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How to Build Agile Leaders

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Posted by Rick Lepsinger May 1, 2019

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The demands of the global economy have placed incredible pressure on organizations across a variety of industries. To meet the challenges of the 21st century effectively, companies need to invest in talent development strategies to build agile leaders who have the flexibility and adaptability to manage diverse teams and balance a growing number of organizational demands.

Agile leaders set themselves apart with their ability to connect, adapt, and deliver:

  • Connect: Inspire, influence, foster a collaborative environment, and exhibit behavior that sets the tone for organizational alignment and employee/stakeholder buy-in.
  • Adapt: Recognize changing dynamics and adjust rapidly to overcome challenges, reimagine strategic direction, and propel transformation and innovation.
  • Deliver: Drive performance and generate consistent and reliable results by investing in the right accelerators and cultivating high-performing teams committed to customer and shareholder value creation.

Building successful agile leaders is an important investment to ensure a clear path to sustainable success. Organizations should leverage a robust assessment process to identify high-potential leadership candidates who can demonstrate agility, and development programs need to focus on helping them build the skills to succeed.

How to Build Agile Leaders

Promote Transformational (and Transactional) Leadership

Agile leaders need to be able to take a macro-level view of an organization in order to provide the transformational insights that enable future success and deliver consistent, reliable results. With this view in mind, they are able to define both the values and goals of a company, setting a tone and agenda that can serve as a basis for unity and commitment while leaving enough flexibility to adapt to shifting circumstances. As organizations become larger and more diverse, agile leaders need to find new ways to inspire and motivate people as a group. Building a shared vision of what the company stands for is one of the most effective means of forging a shared community.

But agile leaders can’t make the mistake of focusing only on the transformational aspects of leadership. They also need to be able to deliver on the transactional aspects of leadership that day-to-day operations demand. Having a big-picture idea of where the company is going won’t do anyone much good if short-term operational goals can’t be met. Agile leaders, then, must learn to provide inspirational leadership and operational efficiency, which helps them to deliver on a consistent basis.

From a development standpoint, this means that high-potential leaders need to build the skills for creating a long-term strategy as well as the competencies of day-to-day management. Leadership candidates drawn from previously siloed departments, for example, will need to have exposure to other areas of the company to better understand the big picture.

Encourage Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the process of evaluating the truthfulness and value of information and opinions in a systematic, purposeful, and efficient manner. Leaders with good critical thinking skills tend to make better decisions for their organizations, allowing them to anticipate the consequences of choices, handle crises effectively, and make more successful hires and promotions. These qualities help agile leaders to adapt to changing circumstances and deliver results far more effectively.

Agile leaders typically possess the characteristics necessary to become better critical thinkers. They are inquisitive, analytical, and reflective, which makes them open to evaluating new ideas objectively and using reason to reach their decisions. Organizations seeking to develop agile leaders need to emphasize critical thinking skills to leverage these tendencies. Development programs that teach high-potential leaders how to identify and minimize bias, distinguish fact from opinion, and understand how systems within organizations function is incredibly valuable to building agility and learning how to adapt in ways that propel transformation and innovation.

Give Plenty of Feedback

High-quality feedback is an essential part of the development process for aspiring leaders. Without ongoing assessment, it can be difficult for them to know what they’re doing well and where they still need to improve. Agile leaders, in particular, thrive on quality information, so feedback is especially important for them. They also benefit from engaging in two-way dialogue that allows them to ask questions and share their thoughts about their own development. The feedback process is a good opportunity for them to refine their active listening skills, which are incredibly important for agile leaders who need to connect with others in order to inspire, influence, and collaborate.

To maximize its effectiveness, feedback should be specific, timely, and balanced. It should focus in on key points that are fresh in the employee’s mind and offer clear recommendations for improvement. While not all feedback needs to be positive, it’s important that criticisms are framed as opportunities to solve problems. This helps avoid a negativity bias that can sometimes cause people to become defensive. Feedback should also be balanced and include some positive reinforcement as well, highlighting successes that let candidates know they’re on the right path.

Support (Some) Risk Taking

Agile leaders need to be comfortable taking chances. The challenge for organizations is to create a leadership culture that encourages risk-taking while also promoting accountability. It’s easy to promote the cliched maxim of “fail early” until the consequences of those failures impact the bottom line. Organizations that have systems in place to account for risk and manage failure are better equipped to develop successful agile leaders. For instance, Google’s famous “postmortem” process and Honda’s view of failure as a path to future success create environments that allow agile leaders to learn from pursuing innovative new ideas without completely disrupting the status quo.

Learning how to adapt to changing circumstances and deliver positive results will often require some measure of risk-taking. Agile leaders use their ability to connect with others to gain a sense of how their teams will handle being pushed outside their comfort zone during change initiatives or other unusual situations. In order to get that experience, however, organizations need to allow these aspiring leaders to take a few chances and grow accustomed to delivering under pressure.

Exposing aspiring leaders to both risk and failure is tremendously valuable for building personal resilience. In today’s volatile economy, organizations need employees who aren’t afraid to suffer setbacks and have the ability to bounce back quickly from disappointments. By encouraging agile leaders to continuously push the boundaries of what’s possible, development programs can help them to build the confidence they need to manage difficult situations that might otherwise seem too overwhelming to manage. Agile leaders need to be able to build this sense of resilience into their own teams, so it’s vital that they learn to bounce back from their defeats quickly and fight through frustrating circumstances.

Turning high-potential employees into agile leaders should be a point of emphasis for every leadership development program. Having flexible, adaptable leaders in place is becoming necessary for organizational success as companies struggle to adapt to technological and social change in markets around the world. With their ability to connect, adapt, and deliver, agile leaders have the tools necessary to navigate those challenges. Failing to invest in developing those leaders today could put an organization at a competitive disadvantage tomorrow.

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Topics: agile teams, Developing Agile Leaders

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