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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 7 years ago

The challenge of agility

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Among all the obstacles business leaders face, agility can be the toughest. But for the long-term health of a company, it might also be most important.
by: Denise Federer Bottom-line Behavior

How often do you schedule time on your calendar to think about your company? Do you regularly consider if your current personnel are the right fit for their roles, contemplate future trends in your industry and evaluate how your business measures up to competitors?

Research suggests that to excel as a leader you need to spend minimally 30% of your time on your business and 70% in your business. However, according to the most successful leaders I have coached, you might want to reverse those numbers. In fact, thinking is the single most important activity you can engage in as a leader.

Asking the right questions is only the first step in this essential process. Being open to disruptive thinking and potentially unsettling conclusions are critical aspects of great leadership. Stellar leaders must be agile in their thinking to face difficult challenges and successfully lead organizations in a new direction — even if that new vision makes them uncomfortable.

Agile leaders need both vision and courage. The former is reflected by seeing what's coming down the pike to make decisions about the future, while the latter manifests itself in being brave enough to disturb the status quo to implement what's been decided.

Some leaders are strong visionaries who lack the intestinal fortitude required to affect real change. Others are full of bravado, but have no strong vision for the future. The star performers, as you might surmise, are those with both qualities, so they're agile and resilient.

Think about the leaders of Kodak, once a photographic superpower, now resigned to being little more than a footnote. Its business model relied on customers buying cameras and film. Even as the company saw digital technology encroaching on its territory (and it couldn't have missed it), it steadfastly stuck to its core products, refusing to change with the times.

The Kodak team lacked agility. Perhaps it allowed its own fears and anxieties to keep it on a course that was headed into an abyss. Or maybe its lack of action suggests it was unwilling to live with unknown consequences — something every agile leader must do — and unable to acknowledge that nothing lasts forever.

Contrast that with a president and owner of a company whom I recently coached. He led his business through some difficult economic times five years ago, having the foresight to reduce debt, cut back on staff and close less profitable divisions. Currently his company is exceeding its financial goals and is expanding. He has spent the past year evaluating his strategic plan and identifying key drivers for future growth. As part of that process he has also evaluated his own strengths, skill sets, passion and energy for leading his organization to the next level of success. He allowed himself to “think” about several scenarios and possibilities for the future of his company. After careful consideration, this leader decided to remove himself from his role as president. He will remain as an active part of the organization, but no longer be responsible for the day-to-day operations.

This individual is the very definition of an agile leader; looking toward the future, he didn't see himself as the right person to move the company forward — and he had the courage to walk away. I was frankly awestruck by him. How many times have we seen people hang on to roles when it's clear his or her time is done?

No one can become an agile leader overnight, but the process begins when you challenge your current thinking and assess your readiness for change. I ask clients to answer these seven questions:

  • What factors affect my industry?
  • How do these factors influence my current performance and behavior?
  • What behaviors/thoughts have made me successful so far?
  • How is my behavior affected by my motivations, values and goals?
  • What lessons can I learn from the experiences of other successful people in similar situations?
  • What new behaviors or proficiencies might I consider as keys to my future success?
  • What specific shifts in thinking and behavioral changes am I willing to make to achieve my future goals?

    So often we resist agile thinking because of our fear that we will be unable to successfully navigate the unknown. Once you're honest with yourself and see what might be holding you back from being an agile leader, you can begin to be open to new possibilities for both yourself and your company.

    Denise P. Federer, Ph.D. is founder and principal of Federer Performance Management Group. She has 27 years of experience working with key executives, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies as a behavioral psychologist, consultant, coach and trainer. Contact her at: [email protected]

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