7 Ways to Be an Agile Leader.

At a recent conference on coaching led by the insightful, Cindy Lamir, she introduced a new concept for me which is VUCA and it’s affect on leadership. VUCA, which is a military term from the 1990’s that stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous is the new normal. Everything since September 11th and then, the subsequent meltdown of the economy in 2008, has pointed to one thing; we all need to be flexible. The new normal in the workplace is a barrage of information which may (or more likely) may not be useful. We now have a workforce which spans 60 years in generation, is constantly bringing in new technology and is connected globally. There is no more status quo.

Focusing just on competencies is dead. It’s not that competencies aren’t important, it’s that in a VUCA environment, knowing say the latest version of Excel will only get you so far. Focusing on building skills is not going to help you scan the environment for the latest threat from a competitor or look for patterns in customer demand. The secret is flexibility or more poignantly – agility. agile

So before we get into what an agile leader is, let’s look at what an agile leader is not. It’s not the top down style of; “don’t do anything until I tell you to”, micro managing, control freakish, old school, cigar smoking, feet crossed on the desk, pin-stripped wearing manager. It is not holding on tight to every detail, making sure everyone has their butts in their seats, folks raising their hands to go to the bathroom and most certainly the leader where not one single decision gets made without their almighty stamp of approval. It will not work in this environment.

So unless you want to be leading a bunch of no talent zombies, try some of these tactics to become an agile leader:

1. Delegate. Challenge those that work for you by delegating. I know it’s easier not to delegate and that you are the best at preparing the budget, interviewing forklift drivers and deciding what we should have at the Christmas party. It’s going to take time and mistakes will be made. It’s inevitable. Get over it. How do you expect folks to grow unless you give them a challenge, something new? How are you going to be able to conquer new territory if you are still deciding on the canapés for the Christmas party? Let go and let them grow. Delegate.

2. Teach your thought process. I have been naturally curious my whole life. Some folks aren’t. Some folks are afraid to ask why we do inventory at month end. They feel like they are intruding on the Great Oz. Show them behind the curtain. I can remember having my assistant sit in on a harassment investigation. Investigations are an unusual occurrence for most organizations but I knew she needed to be exposed to the process and learn why I did what I did.  There are things you’ve been doing for years that only you understand why you do it. If you want to develop the folks around you, share your thought process.

3. “You decide”. Once you’ve delegated and given your thought process, let your assistant or people decide. Set up the parameters, how you will measure success and let go. For example, if I ask my daughter to make dinner on Friday evening. I can say I’d like a meat, vegetable and a starch as parameters. I can say that it will be successful if the meal is hot, served by 7 PM and costs less than $25 to prepare. Then let go. Any questions? OK. You decide.

4. Transfer development ownership. In a recent article by Nick Petrie called Future Trends in Leadership Development the addresses that once folks have learned the skills like how to create a budget, lead others or finish out year end, they need to be responsible for their own development. That 45 year old executive you hired last month, needs to take ownership of what they want to learn and how they are going to do. The environment is changing too fast and they know what’s in their own tool box better than you do. You cannot be responsible for their development. Leaders need to take it upon themselves to figure out what they need to grow and be a better contributor. Transfer ownership to them.

5. Transparent. This is not the time for closed door meetings. I just saw a presentation by the Human Resource Director of Insomniac Games. The company made a huge mistake a few years ago that was almost the death knell for the company. They didn’t listen to their gut and, perhaps more importantly, didn’t seek the advice or input from their employees. When they abandoned the losing project, they made a pledge that all new projects and pitches for new games would be a conference call with senior staff that EVERYONE could call in and listen to. So if you are a young game designer, not only do you get to pitch an idea, you get to hear feedback from the founders as to why it was or wasn’t a feasible idea. How transparent is that? So from the mail room to the founders, everyone is in on the process. Assume people want a voice and they will use it. Be transparent.

6. Collaboration. Cross functional teams are the new normal. If you are implementing a new purchasing system make sure there is someone from every department on the team and from every level especially if the forklift driver, the receptionist and the accounts receivable clerk all will touch the system in some way.. Put them on the team. In fact, put the receptionist in charge as project lead. It might be a stretch but that’s the new normal. Forget about titles and where all the lines are drawn between departments, truly embrace collaboration with the belief that everyone has a voice and the ability to lead. Your organization will be more nimble than any other. Embrace collaboration.

7. Boundary spanning. Be on the forefront of scanning for internal and external knowledge. Everything is interconnected. Everyone I know who is over 14 years old and under 70 has a smart phone. This is incredibly dynamic. I have a couple of Information Technology friends who went to a Meet Up (an impromptu group that gathers on a particular topic or cause or event) on Information Technology. They were blown away by how much information was out there and areas that weren’t even on their radar. Everyone in your company needs to have their finger on the pulse. Whether it’s Information Systems, Accounting, Purchasing or Widget Optimization everyone needs to take the lead on scanning the environment or you will be left behind in the dust on your typewriter, dial phone and listening to the “Eagles” on 8 track (ask your parents). Be spanning the boundaries.

You may be overwhelmed by all these items. That’s OK. Take one step at a time. You don’t need to do all 7 in the next month. Take it one bite at a time. Maybe October will be “Collaboration” Month. Great. One step, any step is going to help you keep in step with VUCA. The more you learn, the more you adapt, the more you succeed, the faster the cycle goes. If you read this whole post, you are already on your way to being more agile.

Setting Expectations

Last week’s post was looking back over the past year to craft an annual performance review; perhaps even more critical than that is setting expectations for the coming year.  This may be for yourself (I’m finally going to pay off that credit card), for your assistant (he’s going to be an Excel ninja by May) or for your family (Disney in 2013 or bust!).  These can be called development plans, business plans, goals, intentions, metrics, departmental vision statements…it’s all pretty much the same thing.  We all need a plan. images 6

Your family isn’t going to get to Disney unless you’ve outlined a few things.  When can you go?  How are we going to get there?  How much do we want to spend?  How much can we afford to spend? What do we want to see when we get there?  All of this requires research, discussion, cooperation and planning.  Your family can’t decide today to go to Disney tomorrow.  It’s going to take a plan.  The same is true in getting your assistant to be an Excel ninja by May.

So how do we go about planning and setting expectations? Here are a few ideas:

1. Reflection.  Take some time to reflect.  This might sound crazy when you have technology and commitments fire hosing you all day.  It’s hard to make a plan if you don’t close the door, turn off your notifications, take a deep breath and reflect. The stage of your prefrontal cortex is so full of actors, it’s important to sweep the stage, send the actors to lunch and let your grey matter get some breathing room.

2. Storm.  Brainstorm some ideas.  Dump it all on paper. Disney. Sea World. Busch Gardens. Grand Canyon.  Las Vegas. The Moon.  There are no bad ideas.  You can eliminate ideas after the fact.  Afraid of heights? Grand Canyon. Allergic to fish? Sea World. You get the idea.  Dump first and then eliminate.  What about your direct report? Excel training, Powerpoint class, karate retreat, Outlook seminar.  Get a manageable list of options and then move on to the next step.

3. Collaborate.  Sit down with the family, the direct report or your partner.  Go over your list of ideas.  Get some feedback.  Ask for help.  Get on the same page.  If your spouse hates gambling, nix Vegas.  Your kids have been to Disney twice and want to try out their Spanish, add Cozumel to the list.  If your assistant really wants to try their hand at Access instead of Excel; on the list it goes.

4. Align.  Now we have to figure out what aligns with the family budget, the corporate mission or your long term plan.  If the corporate plan is to move to a different platform from Access, we may need to investigate other platforms.  If we really want to be able to purchase a new home this year and need to keep costs to a minimum, we may just want to drive to Miami, stay at a friends place and test our Spanish out on South Beach.  Make sure the expectations align with the long term goals.

5. Resources.  What’s available to make this happen?  Do you have an internal expert on Access?  Did your colleague just send their assistant to Access training last year?  Do some research on best practices.  If you want to increase customer satisfaction by year end, what do you measure now that you can use for a baseline for next year.  Or what can you create.  Is your car going to make it Miami?  Does your swimsuit still fit?  Sometimes the investment into a different, seemingly less expensive goal can out weigh the original goal.  Make sure you know the resources available.

6. Memorialize.  Put pen to paper.  Write down what you have agreed to and how you are going to measure success.  Need to have $2,000 saved by June for the trip in August.  Your assistant needs to select an Access class to take by March 15th and to complete it by June 15th.  Spell out what the plan is.  Make sure we all have a copy.  Writing it down creates a greater commitment.

7. Check points.  I frequently drive to Charlotte, NC.  I know that there is a rest area right outside of Greensboro which is about half way.  It’s my checkpoint.  My feedback.  Even if I don’t need the facilities, it’s a mental checkpoint of my progress.  When working on performance goals or planning the family trip, make sure you check in with each other to see how progress is.  Hotel reservations? Budget on track?  Class signed up for? Customer service scores going up?  Project started?  Don’t set up a plan and leave everyone in the dark.  Set up some check points.

Arriving at your final destination is what it’s all about.  If you want to get from Point A to Point B, you’re going to need a plan.  If you don’t have a business plan, or don’t have buy in from your assistant, or haven’t collaborated with your family, it’s likely to fall flat.  Don’t head out aimlessly, make sure you have planned your goal and communicated your expectations.