Be an Agile Leader

In business today, there’s a growing trend toward agile leadership: a focus on fast decision making, short-term goals, and the empowerment of individuals. What began as a leadership approach confined to IT departments—business units that must respond quickly to rapidly changing technology—has become a way of life for leaders generally.

Today, it’s not just IT departments that have to be on their toes—everybody in an organization must adapt quickly to change. People are recognizing that yesterday’s hierarchical structures and top-down management styles simply don’t allow for the flexibility and innovation required to compete in today’s fast-paced business environments.

That’s why the term agile leadership has expanded to include general leadership skills like acting on a shared vision, creating empowered teams, leading change, and sharing decision-making.

 

Agile Leadership at the Manager Level

Just as top-down management no longer works at the organizational level, it no longer works one-on-one, either. Agile leaders practice side-by-side leadership, partnering with their direct reports to provide the direction and support they need for their level of development on any given task.

Agile leaders are servant leaders, because they recognize that there are two aspects of servant leadership: vision and implementation. Creating a shared vision is the leadership part of servant leadership; helping people implement that vision is the servant part of servant leadership.

For many years, The Ken Blanchard Companies has been teaching SLII®, a servant leadership model that is based on the belief that leadership style should be tailored to the situation. This kind of flexibility is a key principle of agile organizations.

To become agile, SLII® leaders, managers must master three skills: goal setting, diagnosis, and matching. Goal setting involves aligning on what needs to be done, and when. SLII® managers make sure people know what they are being asked to do and what good performance looks like. Diagnosis involves determining a direct report’s development level—their competence and commitment to accomplish the goal. Matching involves aligning leadership style to a direct report’s development level. The goal of the SLII® leader is to develop direct reports so they can perform at a high level on goals without supervision.

Agile leaders trained in SLII® provide direction and support in the proper amounts to help fill in what direct reports can’t provide for themselves. When someone is new to a task, this means providing specific direction; when someone gets discouraged, it means providing coaching. As the person gains competence in the task, the leader pulls back on the amount of direction they provide as they support the person’s continued development. And when the person demonstrates self-reliance on the goal or task, the leader moves to a delegating style, giving direct reports the autonomy characteristic of people in agile organizations.

An agile leader can comfortably use a variety of leadership styles. As a leader’s direct report moves from one development level to the next on any given task, the leader’s management style changes accordingly. When leaders can comfortably use a variety of leadership styles, they have mastered the flexibility required by agile organizations.

 

A Real World Example

Let’s see how an agile leader can use SLII® to develop the empowered individuals needed in agile organizations.

Suppose you hire a 22-year-old salesperson with little actual sales experience. She has a high commitment to becoming good at sales and is curious, hopeful, and excited. Someone at this level is an enthusiastic beginner. A directing leadership style is appropriate at this stage. You need to teach your new hire everything about the sales process—from making a sales call to closing the sale—and lay out a step-by-step plan for her self-development, teaching her what experienced salespeople do and letting her practice in low risk sales situations.

Now, suppose your new hire has had a few weeks of sales training. She understands the basics of selling but is finding it more difficult than she expected. She’s not quite as excited as she was before and looks discouraged at times. At this stage, your salesperson is a disillusioned learner. What’s needed now is a coaching leadership style, which is high on both direction and support. You continue to direct and closely monitor her sales efforts, and you also engage her in two-way conversations. You provide a lot of praise and support at this stage because you want to build her confidence, restore her commitment, and encourage her initiative.

In time the young woman learns the day-to-day responsibilities of her position and has acquired some good sales skills. She still has some self-doubt and questions whether she can sell well without your help. At this stage, she is a capable but cautious performer. This is where a supporting leadership style is called for. Since her selling skills are good, she doesn’t need direction. She needs you to listen to her concerns and suggestions, and be there to support her. Encourage and praise, but rarely direct her efforts. Help her reach her own sales solutions by asking questions and encouraging risk-taking.

Eventually, your former new salesperson becomes a key player on your team. Not only has she mastered her sales tasks and skills, she’s also working successfully with some of your most challenging clients. She anticipates problems, is ready with solutions, works successfully on her own, and inspires others. At this stage, she is a self-reliant achiever. At this level of development, a delegating leadership style is best. Turn over responsibility for day-to-day decision making and problem solving; empower her and allow her to act independently. Challenge her to continue to grow and cheer her on to even higher levels of success.

Using the servant leadership skills of SLII®, leaders develop employees who are more proactive, engaged, and ultimately, self-reliant—in short, ready to meet the needs of the agile organization.

Ask Empowering Questions

Most of us—even millennials—have a history of working under guidance and control at school and in our workplaces. Therefore, we tend to think of authority as external rather than internal. The following questions are all too familiar to us:

At school: “What does the teacher want me to do to get good grades?”

At work: “What does my boss want me to do?”

While things are changing, we live and work in a culture predominated by top-down management and hierarchical thinking, so we’re far less likely to ask questions like these:

At school: “What do I want to learn from this class? How will I know I have learned something I can use?”

At work: “What do I need to do to help my company succeed?”

These are empowering questions. President Kennedy made a call for these kinds of questions when he challenged Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Empowering questions open the possibility for us to become stronger and more competent. So why don’t we ask them more often?

It gets back to all those hard-earned parenting, teaching, and managing skills we learned from our hierarchical culture. Indeed, we feel it is our responsibility as parents, teachers, or managers to tell people what to do, how to do it, and why it needs to be done. We feel we’d be shirking our responsibilities to ask children, students, or direct reports empowering questions such as these:

“What do you think needs to be done, and why is it important?”

“What do you think your goals should be?”

“How do you think you should go about achieving your goals?”

Many of us are afraid to relinquish control to our direct reports because we’re concerned about outcomes. Yet organizations with a culture of empowerment almost always outperform their hierarchical competitors. Consider the following story from Ritz-Carlton, a company famous for its culture of empowerment.

A loss prevention officer at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, was called for the second time to a guest room after receiving a complaint of children playing hockey in the hallway. A typical response might have been to knock on the family’s door and ask them to be quiet. But Ritz-Carlton encourages its employees to think for themselves as they live by the company’s “Gold Standards.” These standards invite empowering questions such as:

  • How can I respond to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests?
  • How can I create unique, memorable, and personal experiences for our guests?

Rather than tell the parents to shush their hallway-hockey-playing kids, the loss prevention officer came up with a creative solution. He enlisted banquet employees to isolate space in one of the meeting rooms and create a hockey rink, using banquet tables as a frame. While the “rink” was being set up, he drove to a local sports store and bought two hockey nets, six sticks, and hockey balls. Finally, he delivered a written note to the family, inviting them to an impromptu hockey match against the Loss Prevention All-Stars.

Needless to say, the family was wowed.

A tight match was played between the Loss Prevention All-Stars and Team Family, with Team Family emerging victorious. The game was recorded on the Loss Prevention in-house cameras and Team Family was sent photos of their epic game.

Double-wow.

My friend Tony Robbins often says, “Successful people ask better questions and as a result, they get better answers.” So, ask yourself some empowering questions, and encourage your people to do the same.

Unforgettable Herb Kelleher

Last Thursday, we lost probably the finest corporate leader I have known in my leadership development career: Herb Kelleher, cofounder and longtime CEO and president of Southwest Airlines. Not only was Herb the visionary who created the model for a low-fare, customer-first airline, he believed every executive is only as good as his or her people. And he walked his talk. More than anybody I’ve ever worked with, Herb Kelleher lived and breathed the philosophy that the number one customer of any organization is its people.

I first met Herb through Southwest’s president emeritus, Colleen Barrett. When Colleen ordered 30,000 copies of the book I coauthored with Barbara Glanz called The Simple Truths of Service: Inspired by Johnny the Bagger, I was so blown away by the size of the order that I flew to Dallas to meet her. Because Colleen and Herb had worked together since 1967 nurturing and grooming Southwest Airlines into one of the most admired companies in the world, meeting Colleen’s mentor and teammate was a foregone conclusion. From the moment I met him, I loved Herb’s big smile, tremendous sense of humor, and ability to bring insight and laughter to any situation.

I could tell many tales about my fun times with Herb, but my favorite story happened just after he had recorded his foreword for the audio version of Colleen’s and my coauthored book Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success.

“Let’s go get a drink!” said Herb. He was always ready to do that. We went back to my hotel where my wife, Margie, would be meeting me later so we could go to dinner with the board of directors for Halftime, a faith-based ministry founded by the late Bob Buford. (Margie still serves on the Halftime board.)

At the hotel bar, Herb and I started drinking sidecars, one of his favorite drinks, made up of three ingredients: Cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. By the time Margie arrived, let’s just say Herb and I were feeling no pain. Margie could easily tell I was not in any shape to go to dinner with a bunch of faith-based folks. When she began to give Herb a One Minute Reprimand, he held up his hands in surrender, saying, “Margie, this was all Ken’s idea! I’m usually a teetotaler!” We all had a good laugh about that.

Margie said, “Okay, Ken, you can come to dinner—just don’t say anything.”

Herb, now getting into the absurdity of the situation, said, “That would be something to see!”

So I went to the dinner. The seating was organized in a circle. When the waiter came around to take our appetizer order, I whispered, “I notice you have chocolate cake à la mode. Bring me that for my appetizer.” When the waiter put the cake in front of me, all conversation around the table stopped and all attention was focused on me and my appetizer/dessert. The cat was out of the bag—I was plastered.

When I called Herb the next day and told him what had happened, he roared. Suffice to say it cost me a lot of backrubs over the next few weeks to get Margie’s full forgiveness. After that incident, every time Margie and I saw Herb, the first thing out of his mouth was “Margie, that was not my fault!” and then we’d all laugh.

I’ll miss Herb—and not just because of the fun, fabulous human being he was. Herb taught me a lot about what it takes to be a pioneer, a maverick, an innovator, and a fabulous motivator of people. To Herb, the “business of business” was people.

A lot of folks are going to miss you, Herb, including the many thousands of employees of Southwest Airlines. You were the best in the business. Rest in peace and God bless.

The Precious Present

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift—that’s why they call it the present.”

You may have heard this quotation, attributed to many different people including Eleanor Roosevelt. It reminds me of when I first met Spencer Johnson. He had just finished a manuscript entitled The Precious Present (Doubleday, 1984).  It’s a wonderful parable about a young boy who lived near an older man who always seemed to be happy. One day the boy asked the old man about it.

The old man told the boy that the secret to lifelong happiness was finding the Precious Present. “It is a present because it is a gift. And it is precious because anyone who receives such a present is happy forever.”

“Wow!” the little boy exclaimed.  “I hope someone gives me The Precious Present.”

For years as the young boy grew, he searched high and low, trying in vain to find the Precious Present. Finally, as a grown man, he stopped to recall the things the happy old man had told him so many years ago. At that moment, he realized the Precious Present was just that: the present. Not the past, not the future, but the Precious Present.

It’s okay to learn from the past, but don’t live there. And it’s okay to plan for the future, but don’t live there, either. If you really want to be happy as you go through life, don’t lose what is precious to you. Live in the present.

What a powerful message. I always remember it when I’m feeling bad about something that’s already happened or when I start worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. Living every day to the fullest is really the best way I know to be happy for the rest of your life. Thanks, Spencer.

Create a Workforce of Self Leaders

Leaders and managers ask me all the time how they can help their people become self leaders. It’s no secret that employees who are proactive self starters are huge contributors to organizational success. But sometimes people just don’t have the skills or confidence to get what they need to become high achievers.

That’s why I’m proud to announce the release of our newly revised Self Leadership program that I co-developed with motivation and engagement experts Susan Fowler and Laurence Hawkins. The success of your company depends on every person being empowered and committed to achieving results. Yet sometimes when it comes to training, individual contributors are overlooked. But if you don’t help them reach their full potential, your company won’t reach its potential, either.

This engaging new program is based on years of research. It teaches individuals the mindset and the skills they need to proactively take the reins, achieve their goals, accelerate their own development, and ultimately help the organization flourish. The truth is that people want to be engaged, to make meaningful contributions, and to be appreciated. And it is your job as a leader to help them be the best performers they can be.

I encourage you to take a look at the Self Leadership program and invest in the talent you already have in your company. I guarantee you’ll build an empowered workforce of people who are productive, innovative, and passionate about their work—and that passion will grow into individual, team, and organizational success.