Agile leadership and why it matters

Agile organisations which can adjust to changing headwinds require agile leaders. A leading advocate outlined the skills they might need.

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What kind of leadership do we need for today’s challenging, fast-changing times? For HR consultancy 10Eighty which did extensive research on this the answer is an ambient leader who can adapt to changing circumstances. One of the central pillars of such leadership is agility.

In a 10Eighty Q & A session yesterday with Alexander Filshie, Chief Financial Officer of Kensington Mortgages, they explored what makes an agile leader.

For Filshie, an agile mindset means you are open and can be both flexible and able to adjust your trajectory and priorities in real time as circumstances change. You can assimilate updates and turn them into steps for action that move the organisation forward.

Why is that important? Filshie said that, even before the pandemic, it was clear that businesses needed to adapt constantly to strong headwinds. Now everyone is living that reality and businesses are having to adapt to everything from changing types and levels of risk to regulations and priorities. That context makes agility really important, he said.

He spoke of a fintech company he had worked with which had  made big promises and outlined huge ambitions only to fall short. He had helped them to look at their capabilities, risks and opportunities and try to turn those into a set of plans that allowed them to recover and rebuild the business’ momentum. That involved lots of different actions happening simultaneously and a great deal of collaboration between different parts of the business. Those microsteps made the difference, said Filshie, and added up to a larger wave of activity, showing the value of a different way of managing.

Dealing with resistance

Filshie also spoke about how to bring people on board who have different attitudes to risk. He said it was about changing people’s risk perspective at an individual level with a view to improving the organisation as a whole. That means building engagement so people are prepared to take risks and move away from how they have done things in the past. Filshie added that not everyone would want to change or would change at the same pace and some might choose to leave.

Agility is often linked to creating a trust culture and empowering people to work in the ways that work best for them. Filshie said this could go too far and could, instead of solving a puzzle, end up with people creating different puzzles in a way that would divert the business from its overall goal. To avoid this requires good communication, collaboration and regular updates on the different streams of activity.

That comes down to leaders spending time on sharing ideas, challenges and updates. “The leader’s role is a lot less about content and more about joining the dots and facilitating collaboration so that there is more risk-taking at the ground level,” said Filshie.  Agility, he added, is not about behaving randomly or in an unprincipled way with no supporting evidence. Progress comes from making decisions made on evidence and from being flexible.

Diversity and inclusion

Filshie stated that diversity and inclusion is fundamental to an agile workforce and is ‘the gift that keeps on giving’ as different perspectives spur ideas, innovation and progress.

So what skills do leaders need in this agile culture? Filshie spoke of the need for an agile mindset and to develop the skills to get people to broaden their perspectives and to believe there are always alternative choices.

He said curiosity is important as is listening to others. Leaders should spend more time listening to people than speaking, he stated.

He advised leaders to be open, read a wide variety of books and talk to a wide variety of people. And he said practising these skills is vital as is a willingness to keep learning as part of your everyday way of doing things. “To improve you need to stay humble, take feedback and reflect on it,” he said, adding that part of this is about the ability to recognise both successes and failures as learning points “of equal merit”. Learning from mistakes and understanding them so as not to repeat them is hugely valuable, he said.

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