“Going agile” was the go-to phrase for business in 2017. While the agile way of working has been embedded in the tech world for some time, it’s now well and truly gone mainstream. You no longer have to be a developer or work at Spotify to be part of a tribe or launch your next sprint.

Just ask Shayne Elliot, CEO of Australia’s ANZ bank. Outside of the tech industry, he’s been one of the highest profile advocates of agile in the region, announcing the approach would be adopted first in ANZ’s Australian division, with New Zealand and its Institutional division to follow.

In setting this new direction, Elliot has certainly stepped into the role of visionary leader. But sustainable agile change requires leaders at every level to adapt to a new way of thinking. Recent Korn Ferry research has identified the qualities of great agile leaders: they deploy mental dexterity, adopt the role of humble champion and are more deeply and broadly connected than ever before.

This can seem like a tall order for one person, but leaders are grown, not born. By examining the things that great leaders do, and building self awareness, today’s leaders can become the great agile leaders of tomorrow.

The agile leadership challenge

Agile businesses are designed to move quickly through decision-making and execution, rapidly adapting to market and environmental changes. But this level of agility isn’t enough for long term success. Korn Ferry research identifies five organisational capabilities - Empowerment and Alignment, Connectivity, Openness and Transparency, Discipline and Focus and of course Agility - necessary for sustainable success in the digital age.

These five dimensions describe the essential organisational conditions, but leaders must operationalise them for success. For most businesses, this means unpicking the cultural legacy of hierarchical relationships, requiring a seismic shift in the way people work together. This is a people leadership challenge of a new order.

Portrait of a great agile leader

The strengths that have seen leaders excel in legacy structures can now actively derail agile initiatives. Leadership styles that emphasised precision and excellence of execution through hierarchical decision-making now pull against the flexibility and inclusiveness leaders need to empower new agile ways of working.

But what does this look like in practice? It comes back to the behaviours that leaders display as they constantly encounter and respond to new situations and challenges.

The way these styles are deployed directly affects the way a leader’s team members feel about work. Great leaders are themselves agile, in that they can flex their leadership style to achieve the best outcomes with different people in different situations. They do this by consistently drawing on styles that create an empowering environment. They are no longer heroes, but facilitators who:

  • Provide long term direction and vision. They help team members to understand what they need to do and how they need to do it at the macro, rather than micro, level. (Visionary style)
  • Generate commitment and consensus among employees and cultivate new ideas. They enable the team to build a shared vision, discuss ideas, make decisions and share responsibility – together. (Participative style)
  • Build long term capability. They understand team members’ strengths, weaknesses and aspirations. Through coaching, they help each team member to be the best they can be. (Coaching style)

Start with these two questions

As your company contemplates the agile journey, you need leaders who can guide the way. These leaders can seamlessly adapt their style to each new challenge that arises and this starts with self awareness. Help your leaders develop this awareness with these two questions:

  1. Why do I lead the way I do? Understanding our inner drivers allows us to predict, monitor and manage our behaviour. And developing our ability to manage our natural responses gives us time to choose the right leadership style, rather than simply react.
  2. How can I be a more effective leader? A bit of self-awareness goes a long way. When we know our strengths, we understand our choices.

Great agile leaders are grown, not born and these two questions will fuel that growth.

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About the contributor

Stephen Johnston is a Senior Client Partner for Korn Ferry Advisory, Australia. He possesses extensive experience in succession planning, leadership assessment and development, and executive coaching. He joined Korn Ferry in early 2006, after holding a number of senior management positions in the media/entertainment and FMCG sectors. His most recent position was CEO for Video Ezy Australasia, prior to which he spent seven years with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment initially as retail sales director, then managing director.

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