Like landscape from a train window, change just keeps coming. Kirsty Tagg, Business Coach and Trainer for Dale Carnegie Training, a global leader in culture, performance, and blended learning, argues that agility is the most important element for successful leadership in a rapidly changing business environment.

Long before COVID-19, businesses were contending with unprecedented change driven by technology, AI, politics, the economy, and the environment. Then, along came the pandemic.

As we migrated back to the workplace after the third national lockdown in March, leaders were tasked with reengineering the latest iteration of a blended work environment where colleagues had a new set of expectations. Managing these intricacies was yet another tricky pandemic-related leadership challenge.

Are your business and people agile?

As the pandemic raged, some businesses thrived, others survived, and tragically others closed their doors. There are no judgements. For some organisations, the heavy toll extracted by COVID-19 was too much to bear, despite prudent and resilient leadership. The need for organisational flexibility lingers as a constant. As goes the axiom, it is better to bend than break. When managing change effectively, I would argue that agility is the key component for success. A Forbes Magazine study revealed 81% of executives consider agility the most important characteristic of a successful organisation due to the demands of continuous innovation.

Defining agility          

Simply, you can think of agility as the capacity to be flexible to change. Along with systems and processes, business agility comprises of resilience, social intellect, capacity to act, and a clear business mission. Dale Carnegie defines agility as ‘the ability to act on information, make decisions quickly and implement them to meet the rapidly-evolving requirements of customers and the business environment.’ Our Thought Leadership Team researched agility across some 3500 people from major organisations in 11 countries. They concluded there are five foundations for organisational agility.

Clear purpose, centred on creating value for customers

The research showed that managers in high-performing businesses place strong emphasis on the customer and demonstrated that these businesses understand that ‘new information may prompt a course adjustment at any time’. This client focus supports agility by providing a consistent reason for change, in turn empowering employees to be innovative, driving engagement, and deepening connection with customers.

So for your managers, the take home is to ensure their teams receive regular, clear communications and updates on the organisation’s purpose, and involve colleagues in the change process so they can feel part of the world that they are helping to create.

Foster resilience

The survey suggests that leaders need to promote a culture of positivity and confidence to underpin structural agility. This helps people to think more flexibly, innovatively, and creatively, in turn enabling greater bouncebackability from high pressure situations, diminishing fear of failure, inertia, and blame culture.

To achieve this cadence, leaders must provide specific positive feedback to increase team confidence. They concluded, ‘In organisations aspiring to agility, modelling genuine positivity, and building self-confidence – that is, fostering resilience – should be priorities.’

Improving social intelligence

Social intelligence (SI) creates an environment of trust and psychological safety – fertile ground for agility. SI is just a fancy way of describing our ability to get on with others. For businesses, this will underpin effective collaboration, creative intelligence, and the ability to lead change effectively. Managers with strong SI are better connectors and much more likely to build trust, influence, and foster cooperation.

Where there is a dearth of SI, you should look at soft skill development around areas like communication, critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and teamwork. This will be a driving force to develop business-critical people skills that drive agile thinking and behaviours. The research suggests ‘that people with strong social intelligence contribute more to creative performance.’

Develop effective listening tools to learn and engage

Agile organisations are good at developing mechanisms that drive innovation. Depending on business size, this could mean anything from 1-2-1s and workshops through to companywide surveys. So, whether through facilitated interactions or structured evaluations, asking the right questions, and listening to customer and colleagues, enables quality data and increased understanding and efficiency in responsiveness to change. This type of two-way dialogue keeps people engaged and an active part of transformation. Just like resilience, engagement is a key component in developing agile mindsets.

Enhancing capacity for action

Here is the caveat. All the insight data in the world can be meaningless without the ability and willingness to act. Agile businesses are characterised by an ability to quickly pivot in response to the evolving requirements of people, clients, and external conditions. So, your business needs to enhance capacity of people to transform insights into innovation. This might mean developing key people in the skills that have a transformational impact on performance and the ability to engage and inspire teams.

In summary

Foundational and sustained agility is built on a shared customer-centred purpose, communicated clearly and regularly, the ability of managers to scan the horizon, act on new information and lead change, clear feedback processes, and a powerful learning culture built on confidence, positivity, collaboration, and high levels of creative and social intelligence.