The agile leader makes great gains

According to research commissioned by BCL, 81 percent of senior managers are finding the current environment more difficult to negotiate than the recession

Feature image

Four fifths of the leaders questioned by BCL admit they are struggling to form clear business plans and prepare budgets. BCL commissioned the Agile Leader survey amongst 200 senior managers selected at random from the UK’s top 500 companies by turnover. The results are worthy of any CEO’s attention.

So why are leaders so perplexed? Many managers cited the conflicting strategic demands imposed by an unpredictable market and the pressures of cutting costs and achieving growth, describing this as ‘uncharted waters’ and causing them ‘significant’ pressure. Only 46 percent of senior managers expected to achieve their targets this year whilst 65 percent of senior managers complained that it is almost impossible to make accurate performance predictions.

The inability to accurately predict performance and thus develop strategic business models and clear direction will significantly impact the country’s ability to bounce back from recession. BCL believe that leaders today need to adopt an agile and authentic approach if they are to help their business grow, improve and evolve. This may mean they have to challenge the way things are done.

Manage and motivate
An unpredictable economy requires a flexible and evolving strategy. Planning for the long-term needs to be backed up with continuous review and swift re-forecasting. This rolling planning and review then becomes an accurate and agile method of planning for continuous change.

Yet, there is a danger inherent in this. Staff look to leaders to provide direction but the need to respond to the tough economic climate with ever-changing strategies results in a perceived lack of clarity from the top. Leaders need the courage to be honest about the challenges facing their organisation and be transparent about how they will be planning and operating.

If senior managers are going to motivate their staff it is down to them to personally deliver the difficult messages and listen and respond to the feedback they receive. Nearly two thirds of managers interviewed said the requirement to be a tough decision maker and a motivator at the same time was a stretch on their management capabilities.

Uncertainty requires leaders to think differently and creatively and the easiest way to see things differently is to involve others. Good leaders do not need all the answers nor to pretend they have them. Involving others builds trust, strengthens morale and creates a shared ownership of the plans to improve the business. It is also often the staff who are closer to the customers, not just in terms of understanding what customers want and need, but also in representing their diversity and interests.

Increasing numbers of businesses we work with are successfully developing working groups which provide creative and commercial input into the senior team and the Board. There are a number of advantages to this approach as it provides champions at all levels of the business who feel consulted and trusted, champions who will defend and explain tough decisions and support senior managers with both ideas and practical input. It also enables staff to have a wider and richer understanding of the business and is an opportunity to nurture and develop talent.

Creating agile leaders
Our research showed that leaders themselves are feeling dissatisfied with their current working conditions with 62 percent being unhappy in their current role. Almost a third (29 percent) plan to leave their jobs within the next year, rising to 54 percent within two years – which is a worrying risk to recovery. How can UK PLC prevent this drain of talent?
We believe it is time for firms to equip both their managers and their teams with the skills needed to plan and lead companies through ongoing change and uncertainty. Now is the time to really stretch the possibilities of what can be done.

What has worked in the past may not be the thing that works now. Those managers good at dealing with people need to learn the skills of forecasting, planning and objective decision making, whilst those more analytical and task-focused skills need to make themselves available, make time to listen to others and manage their concerns and emotions. Organisations need to focus on identifying and developing the agile leaders who will be tomorrow’s managers.

We have found the workplace to be the most cost-effective and productive learning environment. What better place to develop and hone these skills? Developing the skills and behaviours of a coaching culture provides organisations with key skills for managing continuous change. Relatively minimal training is required to help managers actively and systematically observe, debrief, coach and develop individuals. “When your oven is jammed and your bread is burning – that is when you will learn to use an oven. People can’t learn in a classroom. True learning occurs ‘just in time.’” (Tom McMakin, COO, Great Harvest Bread Co.)

The current climate offers a real opportunity for organisations to look at the way that leadership and management works. Agility of leadership is critical if organisations are going to develop flexible and practical strategies that drive people-led performance and improvement (be that more effective and efficient ways of working or delivering challenging growth targets). Working in ways that are authentic, democratic and creative requires a healthy attitude to risk and a genuine belief in the untapped power of your people.