Companies adept at navigating the accelerating change and mounting complexity found in today’s business environment are called agile organizations. Organizational agility is essential for business success, and agile organizations often outperform their less agile counterparts. However, most executives acknowledge their organizations are not as agile as they need to be.
A 2010 survey conducted by consulting and training firm ChangeWise and research organization the Institute for Corporate Productivity found that the central factor for increasing an organization’s agility is the level of agility exhibited by a company’s leaders and leadership culture. The implication is that CLOs and other leadership development professionals have a crucial role to play in developing organizational agility.
Levels of Leadership Agility
To help leaders develop the capabilities needed to create agile organizations, CLOs first need to understand what leadership agility is and how managers develop this capacity. These questions were at the heart of a five-year research project conducted by ChangeWise, resulting in publication of Leadership Agility. The researchers used quantitative studies, on-site observations, documented business conversations, in-depth interviews and manager journals to examine the thought patterns, behavior and organizational outcomes of more than 600 managers across a range of industries, functions and organizational levels.
They found that leadership agility goes beyond learning agility, a more familiar term that refers to how well a leader adapts to new assignments. The study found that leadership agility includes how effectively leaders frame their initiatives, how well they work with stakeholders, how creative they are in solving complex problems, and how proactively they seek and learn from feedback on their own effectiveness.
To examine how leaders develop higher levels of agility, this study took an approach advocated in Nick Petrie’s 2011 white paper, “Future Trends in Leadership Development.” He wrote about the need to supplement competency-based models with more dynamic models that emphasize vertical adult development as the business environment becomes more challenging. Vertical development refers to a body of research that reveals how the “meaning making” capacity of adults broadens and deepens through distinct developmental stages.
The ChangeWise research on leadership agility asked: How do leaders at the most relevant adult stages act when leading change, leading teams and in pivotal conversations? The researchers identified qualitatively different leadership behaviors that correlate with each stage, and clarified the mental and emotional capacities that enable these behaviors. Together, the constellation of mental, emotional and behavioral skills rooted in each developmental stage is a level of leadership agility (Figure 1).
These leadership agility levels are not based on personality types like those assessed by the MBTI or the DISC. They are sequential stages in a leader’s development, and leaders retain the skill sets developed at previous agility levels. About 10 percent of managers are at the pre-Expert stage, 45 percent at Expert, and 35 percent at Achiever. Currently, only about 10 percent have developed the mental and emotional capacities needed to lead at the Catalyst level. This is significant because research shows that managers who can lead at the Catalyst level are much more effective in today’s business environment than Experts and Achievers. CLOs who help their leaders develop into their next level of agility can greatly increase their organizational agility.
How to Develop Agility
A good place to start is to examine the assessment instruments used in the organization’s current leadership development programs. Competency-based instruments tailored to a company’s unique requirements still may be essential. However, most of these assessments focus primarily on Achiever-level competencies. Leadership development professionals who understand the difference between Achiever and Catalyst leadership will supplement these assessments with 360-degree feedback to pinpoint a leader’s level of agility in three distinct action arenas: leading change, leading teams and pivotal conversations.
This new form of assessment is being used in leadership development programs, with senior teams and in organization development interventions. A key advantage of this type of assessment is that executives and high potentials who max out on traditional, implicitly Achiever-focused 360s often discover a new Catalyst zone of development into which they can grow.
The other important step is to examine the organization’s current leadership development programming. As with assessment processes, leadership development programs can be designed to increase agility levels and focus on company-specific competencies. For this purpose, the most effective approach is to use well-planned action learning programs that combine multiple learning modalities: workshops where participants apply new perspectives and skills to their real work, coaching based on 360-degree feedback, learning circles and individual or group projects.
Action learning alone is not sufficient for raising agility levels. Most learning and development programs focus on the Achiever level, sometimes with a sprinkling of Catalyst. Programs for executives and high potentials, in particular, need to actively assist participants in growing into Catalyst mindsets and skill sets, then guide them in applying them to challenging conversations, team leadership and organizational change projects. Further, the coaches chosen to support these multi-modal action learning programs should have solid training and experience in facilitating a leader’s development from one agility level to another.
How It Works
When engineering and construction company Balfour Beatty agreed to acquire RT Dooley, a smaller construction company based in Charlotte, N.C., in 2009, Bill Blank, the southeast division president of Balfour Beatty, wanted to develop a real partnership in the region that would result in one company with two distinct brands. To accomplish this, he used a facilitated process that included shared visioning, coordinated change management work and a learning effort that would increase senior leaders’ agility in both companies.
Eighteen senior leaders received 360-degree feedback on their agility levels. The collective results were discussed at a leadership summit where the leadership agility framework became the common language to build a shared leadership culture. The result, a highly successful integration that was more like a merger than a traditional acquisition, was attributed in part to senior leaders’ increased agility, an enhanced ability to navigate change and to manage the interdependencies needed for business success.
Bill Joiner is president of ChangeWise, a research, consulting and training firm; co-author of Leadership Agility, and co-designer of the Leadership Agility 360. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.