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How to Build Agile Leaders

Posted by Rick Lepsinger April 24, 2018


Leadership agility, or how well a leader can balance all of the challenges they face to achieve their objectives, has consistently remained one of the key leadership differentiators among the companies OnPoint has worked with.

Agile leadership helps companies navigate the challenges of creating effective processes, helping people achieve peak performance, and encouraging innovation and change. The biggest challenge is that focusing too much on any one area (processes, people, or innovation) can cause a lapse in the others.

For example, too much emphasis on innovation may cause a business to reduce its focus on efficiency. This, in turn, results in increased costs, poorer performance, and reduced growth.

Meanwhile, although dealing with talent issues may increase employee satisfaction—helping with engagement and retention—it  may also compromise the organization’s ability to maintain low costs and efficiency.

By balancing the conflicting needs of people, processes, and innovation, agile leaders can help their organizations respond to change, maintain efficiency, and develop people in a way that contributes to long-term success.

The question is: How can your organization create agile leaders to help it achieve long-term success?

The Skills of Agile Leadership

A while ago, we discussed the five core competencies of truly agile leaders. Those competencies were:

  1. Situational Awareness. The ability to understand how external and internal events can impact the company’s effectiveness. Crucial for adapting to changing circumstances and helping employees do the same.
  2. Systems Thinking. Knowledge of how different systems can interact and the ability to anticipate how changes to one system may impact others. Useful for structuring changes in ways that minimize negative consequences.
  3. Prioritization Skills. A combination of planning, time management, and the objective assessment of organizational goals to help balance long-term objectives with short-term needs. Necessary for keeping the organization on track in the face of constant emergencies.
  4. Self-Awareness. The ability to objectively assess one’s own skills, motivations, and emotional state. Self-awareness helps leaders understand how others perceive them, which is useful for interacting with and influencing people.
  5. Personal Integrity. The ability of a leader to project an image of being honest, ethical, and/or trustworthy. Personal integrity has an enormous impact on a leader’s ability to acquire and maintain the trust, loyalty, and support of those around them.

These five competencies have consistently proven to be correlated with agile leadership. However, developing these skills takes time and attention.

With this in mind, here are a few tips for developing each of the five skills.

Develop Situational Awareness

Understanding the significance and impact of a particular event or trend, and identifying an appropriate response, requires a solid understanding of both the internal and the external environment.

Part of developing situational awareness is consistently using critical thinking to probe beneath the “surface” of events and ask: “Why did this happen?” “What were all of the contributing factors that led to this outcome?” and, “How will this affect my organization’s people and processes?”

Another part of developing situational awareness is creating an extensive network of contacts through which leaders can remain apprised of major events and collect a variety of perspectives. These networks can be developed in a number of ways, including:

  • Talking with people after meetings or other events in the organization;
  • Serving on cross-functional teams, special projects and using the opportunity to build relationships;
  • Joining industry groups, civic groups, advisory boards, and social clubs; and
  • Attending trade shows, workshops, and other major events catering to professional organizations.

Internal and external networking builds an invaluable source of information to boost situational awareness.

Embrace Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is developing the ability to see and understand  how different systems and processes in the company interact and anticipate the effects of these interactions.

Systems thinking can place a burden on leaders—demanding that they balance maintaining a “big picture” overview with having a detailed understanding of how things in the organization connect and interrelate. If a leader is caught up in the minutiae of one process or system, then they might ignore how changes to that system can adversely affect others. On the other hand, without detailed knowledge of individual systems, predicting the effects of a change to a system becomes nearly impossible.

One strategy for developing systems thinking is to acquire a broad knowledge of the organization by gaining experience in a variety of functions, departments, and geographical regions. Exposing oneself to different roles helps boost understanding of an area’s work processes, its interdependencies, the impact it has on other parts of the organization, and what’s important to the people who operate in those roles.

However, as leaders move around the organization, it’s important for them to stay in place long enough to see the impact of the decisions that are made. Some leaders move to another position in the name of gaining more experience too quickly—and before they can experience the impact of their actions—which negates the learning and the benefit of the time spent in a specific area.

Develop Prioritization Skills

Leaders are charged with helping organizations meet their long-term objectives to drive future success. However, leaders are also under constant pressure to meet short-term goals and react to sudden issues, which can reduce the focus on long-term objectives.

Prioritization of issues is generally based on three major considerations:

  1. Clarity. How well is the issue understood?
  2. Urgency. How much pressure is there to act?
  3. Resources. What resources are available to deal with the issue?

An issue is also more likely to get attention when there is clarity about its type and nature. People tend to be hesitant to take on Issues that are vague, ambiguous or broadly stated because it’s hard to determine how to start or what commitment will be required. In general, we are more likely to focus on issues that are well-defined — do we need to find cause of the problem, is the cause known and do we need to develop solutions, do we know the best solution and do we need to develop an implementation plan?

Short-term task/goals are the ones that generally have the greatest sense of urgency to them—often because they have a more immediate deadline or may have been created in the face of an current crisis. Another element that contributes to an issue’s urgency is whether or not it is aligned with the overall goals of the organization. Issues that are aligned with the organization’s goals/mission statement will generally have a higher level of urgency than ones that aren’t so aligned.

However, prioritizing requires more than considering how clear the issue is and the urgency to act. The resources available for a task must also be considered. So, a general rule of thumb is that issues  that are well defined, have a high level of urgency and sufficient resources to address the issue would get a higher priority for action.

In addition, learning to delegate can be crucial for a leader to effectively balance the many initiatives they need to work on. By delegating tasks, leaders can free up their time to focus on the most important tasks to meeting long-term goals—as well as helping prepare others for increased responsibility at the same time.

Develop and Maintain Self Awareness

One of the most effective tools to develop self-awareness is to get feedback from trusted advisors or from a more formal 360-degree feedback assessment to create a comprehensive “picture” of that person’s abilities and behaviors. These assessments allow leaders to compare their self-image to the way that others perceive them—which can be invaluable for building self-awareness.

To maintain and further enhance self-awareness, leaders need to undergo a continuous loop of 360 feedback, self-assessments, coaching, and practice. This helps to enhance the leader’s self-awareness over time.

The key to leveraging self-awareness is whether the leader makes an effort to change their behaviors when necessary. If someone is aware of the negative impact their behavior has on others, but does not make the changes necessary to improve, then they won’t be as well-equipped to lead others.

Building Personal Integrity

Building personal integrity is not a skill per se, but rather the ability to consistently demonstrate a set of attitudes and behaviors that enable others to trust a leader.

To build a reputation for personal integrity, leaders need to:

  • Keep promises and honor commitments;
  • Share credit with others;
  • Demonstrate behaviors that align with their stated values; and
  • Assume responsibility for their actions and decisions.

It takes time for a leader to build their credibility and personal integrity with employees—and mere seconds to lose it. Once lost, the perception of a leader’s integrity is very difficult  to rebuild with employees.

The tips and guidelines listed above can prove invaluable for creating agile leaders within your organization. Each one has proven, time and again, to be a deciding factor that separates great leadership from mediocrity.

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