Before joining Signium, Katrin Dahlström was responsible for Executive Sales Search in Southern Sweden. She has been a Partner with Signium since 2017. Katrin has worked in recruitment since 1997. Focusing exclusively on executive search ...
The Cambridge dictionary defines the noun ‘agility’ as being “the power of moving quickly and easily; nimbleness: exercises demanding agility”. More importantly in the business sense, it is noted as “the ability to think and draw conclusions quickly; intellectual acuity”, and has become known as ‘rapid change competence’.
Globalisation, digital transformation, inflation and a myriad of other factors contributing to market volatility and uncertainty mean today’s leaders must be competent in dealing with rapid change, while training the next generation of leaders and employees to do the same.
Leaders must constantly re-evaluate and re-imagine strategies, processes and even entire business models to react appropriately and stay a step ahead of market trends. This requires competency and agility in five key areas:
In short, the rapid-change leader brings a combination of adaptability, strategic thinking, communication prowess, empowerment skills and a genuine commitment to continuous learning. These qualities enable them to guide their organizations through change, uncertainty and innovation, ensuring long-term success in a rapidly evolving world.
“At the start of the pandemic it became clear to most organizations that they would be impacted by the pandemic and varying governmental policy responses in different parts of the world. The exact impact on businesses and organization was unknown and constantly challenging mental and people agility,” says Katrin Dahlström, Partner at Signium Sweden, noting that the joint experience of working during the pandemic has also led to improved self-awareness, as well as sharing with one another.
“Speaking to the CEO of a client industrial company with large operations in both Asia and the USA and a global supply-chain during the pandemic, he shared his insights, not just from the practical, nimble problem-solving point of view, but also how the dynamics within his leadership team changed, saying: ‘I led everyone to discuss personal aspects of their leadership more openly. People sought each other’s opinion and advice on issues that previously would not been discussed.’ He attributed this to their realization that they all shared the same worries, which created a virtuous cycle of increased trust in each other.”
Although the need and demand for agility to cope with unpredictability is apparent, Dahlström asserts, the way in which this takes place within organizations is likely to be affected by local cultural aspects. “Sweden, for example, has a strong culture of consensus-seeking and flat hierarchies, which means that a successful approach in Sweden will differ from other countries where that is not the case.”
“While the pandemic itself was not positive, it has undoubtedly brought a globally-shared experience. In Sweden this has led to greater self-awareness which manifests itself in a far more open dialogue about what people really need to succeed, as well as which strengths they can bring to an organization.
“The situation varies in different organizations. People churn will be higher in some industries than others. Whereas it is beneficial for people to change jobs and companies as it broadens people’s comfort zone and ability to take personal risks, longer tenures are important for organizational cumulative learning. In more agile organizations, organizational structure is more ‘in the people and their interactions’ than in descriptions of organizational design and structure.”
Dahlström, further notes that clients who operate in more traditional industries are also espousing agility, including bringing in people with a track record of and experience from leading more agile organizations despite having less direct industry experience.
“It is challenging to ‘break’ the mould and existing structures and it requires both trust and courage to persuade others as an outsider, and often the full backing and support of a board or other leadership to empower people is critical. Asking the right questions, showing others that you need them requires leaders to step out of their comfort zone and take personal risks. More often than not, the rewards will outweigh the risks.”
The 1990s marked the beginning of the digital age, and the pace of technological change has since accelerated dramatically ever since. New tools, platforms and strategies emerge at the speed of light, requiring leaders to adapt at the same pace to harness their competitive advantage.
Globalization has intensified competition and expanded markets, and the meteoric rise of the internet and social media have empowered consumers, who now expect personalized experiences, instant communication and speedy responses to their queries and feedback.
Then, there’s the speed at which products and services become obsolete, meaning organisations must innovate rapidly to keep up with evolving customer needs and preferences. Disruptors are not slowing down either – and the astute business leader is constantly looking out for what may be the “next big thing”.
Two brief case studies of leaders who demonstrated the type of agility and competence under fire to not only save their organisations, but breathe new life into them, are Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Satya Nadella of Microsoft.
Co-founder and CEO of Netflix Reed Hastings demonstrated remarkable agility in transforming the company from a DVD rental service to a global streaming giant. Under his leadership, Netflix has continually studied and adapted to changing viewer preferences and technological advancements that sees the company in its sector’s top spot, with some 238,500,000 subscribers.
Quick case study: In 2011, Netflix faced a massive backlash for announcing a price increase and separating its streaming and DVD rental services, leading to a significant drop in subscribers. Hastings acknowledged the mistake, stating: “I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation.” He quickly reversed the decision and refocused the company on streaming content. This potentially disastrous incident highlighted Hastings’ willingness to listen, learn and adapt, ultimately contributing to Netflix’s ongoing success as a streaming platform.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is often cited as a prime example of an agile leader who successfully navigated rapid change. When he took over the company’s leadership in 2014, it was facing immense challenges in adapting to the era of mobile and cloud computing. Nadella quickly initiated a cultural shift within the company which focused on innovation, collaboration and customer-centricity.
Quick case study: One of the most significant changes under Nadella’s leadership was Microsoft’s pivot to cloud services, particularly with Azure in a shift that enabled the company to thrive in the cloud computing market. In a 2014 email to Microsoft employees, Nadella asserted: “We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.” Microsoft Azure reached a market share of 23% at the end of 2022, starting 2023 as the second-largest cloud service globally. It is now a leader in the enterprise space, with the company claiming that 95% of Fortune 500 companies use Azure.
These examples illustrate how agile leaders like Satya Nadella and Reed Hastings competently embraced rapid change, taking their organizations to new heights by embracing innovation and adapting strategies with their innate ability to lead with resilience, decisiveness and a willingness to learn from mistakes.
While there is often a blurring of the lines between change management and rapid change competence, the latter should include the former in a world where change management alone is unlikely to bring the resolutions that rapid change competence can.
Organizations seeking to enhance the abilities of their employees to deal effectively with rapid change should be creating programs that guide individuals to constantly engage in personal inventories of their abilities to deal with these five key drivers, asking themselves:
Many may say leaders who embrace and create success through rapid change competence are born, not taught. However, as more – and very different – changes occur in a world of constant disruption, the win is always going to go to the team or individual willing to see the bigger picture and find solutions, and not merely buy a different frame to put it in.