agility and pace.

So is agility the only sustainable advantage you can have over others? At a defining time in leadership, agility has enabled us to keep moving and to achieve beyond our imagination.

2020 has proved that agility is arguably the only sustainable advantage. Agility and change at pace are here to stay.