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Your Organization's Future Demands Agility

Agile Employees Help You Manage Market Needs

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Brian McGowan

Is the world of your competitors and customers changing faster every day? If so, you’re not alone. Organizations that are committed to ongoing success recognize the critical need for agility in your organization’s workplace culture and environment. You recognize the need to employ people who display agile traits and characteristics. You need facilities that encourage agility and connectedness.

Agility is your willingness to change, your ability to change, and the nimbleness you exhibit as you adapt to change - quickly; it is key to your future. I’ve written earlier about three important factors in creating an agile workplace.

Today’s interview about agility features Brian McGowan, Managing Partner, of Aquinas Search Partners, (now merged with AI Partners Executive Search), where he has completed over 250 successful employee searches. Brian believes that the professional characteristic of agility - a continuous learner, decisive leader and strategic thinker - will define next generation leadership in today’s organizations. In our interview, he explores finding agile employees, developing agility in people, and how organizations can become more agile.

Interview with Brian McGowan

Susan Heathfield: Why will the professional characteristics of agility — a continuous learner, decisive leader and strategic thinker — define next generation leadership?

Brian McGowan Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the greatest staffing needs across all industries are evolving around innovations in products, go-to-market systems and supply chain management. With Boomers aging out and increased technology and globalization making its way in, a new kind of executive is required.

This kind of executive will have the agility to learn, intellectual horsepower and immense curiosity. He or she will be an everyday learner, described as an individual who not only seeks out opportunities to learn, but also proactively seeks a better way to conduct business for the sake of his company and employees.

Heathfield: What aspects of business today have led to agility becoming a necessary and defining trait for executives/leaders/managers?

McGowan: Moore’s Law—from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore on the pace in which technological advances and energy efficiency grows—extends way beyond technology and chip capacity. In today’s globally competitive environment, it is nearly impossible to sustain competitive advantage through product or service alone.

The way to win is through people and innovation. In order to innovate, organizations require agile thinkers, decision-makers and problem solvers. Speed to market and continuous improvement is no longer aspirational, but a critical strategy towards achieving desired outcomes.

Technology and mass media platforms allow for information to flow freely and those who can quickly and effectively ingest information and data as it becomes available and are thoughtful and decisive enough to act are leaders for today and the future.

Heathfield: What are the characteristics of an organization that has agile leadership? Conversely, what are the implications for an organization led by a team that lacks agility?

McGowan: Companies that are agile demonstrate characteristics of trust, empowerment, ambiguity tolerance, persistence, decisiveness, and an overall appreciation for mistakes and improvement. They also support an environment that cross-pollinates people and thinking among different business disciplines and industries.

Conversely, organizations that are defined by hierarchy and process alone cannot act quickly enough to take advantage of the emerging and evolving market opportunities and needs, and as a result are losing their grasp on the markets they serve. One only has to look at branded companies such as Polaroid and Kodak for examples of a lack of agility that prevented their moves into digital soon enough to preserve market leadership.

What Characterizes an Individual with Agility?

Heathfield: What are the characteristics of an individual who possesses agility?

McGowan: Individuals who possess, and more importantly, demonstrate agility are those who:

  • leverage an insatiable appetite to learn,
  • take on mission-critical problems,
  • encourage risk, and
  • want to be part of the solution through decision making and execution.

Agile leaders are those who are willing to expose and explore as well as adapt to evolving situations. Learning cannot be the end point but rather the spring board. Application is the key to agility and, as a result of application, additional learning becomes an outcome.

Heathfield: Why is the characteristic of agility in a leader difficult to find?

McGowan: Historically, the most successful leaders were those who were able to take attribution for success by playing it safe in corporate America. Demonstrating an appropriate set of soft skills and political acumen more often weighed in on promotion versus the ability to actually make things happen. Individual rewards were—and still are—linked to achieving linear objectives versus breakthrough thinking and opportunities.

This is the environment in which the leaders of today grew up, professionally speaking. Therefore finding those who possess the characteristics of agility often requires going outside the norm where there are fewer choices. Perhaps they have been mentored by another agile leader, perhaps they figured it out themselves, but generally there aren’t many of them.

Also, because of the recent hardships and the political uncertainty this year, executives right now are working out of a defensive place; too scared to make any innovative decisions or moves for fear of the consequences. There just isn’t enough clarity to make calculated, business savvy moves. With agility comes the confidence to make hard decisions, but again, that type of executive is difficult to find.

Heathfield: How do you identify agile characteristics when reviewing application materials?

McGowan: Resumes/CVs are the best brand positioning vehicles for an individual in that ultimately an executive will communicate what they believe is important and how they view themselves. Just like a business strategy, an agile leader will position him or herself with the bigger picture in mind, tailoring their resume to the job at hand.

A thoughtful recruiter or interviewer can develop great insight into how this individual has been influenced, what career path they have chosen, how they have made an impact, and what they have accomplished. Executives who highlight problems and solutions linking back to some of the previously mentioned characteristics provide an attractive discussion document to begin an interview. Executives who share specific examples of behavior and experience in both propensity and variety offer the best chance to identify agility. Look at the holistic view of the resume, not just their specific positions, and you can learn a great deal.

How an Organization Continues to Develop Agility

Heathfield: How can managers and leaders promote and recognize agile performance from employees?

McGowan: Create a culture of exploration, adaptation, execution, risk taking and creativity, and see who steps up to the task. Empower employees to take on risk, challenge them to move beyond their personal comfort zones, create projects to enable cross-functional expertise and exchange. Raise your level of expectation, and those with an inclination for next-level leadership will present themselves.

Heathfield: How can an organization foster professional development processes that build agility?

McGowan: Managers need to lead by example. Many employees aren’t going to understand the depth and breadth of skills required to be an agile leader. It will take training and mentoring, perception and intellect. Agility is a frame of mind as much as it is a competence.

Identify leaders, both within and outside of your organization, whom you want your teams to emulate. Then, articulate, very specifically, why that is. Outline the characteristics that matter, and implement weekly, if not daily, exercises and applications for those traits to play out.

Heathfield: How can an agile professional leverage this trait to advance in an organization?

McGowan: At the end of the day, it is all about creating value, sustainable competitive advantage, and winning in the marketplace. An agile leader does not work behind the scenes. If you want to lead the charge — whether from the front, middle or back of the pack — be bold in your expression of innovative thinking, a better understanding of the business, and willingness to try new things.

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