Exclusive: Seven dimensions of an agile leader

In the new and more disrupted future workplace, a new generation of leaders will need to lead differently. Guest contributor and HR Summit 2016 speaker Kevin Mulcahy captures the essence of the coach-oriented approach to building the agile leadership skills of the next generation.

It’s 3:30 pm, and Emma has just exited the first in a series of check-ins that she will have with her leadership coach Sasha. At her company, each new leader is paired with a coach who helps them continuously learn about their field and their leadership role, and guides them in incorporating these learnings into their team-building and management strategies.

Currently, Emma is grappling with her training on how to become an “agile” leader, a leader who can provide strong direction yet pivot as needed in order to boost results and maintain deep connections with her employees and peers.

Sasha enumerated the seven traits of an agile leader in their most recent lesson: Agile leaders are transparent, inclusive, accountable, facilitate teaching and learning, “intrapreneurial”, collaborative, and future-focused.

Although it sounds like a lot of traits to balance at one time, Emma is beginning to see how they are inter-related. She is actively working to mould a personal vision of these traits that will work for her authentically and consistently, as per Sasha’s advice.

Below, she shares her thoughts with Bo, a fellow new leader who has yet to attend training with his peer coach.

1. Be transparent

My coach emphasised how transparency is a key attribute of leadership training. She reminded me how first and foremost, it is important to be able to relate to the people I work with and manage.

This is a multistep process, requiring me to bring my “authentic self” to work, to model honesty and trust in my interactions, and to use emotional intelligence to understand the needs and concerns of my fellow employees and myself.

Personal transparency is the foundation of one of the most important retention tools of all: trust. When employees trust their leaders, they are more likely to be loyal to the company at large. More transparency leads to a much higher level of trust and engagement within companies.

To be a transparent leader however, I must go further than just presenting myself as I am. I must become more sensitive and attuned to how my employees are experiencing my leadership and, more importantly, to what I am feeling and broadcasting to my team.

To be a transparent leader, I must complete self-assessments for personal reflection, and do them often.

2. Be collaborative

My peer coach emphasised that management was particularly impressed with how I treat team members as active decision makers rather than just involving them in my decisions. She highlighted how comfortable I am with letting those closer to the situation make more decisions.

So many people talk about being collaborative, but before today, I had no idea what that actually meant. I thought that collaborating simply meant working jointly with my team to get more varied skills on a project. But that is just one minor aspect of collaboration.

At its heart, collaboration is about innovating more quickly; about driving change at an organisational level. Collaboration is about trust and transparency; making and executing decisions clearly as a team to accomplish our team goals.

Collaborative leaders must take the initiative and create forums that encourage open discussion, even in casual formats, to ensure that employees are comfortable and ready to work together when things get tense and draining.

As traditional office hierarchies begin to break down, my company will stay current by ensuring that employees have a more personal connection with leaders and with each other. When employees become more familiar with one another, they also become more empathetic, open, and flexible. This in turn enables them to become better collaborators.

My responsibility as a leader then shifts from teaching and encouraging collaboration to rewarding employees for their positive collaboration.

3. Be accountable

Results matter and so does behaviour. To succeed, I am expected to be a role model for the key values of the company, to help my team live up to those values, and to never set those values aside purely for the sake of results.

Ultimately, my role is to ensure that we both get results and that we live up to our values. My company’s dedication to its core values is a big part of why I opted to join it in the first place; so, I’m glad to be responsible both for helping others adopt these values and for holding myself accountable to them.

My first step towards being a leader who fosters a culture of accountability is to give people clear goals for their results. The backbone of our collaborative workplace is our culture of accountability and transparency. But my coach says that setting goals for results is not enough. As a leader, I must create a fair and accurate process for tracking everyone’s contributions to a project.

I must communicate clearly to my employees what they are accountable for. If employees have an understanding of what they are in charge of, they will be better able to match their goals with the projects of other employees. It will also help my employees understand what they are collaborating on and what they are collectively responsible for.

4. Be inclusive

Managing diversity runs to the very core of our company’s business success and must be how we seek to lead accountability for results. In my three years here, I see how diverse perspectives and backgrounds lead to better solutions. At the same time, I see that leading a diverse team requires a new and innovative set of skills and mental frameworks to realise the team’s full potential.

My team is based in seven countries and is made up of five generations. Here, inclusivity begins during the hiring and team-building process. We subscribe to the mantra that “a group of ordinary people who are diverse can defeat a group of like-minded experts”.

Inclusion in the twenty-first century is not solely about recognising and accommodating external signs of diversity. Inclusion is also about cognitive diversity, or sweeping differences in thought. It is proven that thought diversity is at least partially linked to the typical HR indicators of diversity (like race, gender, sexuality, and age).

However, my coach emphasised that it is crucial to screen and recruit for cognitive diversity and not to shy away from hiring people with ideas that challenge the norm and who show the courage to defend their independent thoughts. Intentional inclusivity is best achieved by comprehensively measuring potential employees and team members for divergence in how they see, interpret, and analyse problems, as well as how they create solutions.

5. Be “intrapreneurial”

I learned that when employees are given the tools and the freedom to experiment with their big ideas within our workplace, our workplace is fostering “intrapreneurial” thinking. Being intrapreneurial, my coach explained, means being entrepreneurial within the organisation and that proactive experiential actions matter. We all need to be willing to take on big challenges and to try new strategies; some of which are even designed to fail, but in contained ways and free from organisational blame.

I learned that I need to look around and see the company as a set of practices, in which every practice must evolve to become better than it was in the past. I should strive to understand how to take big, important and complicated problems apart and test a variety of solutions.

I should find comfort in my discomfort, and be centered by my firm sense of purpose for our company. Finally, I need to continually remind myself that failure is part of any experimental process. Therefore, I must be prepared to deal with the failures of my own intrapreneurial actions and those of my team, and be ready to support them through the tough learning and maturation that comes from that reflective process.

6. Be a teacher and a learner

My coach highlighted that it is no longer enough to be a learner only. Emerging leaders now need to be the type of people that others want to learn from, and demonstrate what we are teaching and coaching others to learn and do.

Who is responsible for my learning at work and who is responsible for the learning of my reporting staff? How am I responsible for their learning? How are they responsible for their learning?

Sasha lets me know that the ways we think about “learning” in the workplace are shifting dramatically. Emphasis is now on balancing the process of learning with the process of teaching. Non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer teaching and training programmes are becoming recognised as the top strategy for building smarter, and more knowledgeable employees.

This surprised me. How could I teach my employees better than an expert who teaches a particular subject? Furthermore, how could my employees teach each other better than that expert?

Learning is a one-way receiving process. It can often be very passive. Teaching, on the other hand, requires learning, and then actively applying the learning to interpret it for others. Sasha stressed that that we remember more when we teach than when we simply learn. This is because the need to teach material forces us to master content so thoroughly that we can help others access it.

It is not only important that I as leader grow accustomed to teaching my employees; they must also grow accustomed to teaching each other.

Teaching and learning from one another will give my employees opportunities to broadcast their interests, strengths, and skills. They will learn about what is important to each other and practice working in collaborative environments outside the confines of typical work assignments. I look forward to implementing new collaborative learning structures for my team in the coming months.

7. Be future-focused

Being future-focused is both straightforward and critical.

As a leader, I need to keep revisiting the mission of our company’s future and of our department’s contribution to that future. I must stay abreast of the current trends and the moving pieces in our business environment so we can educate and align ourselves around making informed speculations about where we should focus our efforts.

Actually, maybe it’s not so straightforward. I learned that it is important for me to develop my own personally-tailored foresight system – one that works best for me, and which I can actually apply, stick to, and explain clearly to my team to motivate them behind our mission.

My coach ran down a list of suggestions, including using a system for charting the steps my team has already taken in its work, noting any patterns that emerge, considering whether the patterned behaviour has been useful, and if not, being intrepraneurial about new approaches.

I closely track my team’s speculation about future events. Together with my team, we document our assumptions for each new initiative. This approach helps me gain insight into my team’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to how we inform our decision-making process to navigate the increasingly turbulent business environment we operate within.


As Emma thanked Bo for helping her reflect and articulate what she had learned about the seven dimensions of an agile leader, she experienced a surge of appreciation for the impact her coaching sessions had on her development. She could also see just how excited Bo was to begin his coaching sessions to join her in the emerging leader ranks of the organisation.

Catch Kevin Mulcahy ‘live’ at HR Summit 2016

Top 3 takeaways

In his HR Summit 2016 presentations, Kevin Mulcahy will discuss:

  • The key drivers and implications that different megatrends will have on the future of your organisation
  • How leading organisations are preparing to address these disruptions
  • New capabilities required for you to thrive as a leader

Kevin Mulcahy will be presenting twice at HR Summit 2016:

C-Suite Symposium Session

CxOs – Future Proof Your Organisation Today, For The World of Tomorrow

Evolutions in technologies and business practices will cause a host of new disruptions to your organisation. The role of the CxO consequently needs to evolve to adapt to these disruptive workplace megatrends. Prepare now for the workforce of the future, and uncover the new capabilities required for you to thrive as a leader to your workforce.

Strategy Session

Preparing For The 2020 Workplace

Take a deep dive into the future of work with US based Workplace Futurist, Kevin Mulcahy, as he discusses the impact upcoming megatrends will have on the future of your organisation and what skillsets you and your workforce will need to survive in the world of tomorrow.


Analysing the Workday advantage

Sandeep Aggarwal, Chief Financial Officer of Aon-Hewitt Asia-Pacific, shares his thoughts on the Workday finance and HR analytics platform. He says the cloud-based system is intuitive and easy-to-use, but still provides powerful insights across the functions.

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