Euvin Naidoo

It is hard to grow fast if you manage slow. This is a lesson many leaders learned the hard way through the COVID-19 pandemic, when companies were forced to make drastic changes overnight to better respond to customers, outpace competitors, and deliver value, outcomes, and impact. Throughout my research, I found that leaders and organizations with agile practices as part of their culture and mindset were better able to navigate the pandemic than many of their counterparts. Often, they responded more rapidly and appropriately and developed new processes, systems, and offerings, better enabling them to meet their employees and customers where they were. 

Many other organizations – particularly ones with a command-control or top-down approach – froze. Teams on the ground, trying to make real-time decisions, did not feel empowered to respond. They waited for instructions from the top that didn’t come in time or at all. Many of these organizations struggled, some simply survived with many still recovering. 

Why agile leadership is important 

Agility and adaptability are key to success in business today. Decisions need to be made both smartly and with a focus not just on velocity but on “value velocity” – increased response times that focus not just on speed but on impact. Many organizations are finding that the management tools and techniques that have been successful in the past, even those that helped drive wins, are not as effective in today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. The good news, however, is that organizations, decision structures, and even mindsets are not set in stone – agile practices can be learned, and many teams that feel stuck in past ossified practices can start on the road to developing an agile culture. 

Many leaders hear agility and either think it’s about being the next Amazon or Google or it’s an “anything goes” model. It’s not. Agile management practices are grounded in empiricism and are relevant for companies in any industry and geography regardless of size or legacy, not just those from Silicon Valley. Any company or team can develop the muscle memory to develop a winning agile mindset and work to transform its culture to be more responsive and focused on outcomes, not just output. A common misconception is that agility is an event, when it is a process. It’s not a “crash diet” but a mindset and culture change. It requires commitment, trust, tenacity, and determination from leaders and teams to make core changes happen in an iterative manner where a daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly organizational operating rhythm gets aligned horizontally and vertically across an organization, with a common heartbeat working towards clear outcomes

How do leaders adopt agility and foster it within the enterprise?  

Leaders have the power to elicit and enable these changes within the organization. Regardless of where a company is on its road to agility, it takes determination and hard work to change engrained processes and mindsets. Throughout my experience as a global executive and educator, I have learned that there are several core principles and practices leaders must champion and embrace to enable a successful agile transformation. Here are a few: 

  • Change your mindset – Science has shown that our brains can continue to change and grow with new habits being formed out of iteration, practice, and focus. The first step in becoming an agile leader starts with changing your own mindset. Many leaders still follow a top-down, as well as “waterfall” approacand see themselves as commanders planning for a series of steps that will always occur as planned – they’re driving the ship, and everyone else is supporting in a linear manner. In an agile environment, it is the opposite. The belief is that change is not linear and that having a set of focused goals is key and how one gets there is often the ability to respond in real-time to the many changes and data inputs that are coming in. Agile leaders start by asking how they can support their teams and the people closest to the customers, giving their teammates the confidence to make decisions to remove bottlenecks and increase flow. 
  •  Activate your talent – According to a Gallup report on global talent, 51% of employees worldwide are disengaged in the workplace. Why is that? Many feel they don’t have purpose with little to no understanding of how their actions move the ball forward in terms of the organizational strategy. Others feel their opinions and actions don’t matter. Many leaders believe that they must hire new talent in order to become a more agile organization. Instead, what is also needed is a focus on activating existing talent, who are hungry for a clear purpose. Agile leaders empower others and know that when people have purpose in an organization and are self-directed, impact happens. Agile leaders have a people-first mindset starting with providing an inspirational vision, grounded in clear purpose, supported by an enabling environment. When employees are empowered and valued and believe in the organization’s mission, the results are telling.
  • Create alignment throughout the organization – Agility requires alignment from strategy to execution. Companies need alignment top-down, bottom-up, and laterally. Often when engaging C-Suite leaders, boards, and teams across organizations, I ask what the mission and vision of the organization is – the answers are often so varied it’s as if they come from multiple organizations. Cultural and value alignment across the organization is critical. People at all levels and in all sectors of the organization must understand the core values, mission, and processes and weave them into their work to foster agility. It is in times of stress and extreme change that this alignment is an enabler of smart responses that keep all grounded in what true north is in terms of impact. 
  • Systematize agility – Like anything in an organization, if you don’t have systems and processes in place, it is much harder to deliver impact. Each organization and team will be at a different place on the journey, and this needs to be valued and supported. It is key to get alignment on the operational rhythm of the organization and what success means. Once they have these answers, teams can begin to develop and formalize processes and systems so that everyone within the organization knows how to interface and understand the rhythm of connecting with an aligned “definition of done.”
  •  Constant re-evaluation – Agility is based on empiricism. Agile organizations are always measuring progress and looking for ways to improve and be more efficient. Set aside time at the end of each meeting and milestone to quickly elicit what could have been done to improve. This builds the DNA to see each interaction as a way to improve and learn in a culture of trust and psychological safety. Especially with how quickly the world is changing, it is more important than ever to stay ahead of change and continue to workshop areas of strength and areas that need improvement at key moments. Again, agility is a process, not an event. It requires continuous vigilance to stay agile. 

Agile Leadership: From Strategy to Execution

As a business executive and Thunderbird’s Distinguished Professor of Global Accounting, Risk and Agility, I have been fortunate to engage some of the leading practitioners, C-Suite executives, thinkers and doers across sectors and enterprises focused on driving a deeper understanding of agility and its strategic delivery. In January 2020, I was honored to have created and co-hosted Harvard Business School’s first short intensive program (SIP) on agility to engage leaders on how to thrive in a fast-paced and ever-changing world. After successfully hosting the program at Harvard for two years, I was humbled to have been asked to join Thunderbird to grow and lead a series of programs rooted in best practices in agile management. 

We are pleased to have recently launched Thunderbird Executive Education’s Agile Leadership: From Strategy to Execution Executive Certificate taking place across three continents, including at our Global Headquarters in downtown Phoenix. It is an exciting opportunity for us to educate global, regional, and local leaders from across sectors and industry on agile leadership and prepare more organizations to be at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – where things are changing at a faster pace than ever before. 

Some people believe that agility is a skill you’re either born with or you’re not, but agility can be learned and adopted by any team and organization, at any stage. In this era where it is no longer big conquering small but fast outpacing slow, we look forward to continuing to drive world-class programs and immersions that aim to deliver impact to leaders, teams and organizations from day one. 

Take the next step and register today for the certificate program in Dubai, UAE from November 7-9; Nairobi, Kenya from Nov 14-16; and Phoenix, AZ, USA from December 5-7.

Euvin Naidoo

Euvin Naidoo

Distinguished Professor of Practice in Global Accounting, Risk and Agility

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