HFMtalentindex’s Jaintheran Naidoo discusses leadership agility and building an agile organisation

For leaders to be truly agile, they need to practise agile behaviours themselves.

Leadership agility is an urgent need in South African organisations, says Jaintheran Naidoo, HFMtalentindex director and agility expert. “We’ve seen a lot of business leaders talking about the need for agility, but they don’t always label it as such,” he says. “Terms like resilience, adaptability and resourcefulness are often used instead.

“What is common to all of these terms is a general need for leaders – and their teams – to be prepared and proactive in the face of change.

“If we consider the recent disruptions and crises in the South African market, we have all become painfully aware of the need to maintain business continuity and sustainability. If agility is not built into the fabric of the organisation, then the need to identify, understand, measure and develop it becomes all the more critical.”

Defining leadership agility
Jaintheran shared his view of what leadership agility means in practical terms: “It’s a style and culture of leadership that achieves superior team performance by sharing a clear purpose with the team, then facilitating its achievement by appropriately delegating authority and creating a safe space for creativity, trust and feedback. At its core it encompasses an openness to experiment, desire to be creative, and focus on achieving through perseverance, reflection and collaboration,” he says.

He adds that for leaders to be truly agile, they need to practise agile behaviours themselves, as well as nurture and develop agility within their teams. Unlike cognitive ability, Jaintheran notes that, “one of the great things about agility is that it can be measured objectively and developed. Once you know where you stand, you can have a clear perspective on where to go from there.”

He shared the five pillars of the HFMtalentindex leadership agility model:

1. The ability to reflect, listen to feedback and adapt
Being able to seek feedback and reflect in order to develop new behaviours is a critical skill for agile leaders. Alongside this is the drive for ongoing growth and the recognition that learning never stops. The agility of leaders and teams is significantly higher within a culture of learning and continuous development.

2. The ability to experiment, try new things and iterate over time
Agile leaders remain flexible when things change and are able to update action plans as they go. These leaders work with their teams to instil a culture of ideas and experimentation. Encouraging this creativity in team members means giving them the tools to try and “freedom to fail”.

3. The ability to translate uncertainty into action
A core aspect of leadership agility is being able to act when things become chaotic and unclear. Agile leaders are equipped to reason through ambiguity and transform complex, novel problems into solutions. They do this by using effective judgement, exploring innovative options, keeping up to date with what’s new, and integrating the inputs of others.

4. The ability to drive results and be proactive
The ability to react quickly and achieve outcomes amid change makes a big difference to the organisation’s bottom line. As an agile leader, there is an emphasis on driving action yourself as well as extending these skills to others. The goal is to build a culture of decisive, independent and self-directed teams.

5. The ability to leverage teams and collaboration
Agile leaders work to build a shared vision and goals with their team. They encourage a culture of brainstorming, creativity, collaboration and learning through others, with the recognition that the output of a high performing group is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Developing agility in practice
When asked how to start building an agile organisation, Jaintheran highlights the importance of starting at the top. “We see the most success in organisations who identify champions – leaders who buy in, see the need for agility and have sufficient authority to act as change agents.

“As these journeys evolve over time, with a focus on shifting the culture and everyday behaviours in the organisation, we really see the results being sustainable, and in some cases, exponential.”

As for leaders themselves, where can they start? Jaintheran says self-awareness plays a significant role, along with the drive to make changes.

“Leaders need to recognise the need to change, which involves a lot of self-reflection and feedback gathering. The value of agility must also be appreciated, and coveted. This can be achieved by educating leaders and the organisation as a whole on what agility is, what it looks like practically and why it is considered important.”

He added that, regardless of the individual’s perceived capacity for agility, if experimentation and exploration are coupled with reflection, they will result in greater agility.

“I have been fortunate to witness transformation of individual and organisational agility. For individuals it is sometimes as simple as igniting the desire to be agile by facilitating the “ah-ha” moments. However I have also seen reluctant participants struggle through being confronted with the reality of their lower agility, to facing the challenge of confronting ineffective habits, and breaking free of their comfort zones to eventually reap the benefits of agility.”

Measuring and benchmarking agility
If your organisation is embarking on an agility journey, Jaintheran says the most important first step is to understand your baseline. “You can objectively measure and benchmark the learning agility of individuals, leaders and teams via psychometric tools. For example, at HFMtalentindex we measure and report on agility in a number of ways – for selection, for personal development, for team success and to assess return on investment.