How to pursue agility and development during uncertainty

17 Mar

"Never waste a good crisis" Winston Churchill

Right now, in the world of social distancing, each of us finds our self in some unusual and fluid situations that require adaptability and patience. And, I would add, agility.

A couple of examples:

  • I saw someone whip out a color-coded master family calendar they must’ve created within a minute of schools and businesses beginning to close. I'd be struggling to draw straight lines on a poster board.
  • I read about a business leader who immediately put her business continuity plan in motion and arranged for the delivery of meals to employees the very next day.

Do some people simply have better organizational skills or leadership instincts? Yes. And some are better able to build on prior learning and experience to maneuver in new or unknown situations. That’s the definition of agility.

In my work with businesses, I often hear leaders express their strong preference for employees who are agile, or nimble. Several of my clients’ resumes tout their own agility.

When your company has a new opportunity, say, a project like nothing you've done before, the first person you think to lead it is likely very agile. Your gut instinct to favor that characteristic may indicate that your own experience with your team members enhanced your ability to effectively redeploy them in new situations.

Undoubtedly, you consider some members of your team rock stars who—however capable—just are not that agile.  Think of your most detail-oriented subject matter expert who has spent years honing his or her skill set and knowledge base. The difference is mile-deep mastery of knowledge and skills versus breadth of interests and expertise that may only be an inch deep.

I recently worked with a client who has been conducting life-science experiments for more than 30 years. An expert with dozens of international publications to his name, he has just begun overseeing a cross-functional team and finds himself enjoying it. My client acknowledges that he's an expert in his field, and while capable of learning new skills, he's not highly agile. His emerging management and leadership skills will be useful for future teams, but this expert’s expert isn’t likely to be pulled away from his lab to lead cancer research in the opposite wing of the building.

We all can and should be seeking ongoing professional development to deepen our knowledge base or learn new skills and subjects.

Agile learners are likely to learn enough about a topic to be conversant and apply their skills to help or supervise others who are immersed in the details. They often get results quickly because they've already learned and practiced as much as they plan to and have the confidence to move forward.

The experts may be slower to action, knowing there is always more to learn.

Many of us fall in between those extremes on specific topics. Do you see yourself in one of these categories?

Skill Masters (Rock Stars) 

(deep knowledge an inch wide)

Agile Learners 

(inch deep on many topics)

Recognized as a subject matter expert and top performer

Tapped for a variety of projects and almost always receives positive feedback and performance ratings

Go-to person for cleaning up others' mistakes

Go-to person for new or unknown projects

Advances within the same business area

Advances across the organization

Develops and teaches best practices

Experiments and changes approaches quickly

Loves their work and doesn’t need to be the boss

Impatient, unsettled if doing the same job for too long or if the organization is slow to change

Even in recreation, may focus free time on perfecting one or two things

Highly curious, reads about different topics, may have varied hobbies

Masters, agile leaders, and everyone in between add value to business and work teams, and the diversity is necessary to get work done while driving the organization forward.

To some extent, most people can learn to be more agile. The ability to become an expert in a given field is far more challenging. You can pour years of dutiful study into a subject, but if the topic or type of work doesn't align with your interest and aptitude, you still won't reach expert status. Devoting some amount of effort to that topic will, however, increase the knowledge on which you could draw in new situations. In other words, you may increase your agility.

Just now, life has thrown many of us a curveball. While we're already working to find a new "normal," why not take this opportunity to enhance your knowledge and prepare for what life throws at you next? If you find yourself with a little extra time these days, there are activities you can pursue to develop self-awareness and mental agility as well as deepen your connection with others to build leadership agility.

Take an assessment or skills inventory

Keep a journal

Read a book about a new topic or genre

Change your environment, rearrange furniture

Build a menu of different ethnic dishes

Trade cat videos for lectures on new topics

Watch a documentary

Build or enhance a schedule and create new habits

Dissect a broken process

Write letters to former colleagues or old friends

Seek an organization that needs help right now

Explore new features of online collaboration tools

Look for a process you could stop executing

Take time to personalize emails

Check in with a coworker or customer just because

Check in with your boss who is also a person

Expand your LinkedIn connections

Update your resume as a reflection exercise

Subscribe to a new podcast

Explore online training to upgrade a skill

Research emerging trends in your industry

Write or update business continuity plans

Near the end of World War II, Winston Churchill declared, "Never waste a good crisis." He had just formed an alliance with Stalin and Roosevelt that would eventually become the United Nations, and Churchill’s quip summed up the ability—perhaps the need—during crises to exploit unexpected opportunities. Although life is a bit unsettled for many, it's also an opportunity to reset, including how you invest in yourself and your professional development. Victoria Swisher, author of Becoming an Agile Leader (2012), put it succinctly: "Learning Agility is an insurance policy for an uncertain future."

Shawna Lake is the founder of Deep End Talent Strategies, an HR consulting firm working with businesses and individuals alike.             

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