Agile leadership post-COVID-19: the skills required to stay ahead of the pack

In this article Maria Brookes discusses the speed of change that many organisations around the world have been forced to adopt since COVID-19 hit and the skills that those in a leadership role have had to develop.

Speaking at the 2018 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remarked that ‘The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.’

In the context of what has happened since, his words were remarkably prescient. The speed of change that many organisations around the world have been forced to adopt since COVID-19 hit has been nothing short of breakneck.

Even before the pandemic, globalisation had accelerated the pace of change, with big data, automation and the use of artificial intelligence facilitating the switch to digitalisation. Those at the top of organisations were having to manage change in a more agile manner, taking a growing myriad of considerations into account as they sought to take the decisions that would future-proof their organisation.

Tech companies developed new operating models that prioritised customer journeys and innovative products, giving them the edge and allowing them to embrace agility at scale. Legacy organisations with engrained habits and a siloed approach were slower to the party, with some going to the wall even before the pandemic hit. For those that remained, the pandemic catapulted change upon them whether they wanted it or not.

The new world order has tested the mettle of many of those helping to navigate their organisations through the volatility, uncertainty and complexity of the pandemic. The pressure to survive has given way to pressure to be at the forefront of the next wave of innovation, productivity, customer engagement and employee engagement. ‘Structure, process, people and technology’ is the mantra that is driving many an organisation forward.

One of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic is that it has freed many leaders to challenge the status quo, allowing them to adopt more agile ways of working and reinventing the way that their organisations operate. Cross-functional teams have been established to drive long-term performance by prioritising digital initiatives, customer journeys and products. These teams, most of which have been working remotely for the past 15 months, have been empowered to make decisions that deliver results quickly, bypassing the time that would have been lost by having to check each and every decision with the boss.

For such an approach to work, leaders have had to learn to let go. The fast-paced, and at times erratic nature of the pandemic has meant that leaders have had to be agile in terms of shifting expectations. New and unwanted problems can arise at any time, and something akin to the US army’s approach to war, ‘VUCA’ (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), has become a hallmark of the times.

Newly agile leaders have had to encourage a culture of experimentation and learning in their organisations and foster an environment in which employees can make mistakes without fear of blame. Collaboration between employees at all levels has been key, with everyone working towards the same goal – the survival and advancement of the organisation. In the best cases, by aligning – or perhaps, more accurately re-aligning – the work of teams with organisational purpose, strategy and priorities, teams have enjoyed greater freedom to think and act autonomously while working to deliver a great customer experience.

The pandemic has shown the benefit of agile leadership: the ability to be calm in the face of pressure, open to innovation and able to keep teams grounded and on the right track. By prioritising individuals over processes, focussing on customer needs and viewing change as something that adds value, organisations and leaders have been able to survive and even thrive. Those skills will be invaluable as organisations get ready to embrace a post-pandemic world.

Pia-Maria Thorén, Inspiration Director and Agile People Coach will be running a workshop on ‘Agile leadership – new skills for a new era?’ at the Institute’s annual conference, ‘Governance 2021’, at 14.00 on 5 July.

Maria brookes, Media Relations Manager, The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland

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