It’s highly unlikely that a company can dodge and weave around the market’s punches—much less capitalize on them—if its executive team is less than nimble. Today, top management must be capable of active, inclusive, engaged decision making that happens quickly. It’s not just an approach to be applied in times of crisis; these days, it’s a hallmark of top-performing companies, those that can recognize opportunity in times of great change.
In this podcast, the authors explore ways to create a nimble leadership team, discussing the nature of leadership today and how it is now more about the ability to assemble the right teams for the each opportunity.
Accenture’s research on the anatomy of global leadership shows that true agility at the top means having not only a repertoire of standing teams but also the readiness to quickly assemble temporary teams to meet specific challenges.
In short, business leaders—and boards of directors—can no longer assume that management must be organized in the typical rigid hierarchy of executive bodies, such as an executive leadership team, an operations team, a global steering council and perhaps a cross-sectional conference of high-potential managers. Better to think in terms of a flexible network of skilled, experienced, collaboration-minded leaders who can come together quickly to address the challenge at hand.
That’s the approach used by Kingfisher, the UK-based home improvement retailer. Beyond the five members of the company’s group executive committee, other top leaders convene in cross-functional teams to solve problems. These networks allow managers to make decisions in a style that suits the problem—collaborating to reduce complexity in product assortment, for example.
The right hat
It’s critical that team members recognize and even declare which hat they’re wearing in such cases. Hemant Nerurkar, managing director of Tata Steel, says that during particular discussions, he asks each person to be clear about whether he or she is “in this room because of my role as head of Asia, or as head of outsourcing, or as a functional leader of finance. Am I anchored in one role, or am I sharing the burdens, the responsibilities, the perspectives of the top leader and looking at the whole of the organization?” Only when people recognize potential biases caused by the variety of roles they inhabit can a team arrive at a fully informed decision.
Agility also manifests itself in the ability of top leaders to change their decision-making styles to accommodate an array of variables, such as urgency, risk level, time constraints, and regional and cultural differences. No decision-making style is universally or constantly applicable.
According to Hervé Borensztejn, senior HR leader at GE Energy Power Conversion, a French power conversion company: “We [sometimes] change our decision-making structure when we have to make decisions immediately in order to keep up with the speed and pace of our competitors . . . even though not all of us are available at the same time.”
Agile organizations also tend to have senior leaders with the right blend of personal attributes—individuals who demonstrate a range of skills, are clearly comfortable with ambiguity and are respectful of but not slaves to process. They understand the difference between influence and authority, and as such, are entirely at home influencing and participating in teams. Their focus isn’t on hierarchy; it’s on ideas, information, creativity, flexibility, candor and curiosity.
Range of options
Collectively, these leaders constitute highly experienced, assertive, receptive, flexible teams that can hasten decision making because the big issues have already been debated. The range of options, arguments, trade-offs and implications has been largely worked through. There’s widespread agreement that such traits are key. Half of the CEOs and CIOs polled recently by the Economist Intelligence Unit agreed that rapid decision making and execution are essential to a company’s competitive standing.
Those levels of preparation are part of the continual work at leading companies to ensure that top managers are aligned with their organization’s markets, its position within those markets, the strategic levers that managers can pull and their readiness to pull them.
Furthermore, the top team members will rotate through various positions—not arbitrarily but paced in ways that avoid managerial rigor mortis, welcome new talent from other industries, broaden the experience of the individuals and allow the whole team to be refreshed by new ideas and perspectives.
Such moves are especially important for far-flung global leadership teams. There are many more companies competing beyond their home bases than there were as recently as the 1990s, and it is all too easy for management teams to become siloed. Leaders of many large multinationals now complain that they have to accept less-than-wonderful solutions because the most thorough answers require close working relationships between senior managers who have never met in person.
Says Mechthilde Maier, head of group diversity management at Deutsche Telekom, “A major challenge in this complex world is that we need different perspectives, different insights and different methods to solve a problem . . . sometimes there is not one answer—there are a few or many answers to one and the same question. What you need is team thinking.”
About the authors
Robert J. Thomas is the executive director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance. He is based in Boston.
Yaarit Silverstone is the Atlanta-based managing director responsible for human capital and organization effectiveness offerings within Accenture Talent & Organization.
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