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.

Creating a Gung Ho Culture

If you follow me on Twitter (@KenBlanchard) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/KenBlanchard/), you may have noticed that I recently posted about being in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to take part in a celebration at a company called Mudd Advertising. The company, which was founded by my friend Jim Mudd Sr. was celebrating 20 years of using the principles of Gung Ho!, a book I wrote in 1998 with Sheldon Bowles from Winnipeg, Canada. I met Sheldon through the Young President’s Organization (YPO) when I spoke at one of their big conferences.

Sheldon gave me a first draft of a manuscript entitled Raving Fans and said he wanted me to coauthor it with him. I was polite and said I would read it—but as we were going back to our room, Margie and I both wondered how good it could be. After all, Sheldon was the president of a company, not a writer. Little did we know that he had been a journalist when he was young and the draft was terrific. Do I need to say more? Raving Fans was a major bestseller!

Our follow-up book, Gung Ho!, was a response to people asking “How do we turn our employees into Raving Fans of the organization they work for?” Sheldon and I were told that a lot of organizations were trying to create Raving Fan service with tired, uninspired, and even resentful employees who, in many instances, hated to go to work. Wow! What a challenge.

So Sheldon talked to Native American leaders and developed three secrets to creating a Gung Ho culture: the Secret of the Squirrel; the Way of the Beaver; and the Gift of the Goose. These secrets became the basis of Sheldon’s and my second best-selling book, which for 20 years has been required reading for each new employee at Mudd Advertising and central to the way they operate.

When you enter Mudd’s corporate headquarters, one of the first things you see is a mural depicting the Gung Ho philosophy:

SPIRIT OF THE SQUIRREL: Worthwhile Work

  • Knowing we make the world a better place.
  • Everyone works toward a shared goal.
  • Values guide all plans, decisions, and actions.

WAY OF THE BEAVER: In Control of Achieving the Goal

  • A playing field with clearly marked territory.
  • Thoughts, feelings, needs, and dreams are respected, listened to, and acted upon.
  • Able but challenged.

GIFT OF THE GOOSE: Cheering Each Other On

  • Active or passive, congratulations must be TRUE (Timely, Responsive, Unconditional, and Enthusiastic).
  • No score, no game, and cheer the progress.
  • E = MC2—Enthusiasm equals mission times cash and congratulations

At The Ken Blanchard Companies, we’ve endeavored to create a Gung Ho culture by providing worthwhile work—our mission is that someday, everywhere, everyone will be impacted by someone leading at a higher level; by empowering our people to be in charge of achieving our goals in a way that creates Raving Fan customers; and finally, throughout the process, by cheering each other on and catching each other doing things right.

If you think your company would benefit from a Gung Ho culture, it probably would!

Let’s Clear Up Some Misunderstandings about Servant Leadership

When people hear the phrase servant leadership, they are often confused. Their assumption is that it means managers should be working for their employees, who in turn would decide what to do, when to do it, where to do it, and how to do it. If that’s what servant leadership is all about, it doesn’t sound like leadership to them at all. It sounds more like inmates running the prison, or managers trying to please everyone.

The problem is that these folks don’t understand servant leadership.  They think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can, if you understand that there are two aspects to servant leadership:

  • A visionary/direction, or strategic, role—the leadership aspect of servant leadership; and
  • An implementation, or operational, role—the servant aspect of servant leadership.

The traditional hierarchical pyramid is effective for the leadership aspect of servant leadership. People look to their leaders for vision and direction. While leaders should involve experienced people in shaping a compelling vision, setting goals, and defining strategic initiatives, the ultimate responsibility remains with the leaders themselves and cannot be delegated to others. Once employees are clear on where they are going, the leader’s role shifts to the task of implementation—the servant aspect of servant leadership. The question now is: How do we live according to the vision and accomplish the established goals?

Most organizations and leaders get into trouble in the implementation phase of the servant leadership process. With self-serving leaders at the helm, the traditional hierarchical pyramid is kept alive and well. When that happens, who do employees think they work for? The managers above them. The minute an employee thinks they work for the person above them for the implementation process, they are assuming the manager is responsible and their job is being responsive to that manager’s whims or wishes. Now “manager watching” becomes a popular sport and people get promoted based on their upward-influencing skills. As a result, all the energy of the organization is moving up the hierarchy, away from customers and the frontline folks who are closest to the action. Servant leaders know how to correct this situation by philosophically turning the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down when it comes to implementation.

When that happens, who is at the top of the organization? The frontline employees who work with the customers. Who is really at the top of the organization? The customers themselves. Who is at the bottom now? The “top” management. As a result, who works for whom when it comes to implementation? The leader works for their employees. This one change, although it seems minor, makes a major difference. The difference is between who is responsible and who is responsive.

When the organizational pyramid is turned upside down, rather than employees being responsive to management, they become responsible—able to respond—and the manager’s job as a servant leader is to be responsive to them. This creates a very different environment for implementation. If a manager works for the employee, as servant leaders do, what is the manager’s purpose now? To help their employees accomplish goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.

Servant leadership is when a manager’s mindset and skill set are focused on serving others first. This new approach, combined with a clear strategic direction, creates a 1+1=3 environment where leaders develop great relationships, achieve great results, and delight their customers.


Would you like to learn more about servant leadership concepts?  Join me for a free online Livecast featuring 20 different authors, CEOs, and thought leaders from all walks of life.  It’s a two-hour exploration of the new Servant Leadership in Action book I co-edited with Renee Broadwell, which goes on sale March 6.  The event is free, courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers and The Ken Blanchard Companies.  More than 3,800 people are registered already.  I hope you can join us. Use this link to register or learn more: Servant Leadership in Action Livecast.

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.

Coaching—the Most Essential Part of Performance Management

Performance management has three elements—planning, day-to-day coaching, and evaluation. When I ask managers which of these elements takes the most time, they almost always say evaluation. Sometimes I hear long statements full of frustration about the forms, activities, and deadlines involved in the evaluation process. It makes me realize that people are putting the emphasis on the process—not the performance. And that is where many managers make the wrong choice.

Effective managers should spend most of their time on day-to-day coaching. Let’s take a closer look.

As a leader, it’s true that you have to spend time up front to set clear goals. Once you’ve completed that part, however, your job is to be there to coach your employees and help them accomplish those goals. I think of it as turning the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down so that you work for your people. You are there to help them.

If you spend most of your time coaching your people and helping them succeed, what do you think happens when it is time for the evaluation? You get to celebrate accomplishments! When you help your people win, you win, your department wins, and ultimately your organization wins. That’s why I say coaching is the most essential part of performance management.