As 2015 winds down, most executives likely have turned their attentions to ensuring a fast start to the new year. They must prepare their teams to be sure-footed amidst uncertainty regarding economic conditions, geopolitical tensions, technological developments, and more — including the added complication of a U.S. presidential election. They need their organizations to be confident, nimble, and relentless in their shared commitment to excel.
So how can you as a leader bring this preparation to your enterprise? It certainly isn’t through top-down directives or yet another attempt to craft the perfect organizational structure. Business today is too fast-moving and complex for those options to work. Instead, leaders must master the duality of focus and agility. That is, there must be unity up, down, and across the enterprise on shared objectives, along with great flexibility to seize opportunities and overcome obstacles.
Focus, as I’ve written before, should be thought of as a verb, not a noun. The leader’s job is achieving and maintaining clarity around purpose, values, and performance. It is about constantly scanning for dissonance and fostering robust channels for real-time, multidirectional feedback and communication.
Agility is being able to adapt to your circumstances without losing forward momentum. It is often talked about yet rarely achieved because most organizations are infused with assumptions, processes, and structures that are legacies from an industrial past built on stability, standardization, and control. Today’s operational context is much more dynamic and transparent. Agile organizations are continually getting smarter and faster simultaneously, and that requires more dispersed knowledge creation, insight sharing, and decision making. Too often, attempts to adapt to this more fluid environment have centered on removing layers from management or engineering complicated matrices to create flatter organizations. Flatness, however, is more a state of mind than boxes on an org chart.
Agile organizations are continually getting smarter and faster simultaneously.
I recently had the chance to meet retired General Charles Jacoby when he came to speak at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. Jacoby is a highly decorated officer who has been with the military as it has evolved to confront a fast-changing array of threats; he has by necessity learned to be both more agile and more focused. Jacoby described a flat organization as one with widely understood strategic intent, a high degree of trust, and decentralized decision making. The military has done this while maintaining a strict chain of command and retaining the middle management ranks of captain and major. While the military is not perfect, I think that Jacoby is exactly right on this point: Flattening is ultimately about adding capability, not cutting head count.
In nonmilitary contexts, achieving focus with agility can be viewed as extraordinary employee engagement — not the do-you-like-our-coffee-selection variety of satisfaction measurement but rather engagement in which employees at all levels of the organization are integral and essential to accomplishing the strategic intent, in which more attention is paid to satisfying customers than fighting internal political battles, and in which personal meaning is derived from achieving the organization’s larger mission.
In a recent survey of millennials, the largest age cohort in the U.S. workforce, YouEarnedIt — a company that measures workplace happiness — found that 97 percent of respondents indicated that real-time feedback from the entirety of the organization was as or more important than traditional performance reviews. That constant flow of information, when provided through constructive channels, helps clarity of focus. It also can make the formal review processes less stressful for all parties, as the sit-down with the supervisor becomes just one data point on a continuum.
As YouEarnedIt CEO Autumn Manning told me, “Right now, many companies still fail to answer, ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘What is your role in the larger picture of success?’” Getting the “why” right is a precursor to excellence when answering the “what.”
Furthermore, 67 percent of survey respondents said connections to their coworkers and team collaboration are the strongest factors that contribute to a deeper sense of engagement at work. Connections and interactions are critical to building trust — and they’re essential components of agility because you act more nimbly when know what’s expected of you and what to expect of others. You learn to read cues and sense subtle shifts, making it easier to adapt or intervene as necessary. This familiarity can be achieved through work processes or even more recreational activities such a group yoga.
“No person wants to perform poorly at work, and certainly no one wants to spend their time unfulfilled and unmotivated,” Manning said. “Unless companies intentionally provoke real conversations, real feedback, and connections that are meaningful to everyone across the business, there will always be a great disconnect between ‘the masses’ and ‘leadership.’”
One of the ways all of this can accelerate your performance in 2016 is by reducing turnover — up to 65 percent, according to YouEarnedIt. The turbulence of people leaving and joining your organization distorts clarity as institutional knowledge departs and new people climb the culture curve. It also can impede agility as resources are allocated to recruiting and onboarding instead of to innovating and attending to customers.
Think of it this way: Your leadership goal for next year is to have as many people as possible in your organizational ecosystem contributing to the full extent of their abilities. That includes employees, investors, customers — the full range of stakeholders. Some of them contribute in obvious ways and others in ways that are more subtle and nuanced. The better able you are to facilitate those contributions, the more likely you are to turbocharge your performance. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.