Seven Traits of Agile and Innovative Leaders

Dominance used to be the main criteria CEOs and Chief Human Resources Officers used to determine who would make a great leader. Dominance and achievement were the most reliable characteristics CEOs looked for to determine who would be their successors. Dominant leaders are the ones who speak first in meetings, most frequently interrupt others, and most often impose their will to get the outcome they want.

Dominance worked well in top-down, autocratic business structures. Managers who were viewed as up-and comers were privately coached,  “If you want to stand out and be promoted, speak up more, drive your point, and achieve your goals!”

But the world has changed. Digital technology, a global workforce, and new business models drive relentless innovation and change. Autocratic structures which were excellent for compliance and consistency can’t keep up with innovation and change.  Businesses are now more global. What works to market a product in Germany or the United States, won’t necessarily work in Malaysia and India. You need local expertise who understands the culture, laws and business practices.

The workforce has also changed. With global product development, supply chain, and research and development also comes a global workforce. Also, more women are now in the workforce.  I have it on good authority that individual women can also have a dominant leadership style and be narcissistic, but women, in general, expect more egalitarianism in team discussions.

In walks agility. Agile teams began in the software industry. Agile software teams emphasized close collaboration between self-organizing development teams, customers, and business stakeholders to smartly craft, confirm and deliver code. The term “agile” was first connected with teams and development when 17 software development practitioners gathered in Utah in 2001 and expressed their values and principles in the Manifesto of Agile Software Development.

In agile organizations, top management sets the strategic direction, but instead of handing down detailed plans and enforcing compliance, they share more competitive information about technology, customer feedback, the competition, and new social and economic trends. The leaders are in effect saying, “Here is the end goal, here is what we know, now you figure out how to build it.” They also delegate decision making and allocation of resources. While these organizations have traditional functions, they particularly value their agile teams, which have a cross-functional membership.

These organizations also invest heavily in individual and organizational learning and diligently encourage the creation of innovative projects and the experimentation and prototyping necessary for understanding what fails and what works. They understand that about 100 failures are required for a successful and profitable product or service.

While agile teams work in the software industry where there are few government regulations and short product development life cycles, can agile teams work in industries known for burdensome government regulations to assure quality and reliability? In some of these industries, such as aerospace, biotech and pharmaceuticals, product development can take 10 years. In these industries you often cannot change a manufacturing process without first getting the approval of several regulatory agencies in numerous countries.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX business has challenged the traditional design methodologies for building and testing rockets using agile software development principles.[i]  SpaceX is now ferrying supplies to the International Space Station and has successfully launched the second most powerful rocket, the Heavy Falcon. SpaceX wants to use the Heavy Falcon for a mission to Mars. Along the way, they have innovated reusable rocket designs and saved millions of dollars on innovation and rocket operation costs.

Today, some of the biggest and most autocratic companies of the 1990s such as IBM and GE are establishing agile team processes and leaders. They aren’t doing it to be trendy. It is a matter of their survival.

What are the characteristics of agile leaders?

  1. They align their teams to the strategic direction of the company, the significant good for humanity, and a world of constant change. These leaders understand that change can occur quickly, and they work to keep their teams up with the latest trends and information. They are not afraid to change objectives and milestones based on new information. They continuously share new information, provide clarity, and encourage questioning.
  2. They realize that the power of the team comes from trust and equal participation. While intelligence, technical competence, and passion are important criteria for team members, the strongest characteristic for team members is empathy: to be able to relate to the expressions and emotions of others and to understand the impact of their words and behaviors on others. While vigorous debate is encouraged, there is no room for dominance. Teams with trust, where members can share their fears and failures, are the most successful and innovative.
  3. They make decisions quickly based on the most recent data and the recommendations of team members. Based on new information, these leaders quickly allocate resources for the next experiment or prototype. Innovation is about failing, learning, developing new prototypes and running simulations, often daily.
  4. They frequently reward questioning, ideation and results. They are not concerned about compliance. They reward team performance and collaboration as well as the outstanding performance of individuals. They know that recognition builds confidence and reinforces more outstanding performance.
  5. They understand the importance of speed. These leaders know that speed is dependent on the latest information, and clear communications, not bullying.
  6. They understand that they will not exceed without top talent. Agile leaders learn to spot the exceptional talent. While this often includes employees with a track record of successes, it also includes those who display curiosity, empathy, self-awareness, drive, and humility. That is, successful people understand that they do not have all the answers, no matter how smart, clever or hardworking they are. They need the support and cooperation of others to succeed.
  7. They create operating norms for the team. These leaders understand that norms about policies, procedures, meetings, information flows, and decision rights enable speed and innovation —especially for teams that are global and have diverse members.

Are you an agile leader? Or do you rely on the old standby, dominance? Learn more about being an agile leader.

 

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults and provides “hands-on” support for innovation, global talent strategies, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Visit https://victorhrconsultant.com/ to learn more.

 

[i] Timothy Brandt, (March 20, 2015), “Space X” Bringing Agile and BDD to the Final Frontier.” Found at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/spacex-bringing-agile-bdd-final-frontier-timothy-brandt/.

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