When I returned back to work after having my second child, new jargon had appeared in the office vocabulary that wasn’t there before I went on maternity leave: agile leadership. I distinctly remember googling ‘agile’ and also wondering if it was my post-baby fog that meant I just wasn’t getting it. But then I realised, it was yet another corporate term that sounds powerful, but is over-used and under-represented in reality. If you do a quick google of the term, an inordinate amount of stuff comes up – a lot of it, nonsense. I believe it’s one of those terms that people use, but can rarely define. So let’s give it a go….
Literally (and of course, we all know this) being agile means an ability to move quickly and easily. Well, athletes can be agile, cats can be agile – but how exactly can leaders be agile? And more importantly, why does it make them good at their job? In my mind, we should take the emphasis away from being agile, and just focus on being brilliant again. Otherwise it’s a red herring.
McKinsey rightly points out that agile leaders are only ever effective in an agile organisation. In a nutshell, these days, businesses need to operate and thrive in an “unpredictable, rapidly changing environment” – which means being both stable and dynamic. Again, the language starts getting hard to decipher. In my mind, an agile business responds quickly to the marketplace, focuses on the customer, reacts to competition and embraces technological advances. In this respect, the Big Four tech companies (Google, Amazon, FaceBook and Apple), were, of course, the vanguard of agility.
Leaders need to be able to take this whirlwind in their stride. I find it clearer to concentrate on the 3Cs approach – and this is one I impart when I am coaching people at the top of their game. Communication, collaboration and commitment. Brilliant leaders are able to communicate really well. They keep everyone in the loop so all teams are involved and feel invested in. They also engage their staff and others around them. It’s not an ‘it’s lonely at the top’ attitude – quite the opposite. As Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”. Brilliant leaders, therefore, are respectful and empowering – they trust others around them to do a good (sometimes better) job. And finally, they are also mindful, purposeful and visionary. They’re in it for the long haul, come rain or shine.
It sounds ideal, doesn’t it? But how do you develop such utopian skills and become a brilliant leader? One that everyone both admires and wants to do their best for? I think adaptability is one of the most significant starting points. You need to be able to take risks, listen to – and learn from – others, be entirely open and self-aware and also entrust others to share in your vision. It’s the antithesis of leaders sitting in their ivory towers, dictating to their minions – totally unaware of the situation on the ground within their business. I have certainly been in situations where the boss is simply unapproachable.
But this is changing for the good. You just have to look at some current stand-out leaders of today that are emulating these very skills and are, in my mind, showcasing ‘agile’, or just brilliant leadership well. Take Trevor Mather, CEO of Autotrader, for example – in just a few years, he’s driven change, growth, consumer demand and profit. And I think this is down to his catalyst-style of leadership. Then there’s arguably the world’s best-known venture capitalist and early investor in Google and Amazon, John Doerr. He’s a fantastic role model because he leads his clients to clear and compelling objectives, and is constantly innovating and changing the goal posts to improve products and services. Like John Doerr, agile leaders are also agile learners.
In my opinion, there is no big mountain to climb to reach the heady heights of being a great boss. But there are small, important steps that can be taken to make sure the 3Cs (communication, collaboration, commitment) become your modus operandi – both professionally and personally. Agility? Maybe. Brilliance? Certainly.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this, do have a look at my blog on Flow and how we could all do with finding it a bit more often.