Cultivating leaders who can drive agile workforces

We delve into why agility is such an important cultural characteristic for any organisation - and the role leaders play in propagating it.
By: | March 6, 2019


An organisation that is resistant to change, and prefers to stick to the tried-and-true ways of doing things, can forget about surviving in the long-run, much less prospering.

Syed Ali Abbas, the Group HR Director of Global Fashion Group and a 20 year veteran of the industry, talks to HRM Magazine Asia about why agility is such an important cultural characteristic for any organisation – and the role leaders play in propagating it.


HR Festival Asia Speaker Spotlight

Syed Ali Abbas, Group HR Director, Global Fashion Group

What’s the best part of your job?
Working with amazing people doing something I love. I’m one of those lucky people who really enjoys what they do for a living and that’s why you’ll see me walking around with a huge smile on my face most days.

What are your passions in life, outside of your job?
I’ve always loved music. Was a terrible guitarist so turned to signing, starting with my school choir and then with various bands over the years. I’m currently one of the two lead singers in the ZALORA in-house band and we enjoy putting up performances for our colleagues.

What will HR Festival Asia delegates learn from your presentation?
There are already lots of very smart people out there offering big picture insights and telling great stories. So I try to supplement their sharing with practical insights from my experience on how we – as a profession – can continuously develop our organisations and ourselves individually to keep up with all the changes in the world around us.

Apart from your own presentation, what are you looking forward to seeing at HR Festival Asia?
Networking is always fun – whether it’s with fellow professionals at the conference and awards or with the HR service provider community at the expo. And I always look forward to hearing Josh Bersin speak – he’s my favourite HR thought leader of the past 10-15 years and has inspired a lot of my personal approach to practising HR. And finally, it’s great that the Awards are part of the Fest this year so we can celebrate the best among us on an even grander scale – as they so richly deserve!

Can readers find you on social media?
Yup, my handle is syedaliabbashr on both LinkedIn and Twitter.

In a climate of constant change, agility has become essential. How can leaders best nurture this trait in their employees?

The most basic step in my view is providing the working environment, learning opportunities and empowerment for employees to actually be agile.

It makes no sense at all for leaders to expect employees to be agile and innovative without also changing the top-down, rigid, inward-looking and consensus-driven way in which they run their organisations today.

I’ve seen environments where employees are asked to be agile and innovative… but then need 10 people across various teams to approve even a minor, non-controversial and free process change that could greatly benefit customers.


How can HR, in turn, support leaders in these efforts? 

Our job as HR professionals is two-fold. First, we need to educate ourselves on what it really means to be agile because, quite frankly, HR is one of the least agile functions in most organisations today.

Second, after getting educated we should then translate our newfound knowledge into building more agility-friendly cultures, organisation structures, leaders, management styles, ways of working, and HR programs/policies/processes/systems to enable the rest of the business.

This is not as easy as it sounds. First, it means we need to rethink and redesign a lot of the HR practices we have come to rely on in our careers so far.

Second, at the same time it’s very difficult to pick what should be redone and what should not because we have to think through the implications for our own organisation rather than what someone in Silicon Valley did for a lavishly-funded startup 10 years ago.


In terms of leadership development, how can organisations ensure that they are cultivating agile leaders?

Just like what I shared for HR, future leaders also first need to be educated on what it really means to be agile.

We can do that in a variety of ways like (i) providing training that equips them with the right conceptual frameworks and case studies, (ii) connecting them to best-in-class agile leaders / thinkers / coaches / organisations in the outside world to learn from them and (iii) giving them the chance to apply all of this in their work back in the office.

These are basic things but they work. Leaders are employees too and they are not perfect or all-knowing, so they need our support just like everyone else.


Further to the above, what do organisations need to keep in mind to ensure these future leaders are also equipped to lead a workforce that must constantly evolve to keep up?

The challenge is not only that the workforce must constantly evolve to keep up with the world and leaders need to guide them through that, but it’s also that the workforce itself is evolving rapidly and leaders need to be ready for that themselves.

If you visit the Zalora Singapore office where I sit, or our next door neighbours Carousell, you will see that these offices and the people in them are not typical.

So we need to actively work to help our leaders develop the right leadership skills and also the right leadership mindsets.

I’ve already hinted at the answers above but some of the things leaders can and should do more are being collaborative, being flexible, being connected to the outside world, being open to new ideas, building an environment of trust and empowering their teams to do the right thing.

Syed Ali Abbas is one of more than 100 slated speakers at the first-ever HR Festival Asia, brought to you by the combined experience of HR Technology Conference & Exposition (US) and HR Summit (Asia).

At the event’s dedicated CxO Symposium stream, senior business and management professionals will delve into topics such as design thinking, virtual organisations, neuro-agility, and other cutting-edge trends that can help C-suite professionals strengthen their organisation’s capabilities from the top. 

For more information, visit