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Q&A on the Book The Rise of the Agile Leader

Key Takeaways

  • Self-awareness is critical to be an effective leader.
  • Agile Leadership comprises five key drivers: integrity, innovation, urgency, engagement, and direction. Possessing one or two is insufficient — the most successful leaders develop and use these skills in tandem.
  • Understanding your triggers and how to manage them is key to maximizing the effectiveness of your leadership style and communication and to build strong, trusting and effective relationships.
  • Asking for feedback and giving feedback creates alignment with your key people and creates a transparent environment that encourages development and input.
  • Agile teams are comfortable with change and uncertainty; they are collaborative, decisive, and disciplined, and they take initiative to act with speed and elicit results. When combined with behavioral insights, these traits can be used to create strong, high performing teams.

The book The Rise of the Agile Leader by Chuck Mollor is a blueprint for leaders navigating change in the pursuit of success. According to him, to develop and drive teams, organizations, culture, and results, today’s leaders must be agile. Mollor shares his story of self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-development, while demonstrating a leadership paradigm, a roadmap of what makes a great leader, and what organizations can do to develop great leaders.

InfoQ interviewed Chuck Mollor about the concept of Agile Leadership and tactics that can help build the effectiveness of individual leaders and their teams.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Chuck Mollor: I wrote this book to provide leaders with the model and attributes of the future leader, the agile leader. What does an agile leader look like and what do you need to do to become one? The book also provides a roadmap of what one needs to do to become an agile leader, as well as practical techniques, learning, tools, and strategies to become a more effective leader.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Mollor: This book is for anyone who is interested in becoming a more effective leader in their business, community, or organization. One of the main themes I discuss is the philosophy of leadership at every level. So, regardless of whether you’re in the C-suite or you aspire to be, I wrote this book as a guide to help hone leadership skills and gain the confidence needed to be an effective leader.

InfoQ: What's your definition of an agile leader?

Mollor: An Agile Leader has the ability and capacity to assess risk soundly, decide courageously, and act quickly to produce results in a rapidly changing environment, and to simultaneously develop others’ capacity to do the same.

Agile leaders are receptive to change, and build the capability to change into their cultures. Disregarding the role of culture in effective change management can lead to resistance and lack of commitment around change initiatives, which ultimately hinders organizations from adapting to market competition, overcoming obstacles, innovating, achieving goals, and motivating high performance.

Whether adapting to change fits in with existing processes or requires new processes, a sound plan and communication strategy are important ways agile leaders effectively manage it.

InfoQ: What are the key drivers of agile leadership?

Mollor: I outline five key drivers of agile leadership in the book, in addition to 10 key competencies.

The drivers are:

  1. Integrity
  2. Innovation
  3. Urgency
  4. Engagement
  5. Direction

The combination of these traits sets leaders up for success in leading with conviction and purpose. Leaders cannot second-guess or defer their decisions, nor can they succeed without keeping an ear to the ground when it comes to their people. Therefore, it’s important that these five drivers are adopted in tandem, as each complements the others.

In addition to the five key drivers of agile leadership, there are 10 essential competencies:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Accountability
  3. Inclusivity
  4. Collaboration
  5. Communication
  6. Empowerment
  7. Focus
  8. Decisiveness
  9. Curiosity
  10. Experimentation

An Agile Leader can tap into these competencies to develop and foster an agile culture that is built upon shared organizational values that align business and people strategies.

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that great leaders need to have a great capacity for self-awareness. Why is this so important?

Mollor: Self-awareness helps leaders at all levels establish emotional intelligence. This impacts how they show up under pressure and their ability to work effectively with a variety of people and situations.

Agile Leaders understand their own strengths, styles, spirit, and character, and reveal these traits to others in order to cultivate transparency and authenticity. This allows them to clearly convey a sense of purpose. Self-awareness also enables Agile Leaders to grasp how their communication style comes across to others, how their own actions impact those of other people, and the ultimate effect on business results.

For instance, say an organization is facing a downturn and is forced to shift strategies. It would be easy for a venturesome leader to respond to pressure unilaterally and change business plans without integrating their team members in the process. However, this response would likely be met with resistance and frustration, which makes new goals harder to attain. A self-aware leader, on the other hand, would anticipate the impact of their actions in this situation and would therefore consult with team members before making changes, as well as develop an effective communication plan. This approach helps employees to feel bought into the strategy and reduces resistance to change.  

We know self-awareness is a critical tool in an effective Agile Leader’s toolbox because a Korn Ferry study found that companies with strong financial performance tend to have employees with higher levels of self-awareness than poorly performing companies. When leaders tap into self-awareness, they’re better able to build organizational cultures where people communicate effectively and move in the same direction to meet goals.

InfoQ: How can leaders improve their skills for giving and receiving feedback?

Mollor: Giving and receiving feedback, in my mind, is a two-pronged strategy.

First, the feedback itself must be comprehensive. I use a 360-degree assessment, which should include a written assessment or a verbal interview from key stakeholders — subordinates, peers, boss, and other key collaborators, inside or outside of the organization.

When coaching executives, I interview the leader’s key stakeholders. It’s important to see how people view themselves compared to how others experience them. The 360-degree assessment provides direct feedback, showing leaders where they can improve and be more effective. It can reveal potential blind spots and help understand ways to deal with people at all levels.

The second key to effectively giving or receiving feedback is to understand behavioral styles. To find out more about who you are, what motivates and drives you, and how you relate to others, I suggest using a tool like The Predictive Index Behavioral Assessment (PI). At MCG Partners, we use PI to assess behavioral styles and help people learn how to better work with people and manage themselves and others by increasing their self-awareness.

Having these data-backed insights is important in the feedback process because they help leaders understand how to give feedback as effectively as possible. Feedback can be difficult to hear and can cause recipients to shut down if delivered the wrong way. However, when leaders know how to best communicate with their people, they can give feedback that is constructive, not divisive. PI can help uncover those insights, so 360-degree assessments resonate and lead to meaningful improvement.

InfoQ: How can leaders identify what triggers them and get insight into their reactions?

Mollor: It’s hard to avoid people’s triggers, especially if you don’t know them well. So, instead of feeling responsible for others’ triggers, I encourage my clients to focus on taking ownership of their own.

To do this, I ask leaders to think of situations, people, or comments that set them off. It could be someone challenging their authority, expertise, or ability to do a good job. Next, I have them put three columns on a piece of paper - in the first column, they list triggers; in the second they list why they’re triggers; and in the third, they write how they might react.

When we’re triggered, we often have an emotional response, and it’s hard to rationally think through our response in the moment. So, how do we change that? How do we react differently? We have to think through it before it happens. That’s what this exercise does.

This approach helps leaders visualize a scenario in which they are triggered, what the specific trigger is, and how they will now respond in a more effective way. As a practice, visualization is highly effective for elite athletes, but it works equally well for leaders who need to anticipate how they might react in various situations. This helps them stay self-aware and communicate effectively.

InfoQ: What is reverse mentorship and how can leaders benefit from it?

Mollor: Reverse mentorship is exactly what it sounds like: a senior-level person being mentored by a more junior person. For many leaders, this sounds counterintuitive. What can they learn from someone with less experience? In today’s environment, the answer is a lot.

An example of reverse mentorship I use in my book is a client who was promoted to running a multibillion-dollar technology business. The problem was that he knew nothing about its products and technology. I asked him if he had an up-and-coming, high-potential technical engineer that could spend time with him to teach him about the technology. He had someone who fit that description, so they met once a week for a number of weeks. It accelerated this executive’s ability to understand the business, help shape new strategies and ventures, and interact effectively with clients. It also provided the junior some important professional visibility to senior management, along with expanded experiences.

Reverse mentorship is mutually beneficial in terms of building skills, and often also strengthens interfunctional and intergenerational relationships within organizations.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for leading in difficult times?

Mollor: All organizations and leaders are subject to difficulties - we expect markets to ebb and flow, people to come and go, and the world as we know it to change. The difference between successfully leading through challenges, change and failing often comes down to people: how they communicate, how aligned and committed they are, and whether they have the right skills and resources.

Leaders who successfully lead through difficult times typically create a framework that is supported by these components:

  • Establishing trust, openness, and relationships with key change sponsors and owners.
  • Communicating the need for change often to different audiences utilizing multiple channels.
  • In the case of a merger or acquisition, identifying the characteristics of your team, the other leadership team, and both organizations’ cultures.
  • Honing in on critical behaviors and skills that accelerate performance.
  • Assessing strengths, weaknesses, motivating needs, and drives to optimize talent.
  • Nurturing an atmosphere of open collaboration and a safe work environment.
  • Getting executive sponsors to establish a vision and set clear direction.
  • Evaluating the change process and adjusting the strategy as needed.

Gaining trust and support by making people throughout the organization - from the entry level to the C-suite - feel like they know the direction the organization is headed in and that they have a role in getting there is critical for leaders in difficult times. Self-awareness and a keen focus on people help achieve that.

InfoQ: What are the key characteristics of successful agile teams?

Mollor: Agile teams are highly productive, motivated, innovative and quick on their feet, but most of all, they are collaborative and adaptable. They do not strictly adhere to a plan if a better option or different information comes along. Given a significant, complex problem, they develop solutions through rapid problem solving, and idea and solution development  with tight feedback loops.

There are seven key characteristics of successful agile teams:

  1. Comfort with change. Agile teams are flexible and able to operate in a constantly changing environment.
  2. Comfort with uncertainty. Agile teams are designed to thrive in ambiguous situations full of intriguing questions but few clear answers.
  3. Collaboration. Being agile is a team sport, and agile teams know how to blend different perspectives, expertise, and skills for maximum effectiveness.
  4. Decisiveness. Agile teams make imperfect decisions every day, but what’s most important is that they make decisions; they don’t endlessly debate and contemplate.
  5. Discipline. Agile teams take a disciplined approach to executing a well-designed process. They develop processes, checks and balances, achieve milestones, and focus on the plan and projected deliverables.
  6. Initiative. Agile teams have a bias for action; inaction is a recipe for missed opportunities, if not outright disaster.
  7. Speed. Agile teams realize the need to capitalize on opportunities and to reduce learning cycles.

Understanding behavioral characteristics and motivations helps identify the best people for agile teams. This information may help uncover who is naturally suited for a fast-paced environment and who may need to stretch out of their comfort zone. Taking a purposeful approach to building agile teams will yield the best results.

About the Book Author

 Chuck Mollor is the founder, CEO, and executive coach at the firm MCG Partners, and author of the book The Rise of The Agile Leader: Can You Make the Shift? MCG Partners specializes in leadership and talent optimization, aligning business and people strategy for maximum results.





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