From heroes to agile leaders: how to ease the transition

While agile thinking is starting to grow into executive mindsets as a solution to increase the ability of the companies to achieve customer satisfaction, leaders are dealing with keeping employees engaged and getting things done.

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You probably have been in a leadership position. You know you are expected to make quick decisions, guide teams, give the right answers to every problem, be emotionally connected to employees, be humble, be direct, know every process, train new employees, fight against other teams to get the best resources for your own team and micro-manage every employee movement to avoid mistakes. Essentially, leaders should be like superheroes.

Well throughout the years no program has come out with an ideal leadership style that everyone could implement. Actually many employees that are doing great in operations are promoted to leadership roles where both they and their followers get frustrated. Despite efforts from the executives and business owners to make middle managers excel in their new position, they never get to actually learn the right skills. Leadership is a skill that can be learned it is not only a gene that allows you to be a good leader. But then why is it that new leaders cannot get better through time?

The problem is that this type of leader is simply non-realistic. Generations change, products change, groups change, making the leadership role even more challenging.

So the same way that companies are looking forward to becoming more “agile” to adapt more quickly to changes in the customer needs, the leadership style also needs to change to adapt to the needs of the executives, followers and everybody else in their network.

The first step to define a model that is more real and achievable is to move some of the power and decision-making to the people actually doing the work, the team members and to the customer. Once that decision is made, there is no need to change the whole structure at once, but new behaviors and routines need to be taught to leaders and employees so that this empowerment is turned on and enabled.

What are the behaviors expected of agile leaders?

Leaders set a long-term vision, promote interaction across the organization, define priorities and unleash the team’s potential to change:

Companies need alignment to a clear purpose.

So do teams. Leaders are the ones to set the vision for the team. The leader should have less operational tasks if none so that they are able to analyze the big picture, defining objectives focusing on customer needs not mere intuition and removing any obstacles that the team may encounter outside to meet a clear objective.

Companies are moving the pyramid to a sort of diamond of interactions.

Anyone can contact anyone, no matter the position. Positions are not changing that much, is not that executives are no longer in charge, but communications are different. The pyramid is turning upside down and moving towards a third dimension due to the network of interactions. Leader’s first task is to promote interactions at work to enable collaboration across different sectors, and across different generations. Ideas will come from the bottom-up while guidance will come top-down. Sharing is caring.

Companies need to focus on the customer experience first.

In the Fordism era, companies would decide the type of car you were going to get. In the 60’s when the lean era started, cars were made more efficiently. In the agile era, cars are not only made more efficiently, but customers are also involved in the designing process. Leaders should get involved with the teams to solve issues in the “gemba” (the operations or the front line desk, where the actions take place) to better under the customer and define the best problem-solving approach. Leaders need to provide the tools help teams to analyze situations, define the type of interactions they need to solve the problem, read and gather information to understand the root cause and be able to make decisions together.

Companies need to work in multidisciplinary teams.

Some standardized tasks will continue to be done individually, maybe sales, invoicing or reconciling, but eventually may get confusing or complex needing different types of expertise, that’s when individuals should get to together to work as a team. Other tasks should be done consistently working in teams. At the end of the day, there will be different tasks that will be “in progress”, some standardized and some complex ones. Leaders should prioritize and follow-up tasks in short daily meetings or in shared Scoreboards. Everyone should be able to access the scoreboards to promote accountability and interaction. The objective is to make sure no task is left unfinished or pushed back the full process. There are many rituals and visual management techniques that can be applied company-wide to guide leaders.

Essentially, a lot was expected from leaders, the same way as a lot is expected from kings in monarchies. In an agile environment instead, leaders are expected to provide help as well as ask for help. Whatever it takes to move work forward to become faster the customer favorite. Leaders are not expected to be heroes anymore, but facilitators of successful interactions. Leadership is now more about working smarter rather than harder, generating more value from less work. Leaders and executives should basically help to remove obstacles and promote interactions.

As General McChrystal would put it in his book Team of Teams, leadership is like gardening.

“The gardener cannot actually “grow” tomatoes, squash, or beans—she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.” General McChrystal

Leaders as well as team members need training to help ease the transition towards a smarter work environment. Are you ready?

Lu Paulise

[email protected]


Originally published at

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