In The Turn

How to Be a More Agile Leader and Have Greater Success in Uncertain Times

We live in an increasingly disrupted world. Thanks to powerful forces such as technology, analytics, globalization and social media, nothing stays the same for very long.

Business leaders must constantly evolve their thinking to stay relevant and competitive, and we must become more comfortable leading through constant change. That’s why agile leadership is not only a valuable skill, but also a critical one. Leading with agility will allow your organization to not only survive during uncertainty, but also to thrive.

Learning leaders Agility requires a willingness to learn on the fly. And with the speed of change accelerating, the lessons you learned in business school may no longer apply. You must be a lifelong learner if you’re going to figure out what works now.

What’s expected of you will change dramatically during your career, too, especially as you take on new responsibilities. When I founded my company, we were a small, scrappy startup. Now we’re part of a global enterprise, and my job description has changed pretty significantly.

Deciding to join the bigger firm and taking on a broader role forced me to develop an entirely new skill set. I had to work across cultural and language barriers, build relationships throughout a much larger organization, and reconfigure the way I viewed the big picture. I wasn’t dealing with one small company or region anymore — I had to think across international markets.

That experience taught me the power of agile leadership. Executives who can adapt to new situations will have greater success driving change in real time, diagnosing problems as they emerge, and mobilizing their teams to design effective solutions.

The operative concept here is “in real time.” In the past, we followed a linear path to organizational change. Leaders would identify opportunities, conduct research, build consensus, and then devise plans to implement change. That methodical, time-consuming approach is virtually nonexistent today.

You need an agile mindset supported by a strong working knowledge across the enterprise to stay relevant in a rapidly changing environment, which means cultivating expertise in finance, strategic planning, people development and systems. You also have to balance smart risk-taking with a demand for quick results. Perhaps most important, you must act as a visionary, building and leading a team that can fulfill your company’s long-term goals.

Agility in action Being a strong, responsive leader is always important, but periods of upheaval or uncertainty really require you to step up. I’ve learned the most about agility when I’ve had to lead through difficult times. Here are five tactics I recommend to improve your agile leadership capabilities.

1. Fix what’s not working.

Take an honest look at your organization to identify what needs to change. Keep an open mind, and be willing to switch up inefficient processes or outdated systems that aren’t working anymore. Tweak your new business efforts, or revise your marketing plan. Once you know what needs to be fixed, be decisive and act swiftly.

2. Recognize your triggers.

Executive coach Nikki Nemerouf cautions leaders against letting their personal triggers derail their decision-making abilities. This is especially important in agile leadership as uncertainty often diminishes our ability to think clearly.

Take time now to reflect on your hot-button issues and the types of situations that typically rattle you, and then determine a smarter way to respond. The next time something upsetting happens, you’ll handle it better.

Apply the same mentality to your company as well. Evaluate problematic patterns and potential threats that could impact your business, and work out a plan for addressing them before they become serious concerns.

3. Bring in a fresh perspective.

Revisit problems you have been stuck on or have dismissed. Consult colleagues or mentors who can offer fresh takes on the roadblock, and brainstorm creative solutions to recurring issues. And don’t be afraid to challenge convention — that’s how the most innovative ideas are born.

4. Enable collaboration.

Workplaces are becoming less hierarchical, and an agile leader knows how to get the best from her people by enabling greater collaboration. Encourage team members to bring forward new ways of working together. Create different teams to find new solutions, or put more powerful networking tools such as Slack, Trello or Yammer in their hands that create organizations with no boundaries.

Invite people with different perspectives and backgrounds to the conversation. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Agile leaders seek out diverse opinions and are willing to live in the tension between them while they find the best way forward.

5. Embrace uncertainty.

Your team will follow your lead, so you can’t melt down when times get tough. Approach chaotic situations with confidence and determination, and know you can adapt as you learn more about the problem.

Lead your people through complexity by being forthright, decisive and focused, even when that means making the hard calls. Agility is critical as your team looks to you for vision and guidance, especially while changes unfold.

Many of the challenges leaders face today are those for which no clear answers exist. Agile executives are willing to lead through uncertainty, learning as they go and mobilizing their teams to find new solutions that propel the organization toward success.

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