In high achievement cultures where people are held accountable for delivering on time and their results, there is generally a misconception about what it takes to lead and inspire others. Leaders often believe they need to “be tough” on others to drive results and get the best out of people. If we watch the way these leaders interact with their teams we can immediately know if they are leading by fear or by love. At Axialent, we find leaders who practice compassionate leadership, rather than an iron fist, are more likely to get the results they want.
The first type of leader is 100% result oriented, very focused on the task and the business results. They have a very strong opinion of what needs to be done to expand and grow. Therefore, they generally need to be “in charge all the time”, often using a very directive approach with their teams. They hand out orders to others, correcting people’s behavior on the spot, sometimes providing destructive feedback. Fear of failure (or not delivering results) is so strong and present that they undermine trust, psychological safety, creativity, and innovation.
Although these types of leadership behaviors may achieve business goals in the short term, leaders need to develop a more integral approach to create exceptional sustainable results. An approach that addresses the human dimension as much as the business one. This is what compassionate leadership is all about.
 

Compassionate leadership

 
compassionate leadershipCompassionate leadership does not mean being “soft with people” and not holding them accountable. It certainly does not propose giving up business results in pursuit of caring for people or make them feel connected.  At the heart of compassionate leadership lies the ability to recognize the potential and need of every human being and help them develop and grow in service of the business needs.
It means helping people sharpen their edge with kindness in the service of a bigger goal.
 

Compassionate leaders:

  • Develop a clear and inspiring integral vision.

They strongly provide and thoroughly communicate a clear direction to the desired outcomes and the role teams and individuals are invited to play in achieving the vision.

  • Embrace their own vulnerability and practice self-compassion.

Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen with no control of the outcome (as Brene Brown has stated through her research). Experiencing our own vulnerability and being kind to ourselves is the first step to connecting with others’ vulnerability and feeling compassion.

  • Put themselves in others’ shoes.

They invest time connecting and getting to know their team. These leaders have a genuine interest in them and the challenges they face. They build strong, trusting bonds. Compassionate leaders master the right balance between containing and challenging people to help them get unstuck and carry forward. They understand we all fail and make mistakes, and this is part of our development journey.

  • Speak their truth with honesty and respect.

Compassionate leadership is usually thought of as leaders sugarcoating messages to avoid people getting hurt. They are seen as avoiding conflicts, difficult conversations, or providing any feedback that might challenge people to consider a different perspective. In reality, compassionate leaders do just the opposite. They communicate thoroughly, provide constructive feedback, and have difficult conversations, all in the service of the growth of their people and the business.

  • Are committed to helping people grow and achieve their individual goals.

They will not withhold important feedback that can contribute to others’ development. They’ll own their opinions and express them constructively being true to themselves and being respectful to others.

  • Have a bias for action.

Compassionate leadership is not only about connecting and understanding people’s pain and challenges. It’s also about helping them see what they can and need to do to move forward, overcome adversity, grow their resilience, and encouraging them to do so.
 

Conclusion

How do you choose to lead your organization? How do you want to be remembered? What do you judge to be the most effective way to deliver your business results?
Compassionate leadership is a matter of choice. It helps create a safe container for people to feel cared for, seen, and valued while being supported to stretch out of their comfort zone and learn what’s needed to excel.
 

Have you ever lived a glorious leadership offsite, where you felt in your bones the newly forged bond with your peers, your mission as a company, and your dreams about the constructive culture you were going to lead by example? How long did that euphoria last? How far did that momentum take you and your team before the friction of ‘business as usual’ slowly and painfully eroded enthusiasm and brought you back to the grind? Were your commitments to each other strong enough to endure the first breakdowns post-summit? In this second article of a 3 part series, we explain the focus of the next 100 days of the new leadership team in its safe descent back to base camp.
In the first article of this series, we laid out what we believe makes a clear roadmap to success for the first 100 days of a CEO and the ‘new’ leadership team that results from the appointment. We shared the lessons gleaned from accompanying team members through five stages, along individual and collective tracks, all the way from base camp to the peak. We find the metaphor of a climbing expedition a fair reflection of the effort it takes to build trust, manage conflict, reach commitments, uphold accountability and focus on collective results. Good expeditions reach the summit and celebrate that feat, for sure. However, great expeditions believe that reaching the peak is but another step in the journey.
Given the importance of the next steps and inspired by Fred Kofman’s Four D’s, which he described in his book “The Meaning Revolution”, we work to ensure that teams return to business as usual in a masterful way.
 

DEFINE the standards of behavior

next 100 days of the new leadership teamOne of the first outcomes of the leadership team journey described in the first article is that participants can clearly articulate who they want to be and what they are going to do differently. How would they achieve better results if they simply continued to do the same old, same old? The norms about how people are expected to behave at an organization are what we call their desired culture. Therefore, explicitly stating how everyone is expected to act could be considered their cultural manifesto.
 
How are leaders expected to lead in this culture? The honest, specific response to this question by the top leaders defines their so-called leadership manifesto. These are just two examples of how a leadership team can explain the standards, so their aspirations become something they can measure, discuss, and disseminate. These need to be more than just posters on a wall.
 

DEMONSTRATE the standards of behavior

The shadow of the leader is long; therefore, the leadership team needs to walk the talk. Declaring how they expect to act is one thing, while actually doing what they declare is another. Paraphrasing Gandhi, the team that reached the peak needs to become the change they wished to see when they defined the behavioral standards for the company. They must be willing to share their struggles and their accomplishments as they learn to live and embody the defined standards. To this day, we found nothing more powerful than leading by example.
 

DEMAND the standards of behavior

The standards that the leaders defined are of no use if every single member of the team does not uphold them. As standards usually express an aspiration, there is typically a gap between where they are and where they want to be. That is OK if they show curiosity about the impact that having that gap has on others. It becomes part of the learning process as long as they explicitly link their actions to their attempts at bridging that gap. Holding people accountable shows that they are serious about their manifestos. They can do this by discussing breakdowns to learn from struggles and actively catching people doing the right thing.
 

DELEGATE accountability for the standards

When everybody holds everyone else (including the leaders) accountable for behaving according to the set standards, there is an intentional ripple effect. Leaders who take this return to base camp seriously grant everyone permission to call them out if they do not behave according to their leadership manifesto. There are no double standards. The culture manifesto naturally becomes ‘the way we do things around here’ without a second guess. The expected behaviors become the norm. Aspired culture becomes the actual, current culture. Another way of calling this D is “Disseminate”, as it empowers more leaders to be culture carriers and scales up the new leadership standards. It means facilitating an environment where others can empower themselves to shape the culture and become responsible for propagating it by repeatedly demonstrating, demanding, and delegating accountability in a virtuous cycle.
 
These four D’s are a simple-to-understand, challenging-to-execute process for establishing or revamping culture norms at your company. Stay tuned for this series’ third and last article to learn what happens to this new CEO and leadership team in their Next Normal. See you there!

A lot has been said about COVID-19’s impact on mental health. Research shows that rates of depression, stress, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress have risen significantly in the last year. While we have not yet recovered, some places are slowly recuperating their lost freedom, and others are still finding their way forward. We have all been affected by the pandemic. We have suffered losses in this exhausting process: from loved ones, to jobs, to our own health, opportunities, connection. And we are still mourning and longing for our losses. As organizations and leaders, how can we provide the support our people need and access our own emotional intelligence in times of COVID-19?
In this fast-changing environment where we are permanently looking for instant gratification, we often struggle. We find it challenging to connect with our own emotions and open ourselves to others’ experiences and requests for help and support. It takes a lot of courage to inwardly listen to our emotions instead of sweeping them under the rug and accepting them with compassion and without judgment.
Organizations are starting to take this issue seriously. They want to help people improve their quality of life and their working experience. They recognize the impact wellbeing and work-life integration have on midterm performance and effectiveness. In the last year, we have seen organizations deploying multiple initiatives spread across all levels, offering a complete menu of tools and skill learning to support people through these challenging times.
 

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Times of COVID-19

 
Emotional Intelligence in times of COVID-19
Of all the skills we can learn, developing emotional intelligence might be the “make it or break it” key capability for this new era. It is the key skill all leaders need to cultivate to lead effectively, caring for their people. And it has never been so collectively relevant.
Emotional intelligence refers to our ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own and others’ emotions. When we can manage our emotions, we respond more effectively to any given situation vs responding instinctively in a fight, flight, or freeze mode (behaviors led by our reptilian brain).  It helps us deal with stress and see clearly, making better decisions in our life. It builds up our resilience: the ability to bounce back in the face of setbacks.
Developing emotional intelligence also helps us improve our relationships and increase collaboration. It helps us empathize with how other people are feeling, putting ourselves in their shoes and feeling in our own body how others are feeling.
While many of us agree that emotional intelligence is a key skill, most leaders lack it. The good news is that we can train our brains to master our emotions.
 

Increasing Emotional Intelligence

 
Recognize:  The first step is to acknowledge what is happening. Listening to the emotions in our body, mind, and heart, connecting with the feeling it brings along, and sustaining its discomfort. Naming our emotions can help surface them and bring some perspective.
Understand: Our emotions are feelings created by conscious and unconscious thoughts and interpretations and they all are impulses to act. Every emotion has a message and requests an action from us. Self-inquiring uncovers meaning for our emotions and the story underlying the emotions.
Express /act constructively: Regulating our response our to own emotions and others’ emotions is crucial (it is thinking before reacting). It is about being able to share our interpretations and the thoughts underlying our emotions with honesty and respect. Sharing our core truth, expressing what really matters to us, in an impeccable and effective manner, without hurting our relationships and being true to ourselves.
COVID-19 has been emotionally devastating for many of us. It has put us to the test and has reinforced the need for and importance of developing our emotional intelligence to navigate in these unprecedented times effectively caring for ourselves and others.

The first 100 days of any CEO are usually a watershed moment for the new incumbent, the leadership team, and the company. In this article, first in a series of three, we lay out what we believe makes a clear roadmap to success. We have accompanied numerous executive committees through this new leadership team journey. Their powerful testimonials about its contribution to achieving extraordinary business results, improving team cohesiveness, and growing as individual leaders, inspired us to share the approach more broadly for others who may benefit from the lessons learned.
This unique journey is like a climbing voyage, with all eyes on the summit. However, the climb starts at base camp, that meeting place where we begin the expedition and prepare for a daring feat. Here is where we encourage them to discuss crucial questions in a metaphorical fireside chat:
▶️ To whom are we roped? new leadership team journey
▶️ What are we climbing for?
▶️ What unnecessary weight can we leave at the foot of the mountain?
▶️ What will we hang on to when things go awry?
The answers to these questions set up the expedition for success. But before they start, the team needs to carefully choose what they will take in their backpacks and what to leave behind. So load doesn’t turn to burden, each member of the team needs to ask themselves the following:
▶️ What skill sets can I contribute to this expedition?
▶️ Which abilities should I acquire or enhance?
▶️ What baggage am I carrying that can become a liability?
▶️ Which frameworks, experiences, and techniques can be helpful?
Once the leader’s backpack is ready, it is vital to help the team get their own ready as well. This may be the moment to consider finding trustworthy guides to lighten the load and get well equipped for the climb. At Axialent, you will find seasoned ‘Sherpas’ for journeys like this, who ascend alongside each individual participant and equip them with the necessary tools that will help them identify their own assets and liabilities as climbers.
 

Then they are ready to climb!

At Axialent, we’ve increasingly set out to reach the leadership team summit in five stages, inspired by the work of Patrick Lencioni on cohesive teams:

  1. We always begin with trust. Without it, the way forward will be overly cumbersome. Building trust will help us every step of the way.
  2. When there is trust, we can deal with conflict constructively. We see conflict on a spectrum, where both extremes (denying conflict out of avoidance, to downright explosion) are unhealthy.
  3. A team that manages conflict constructively can truly commit. Authentic commitments require a clear request, an equally explicit acceptance of the request, and all team members’ buy-in.
  4. Practicing accountability is the next stage. The team embraces it to ensure their commitments are honored, even (or especially) when they cannot fulfill them.
  5. The expedition reaches the peak when it can focus on its collective results rather than the individual goals of its members.

 

Two tracks across the five stages of the leadership team journey

We like to say that we climb these stages with the CEO and their team following two distinct, yet interwoven paths: the individual and the collective tracks. Each leader works individually with a personal coach (who we called Sherpa above) on their development goals. In the collective track, the leadership group participates in team coaching to work on their dynamics and interactions as a group. These collective sessions are often co-facilitated by the different Sherpas assigned to the various members of the team to allow for diverse vantage points for richer observation and broader context.
We approach each of the five stages based on the following premise: as experts, we reserve the professional judgment to draw on the frameworks, distinctions, and techniques that will build the skills and capability that each team requires at a given point in time. How do we know? By running individual and group diagnostics upfront and at the end of each journey. This provides rich context to draw on, thus shaping the content to fit this particular team like no other.
At Axialent, one of our deeply held principles is believing in context before content. We go one step further. We also believe in connection before context. Therefore, when we accompany a leadership team in their first 100 days to the summit, we make it a point to start with a virtual coffee where each expedition member meets and greets the Sherpa who will be ‘climbing’ with them.
In the next couple of weeks, we will share the next article of this series, where we explain what happens at the peak and how the new CEO can tackle the leadership team’s safe descent back to base camp. Stay tuned for the Next 100 Days of a new CEO!

We expect leaders to move quickly and decisively, demonstrating agility when responding to challenging situations and emerging opportunities. At the same time, they are expected to collaborate effectively across boundaries, actively solicit ideas from others before making decisions, and foster a team culture where every person feels valued, included, and connected. How can we manage the balance between agility and inclusion?

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

This may seem like an impossible ask. Can we invest the time to learn each person’s unique opinions and ideas and meet pressing deadlines? Can we genuinely foster an environment where everyone feels included and valued while moving at lightning speed?This apparent dilemma may have deepened during the global pandemic. Organizations realized that they could move faster, be nimbler, and get things done quicker than they ever thought possible. However, some of this newly found agility and speed was the outcome of crisis management, inadvertently creating insider/outsider dynamics. As we move from crisis management to a more sustainable approach, we should take the time to discuss how to manage the balance between agility and inclusion.
Balance Between Agility and Inclusion
The first step is to acknowledge that there is a natural tension between speed and inclusion. In some instances, a more collaborative, inclusive approach can take longer than the situation will tolerate. However, speed and agility do not have to come at the expense of inclusion. A conscious leader can consider trade-offs and be intentional on the best approach to get things done.
If you are looking to manage the speed and inclusion balance for your team, here are some ideas you can consider:
 

Start by defining your intention

In conscious business, we believe that our actions respond to our mindsets, and our mindsets are shaped by our values and intentions. Being an inclusive leader requires working at the “being” level, as well as the “doing” level. Start by reflecting on what inclusion means to you. How do you want to be perceived as a leader and how your actions are reflecting that intention? Also consider how other values, such as fulfilling commitments and achievement, may be in alignment or in conflict. Check the story you are telling yourself about the situation. Are you creating a false dichotomy between getting things done quickly and being inclusive? Are you inadvertently asking others to choose agility over inclusion instead of finding a balance?
 

Tap into the wisdom of the team

Often, it’s not inclusive behaviors that slow down decisions and actions, but the ways we make decisions and collaborate. Organizational sluggishness is often the result of a lack of clarity around goals and roles in participation and passive-defensive cultural norms where people are expected to agree, gain approval, and be liked by others. If this is the case, the best way to drive change is to call out the problem, bring awareness to the situation, and ask your team and peers for ideas to balance speed and inclusion. Employees understand the need for agility and making decisions quickly. They also value a workplace where people feel that they belong and where their opinions and ideas matter. Ask them for feedback on how well the team is managing the balance and ideas on what can be done to foster more inclusive and agile collaboration.
 

Embed new habits

Identify small, but impactful habits that drive both inclusion and agility and make them part of your ways of working. For example:

  • Conduct check-ins and check-outs in meetings. It makes meetings more productive by aligning participants’ expectations, understanding context, and creating meaningful connections, even in virtual settings.
  • Be intentional about who weighs in on decisions and has the opportunity to participate. You may be inadvertently relying on the same ‘selected few’ because you trust them or like them more, instead of leveraging the talents and experience of every member of the team.
  • Make it a habit to challenge yourself and the team when making decisions. Questions like these can help you do a quick check and foster constructive debate:
    What points of view have we not considered yet?
    Who needs to be involved to get the best possible outcome in the least amount of time?
    How can we simplify or shave off time?
    What are the trade-offs?
  • When launching a new initiative, ensure that there is a project charter meeting and regular check-ins where the team can discuss the following:
    What is the best way to move quickly while keeping everyone in the loop?
    How can we create a safe space for team members to share their thoughts and feelings, even if they are dissenting?
    How will we discuss learnings and share them with others outside the team?

 
To become more agile, many established organizations have adopted the mantra “move fast and break things quickly” from the start-up world. Similarly, the key to finding more inclusive and agile ways of working is approaching the process with intention and a learner mindset. Experiment, learn from it, do it better next time, and foster a safe space for others to do the same.
 

inclusive team culture
We often talk about inclusion in the context of broader conversations about diversity and equity programs and initiatives. It’s true that high levels of inclusion are necessary for diversity practices to positively impact and develop trust in groups1, but an inclusive team culture is generated by everyday interactions.  Inclusion is also applicable to every person in an organization, not just underrepresented groups.  You can have a homogenous team with low levels of inclusion.  Any one of us can experience the benefits of inclusion and the detriments of exclusion at any time. So, how do we create a more inclusive team culture?
To understand the impact that inclusion (or lack of) can have on a team, think about a recent meeting where you didn’t feel heard or comfortable sharing your opinion because your point of view was different from the rest of the team.  How did it feel?  Most likely it impacted your level of engagement with the group and your willingness and ability to contribute to the meeting.

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”
– Phil Jackson

A team is inclusive when its norms are carefully constructed to promote experiences of both belonging and uniqueness for its members.  According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, we are spending more time than ever in meetings at work since the stay-at-home orders and lockdowns started in 2020.  So, if meetings are one of our most frequent and important forms of interaction with others at work, we should be intentional about how we conduct our meetings to foster a more inclusive team environment.
 
Below are some ideas on how to intentionally design and facilitate more inclusive team meetings.
 

Observe patterns

If you intentionally pay attention to your next 2-3 team meetings, you will likely see behavior patterns emerge. Are you spending more time talking than listening? Does everyone have an equal opportunity to participate? Is someone dominating the conversation?  Are people being interrupted? Do people talk over each other? Who is silent or only speaks when prompted?
 

Be clear on the meeting intention

Once you have an informal assessment of how inclusive your team meetings are, try to make the next one better. Start by defining the meeting objective – Is it to inform? To brainstorm? To decide?  Be clear on your intention and determine the meeting agenda according to your objective and desired outcomes.  This will help you define the attendee list and make sure that no one is unintentionally left out.  To make the meeting more productive, share the agenda with the team in advance.
 

Conduct small experiments.

Based on your observations, try some new approaches in your next meeting to be more inclusive. Here are some ideas:

  • Do a quick check-in at the beginning of the meeting. People work better together when they get to know each other as individuals. This may be challenging in virtual and hybrid work settings. To help people be present and share how they are coming into the meeting, do a check-in where each person answers two questions: How has your day been so far?  What do you want to get out of this meeting?
  • Inclusive informing. Discuss with the team, who else needs to know about this? Did we unintentionally leave someone out? How can we effectively communicate this information to others outside this team?
  • Inclusive brainstorming and discussion. If the purpose of the meeting is to brainstorm and discuss ideas, consider breaking the bigger group into smaller groups to increase interaction and allow everyone to contribute. In smaller groups, you can have team members write down their ideas independently before brainstorming and then use a round-robin approach to ensure that each member shares their ideas.
  • Inclusive decision-making. If the purpose of the meeting is to decide, define and communicate upfront who will make the ultimate decision. Do you need more information from the team or do you want the team to decide as a group?  If the former, a good technique is to allow people to vote silently on ideas, so team members are not unduly influenced by the votes of others.
  • No interrupting rule. It’s a simple as it sounds, prohibit interrupting at your meeting. Gently, but firmly, call out when people are interrupting or speaking over others.
  • Do a quick check-out at the end of the meeting. Leave time at the end of the meeting to understand how each participant feels and if they felt that the team accomplished what they set out to do in the meeting. This will give you valuable feedback to see how your experiment went and what you can improve for the next meeting.

 
Culture gets created or reinforced in each and every interaction.​ So, why not leverage the time you spend in meetings to make a difference in driving a more inclusive team?
 
____________________________________________
1Downey, S. N., van der Werff, L., Thomas, K. M., & Plaut, V. C. (2015). The role of diversity practices and inclusion in promoting trust and employee engagement. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(1), 35- 44.
 

All organizations are facing disruption within their markets and business models. Most of them are trying to adapt and keep the pace with cutting-edge organizations that are transforming consumer behaviors, creating new wants and needs in the market, introducing exponential technologies, evolving into digital, and raising the bar every day on how to do and conduct business. Transforming a business requires shifting our perception about how we see and understand reality. We need to update our own operating system and cultivate an innovation mindset.
 

Innovation is king in this era, whether we are ready or not

 
When working with leaders and organizations, they often ask: how can we be more innovative? How can we change and transform our business? What will motivate our people to want to try to innovate? How do we develop a culture of innovation in our organization?
When we start to explore innovation in organizations, we discover that different people have different understandings about what it means and takes to develop a culture of innovation. Digital transformation and innovation are often talked about together, however, innovation is a much broader concept.
There are endless definitions of what innovation is. In the end, what they all have in common is “doing something different that adds value.” In my experience, what organizations mean when talking about innovation is “challenging the status quo.” They are referring to challenging their people to think and do things differently. This can apply to any dimension of an organization. It means bringing to life a disruptive idea that can give them a competitive advantage among the rest of the players in the market.
If you want to embrace a culture of innovation, you have to do more than just communicate it or create a set of initiatives.  It involves creating the right environment for people to believe that they are expected and encouraged to test, learn, adjust, and implement new ideas that will enrich their value proposition.
Innovation begins when leaders successfully adopt an innovation mindset. Mindsets are the set of values and beliefs that underpin our behaviors. They are the filters through which we interpret reality and give meaning to our world.  They guide and condition our behaviors. The first step to innovating is believing we can.
 

Some key elements of an innovation mindset:

 

  • We can all innovate. “We are not in the innovative team” or “I am not creative” type of thinking kills ideas before they are even born. It prevents us from harnessing the team’s creativity and coming up with and implementing alternative solutions for everyday challenges. With the right toolbox and a safe environment, we can all learn how to innovate and expand our abilities.
  • Innovation: not just good ideas. Coming up with an idea is just the first step of the process. The hardest part is executing those ideas. When it comes to innovation, there are structured processes and methodologies that will enable execution and guide us in the process: from coming up with an idea, designing an MVP (minimum viable product), testing it, learning from its outcomes, and adapting the learnings into a new version of the product before we are ready to scale it.
  • Take calculated risks. Be ready for setbacks. Innovating implies stepping out of our comfort zone and trying new things that we have never done before. It means taking a risk and the associated cost that comes with failure. But failure brings learnings that are crucial to improving and growing. Fostering curiosity, asking questions to learn from other’s experiences, and failure is imperative for innovation.
  • Dream big, start small with ruthless determination. The sky is the limit when envisioning the future. An inspiring vision will fuel your passion and determination. Starting small makes things easier to achieve and helps us conquer quick wins and learning points to keep going.
  • Progress, not perfection: Strive for continuous improvement through repeated experiment cycles. We are not looking to nail it from day 1, we are looking to pursue continuous improvement.

When we think about developing an innovation mindset, it seems like common sense. However, it is easier said than done. In our experience, the biggest challenge to developing a culture of innovation within an organization is the leaders’ inability to develop an innovation mindset.
When we start shifting our mindsets, we start changing our culture.

Doing agile is challenging but being agile is transformative. Where is the right place to start? There is no one right answer. But first things first. What is the difference between doing agile and being agile?

Doing Agile

Agile is not a methodology; it is a mindset you can apply in your life and your way of doing business. Agile is common in the software development industry, but any industry can use and benefit from the agile mindset. For me, doing agile is about implementing specific behaviors or ways of doing business based on four values and twelve principles (the Agile Manifesto). Therefore, a way to do agile is to implement frameworks or methods that are very powerful to organize, collaborate and prioritize tasks and workflows in a team such as Scrum or Kanban.
Most teams try this approach. I don’t think it is wrong, but I do think it is incomplete. When teams focus just on using SCRUM, they forget why they are implementing agile. In other words, they can’t see the forest for the trees. Agile is not about speed. It is about producing better outcomes for the business in a rapidly changing world. For example, a team measures the number of new features (outputs), rather than new subscribers (outcomes). It is okay to have deliverables, but new features do not guarantee business results.

Being Agile

Being agile, on the other hand, is about transforming your mindset. It has to do with how you understand the world. It encourages a new way of leading teams, developing a product, or testing ideas. Being agile is transformative because it forces us to put the customer first and focus on developing the things that matter.

Why Being Agile is So Hard

Being Agile is common sense, but not common practice. It goes back to the Waterfall Project Management framework. This way of managing was created during the industrial revolution. The goal was to find the best way to optimize a production line. Things are different now because the speed of change is so high that companies need to adapt every day. And what is tricky about change is that it’s not so fun. Change means constantly learning and coping with uncertainty. And learning with the wrong mindset means failing, which touches our insecurities.
doing agile vs being agile
I remember coaching a Product Manager to include an experimentation mindset in their agile sprints. In order to do this, she had to coordinate experiments with a team of UX designers and developers. The team was struggling because everyone wanted to have everything perfect. It’s okay to pursue doing things right. The problem is when perfection is a way to keep your work within your comfort zone. For example, their focus was on having the perfect design or the perfect line of code. Instead, they should have been trying to understand the impact their new features would have on their customer. But they preferred to focus on what was less scary for them: the technical output.
Everyone had a reason for this. The PM was new to the role, so she did not want to measure outcomes because, for her, that meant she did not understand the customer well enough, and she was not ready for the role. The developer did not want to measure outcomes either because his job was to make a button work and get that perfect algorithm. He did not see himself as having to change the customer behavior. The UX designers did not want to test with mockups. Instead, they had to do things properly and follow their internal procedures as good design mandates.
This makes sense because it is harder to commit to impact customer behavior (outcome) than to produce an output. It is hard because apparently, the former is not under the team’s control. And this is true if you look through perfectionist lenses, but it is not the only way.

The Simple Solution

Sorry, there is no simple solution. But there is a solution. I will summarize some key points, but I also want to anticipate that agile means implementing a profound cultural transformation and that is a complex process that takes time.
As a manager, you need to accept the impact of working under agile. You cannot ask teams to use Kanban but have a two-year roadmap of features that the team needs to develop. Instead, it would be best if you adopt a learner mindset. As Jeff Gothelf says, you are creating an infinite product. A product that is constantly evolving with the market, and you can’t know what the market will want in two years. A learner mindset implies testing and learning (failing) repeatedly.
Second, test and learn is tough if you don’t create psychological safety for your team to explore the unknown. This is a new way of leading in which leaders need to be capable of having crucial conversations to understand what failure means for each individual on his/her team. The best way to incentivize this is to stop appraising faster outputs, but faster learning cycles. Retrospectives or reflections are crucial but do not focus only on technical issues. Explore the individual dimension. This can start with a simple question: How did you feel during the experiment?
Finally, as a leader, you need to create a shared vision where everyone understands that a line of code impacts the company’s ROI. You need to be consistent and aligned with the results you demand. It is okay to have clear objectives and key results (OKRs), but they should be centered on changing customer behavior.

Conclusion

To sum up, being agile can sound cool and imperative, especially in these crazy times. Sometimes we want a quick solution — we might think agile can be the vaccine to get everything under control again. But things do not go back to normal with quick fixes. Conscious leadership is more relevant than ever. We need to change our mindsets, being players and learners who take care of each other at every step of the way. That is, for me, the best way to be agile.

At Axialent, we are not experts in Agile. Our expertise lies in helping organizations build the cultures they require, in light of their business strategy, and develop their leaders to be living proxies of that culture. In the last two decades, agile has emerged as an unstoppable practice among organizations, and it is changing their cultures.

The question for us is: are you managing the resulting culture change intentionally? Is agile shaping your culture by accident or by design?

Adopting an agile way of working can be fraught with challenges. We experienced this first hand when we launched an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. I’d like to share the lessons we learned behind the scenes of what was probably the most audacious adoption of agile in a non-tech industry.

We accompanied the top 200 leaders of this organization, in 24 cohorts, across 11 countries, in a 6-month long journey that combined coaching them individually and as leadership teams. This gave us a privileged vantage point to observe their struggles and the gaps they were trying to bridge.

In this first article of a series, we will focus on the specific challenges we witnessed, because we follow this principle: ‘no gap, no coaching.’ Clarifying the gap before we intervene helps us gain a deep understanding of the problem, empathize with our client, and offer higher chances of finding an adequate solution to prototype, test, and learn.

Here are some of the conclusions we reached after exposing the gap:

1. Agile brings about a new leadership paradigm and not just a more effective way of working.

It is hard to imagine companies embarking on an agile transformation and taking it lightly. They aim to become much better in terms of quality, time-to-market, productivity, and, above all, employee engagement.

Most believe that adopting agile unleashes talent, makes team members accountable and generates one-team dynamics. Other firms might be driving a similar shift, but they’re not calling it an agile transformation. The name is not what matters.

Beyond the rituals and ceremonies they adopt, or the frameworks they embrace, the essence of today’s business transformations lies in changing how leadership is felt, conceived, and performed, in a way that is radically different. This happens in most cultural transformations. The difference that agile brings is the context.

2. From rigid, hierarchical ‘command-and-control’ leadership to servant leadership 

In this company’s context, the gap for leaders was shifting from a rigid, hierarchical ‘command-and-control’ leadership style to a servant leadership style.

This change required the top-most executives to give up being the center of the organization. They were now expected to be at the service of the teams who worked closer to their clients than the leaders ever were. They were supposed to coach those teams, instead of giving them detailed instructions.

Leaders’ main focus now had to be on removing any and all obstacles that prevented those teams from delivering value to the customer as quickly and effectively as possible. Even if those obstacles were the leaders themselves.

Can you see how counter-intuitive this could be for an executive who climbed the ranks by being a good soldier, was promoted for being a great soldier, and just as he or she was about to reach the summit of a 2-decade-or-more climb is told ‘sorry, the glory is down there?’

3. From micromanagement to  autonomy, engagement, and empowerment 

For employees, the central gap was shifting from a culture of micromanagement to one where autonomy, engagement and empowerment are expected, exercised, and promoted.

The intention was to evolve from being managed and having linear career expectations to self-managing themselves and their own career. Why? Because this company believed that it would help them shift from feeling resignation, skepticism, and fear of feedback to feeling engaged, empowered, and looking at feedback with openness and acceptance. The logic was attractive. However, change was not automatic.

From Do Agile to Be Agile

At Axialent we believe that, for any change that truly matters, it must operate first at the Be-level. It’s in that mushy place where thoughts & feelings, values & beliefs, and needs & wants reside (and that top execs seldom look at from so high above) where we have found the most significant leverage.

From there, the leaders and those they lead can shift behaviors more effectively at the Do-level. Training people how to do agile was not enough.

They needed to dive deeper and actually be agile.
In that deep side of the pool, there is anxiety, tension, and even fear among leaders and team members alike. “What will happen to me and my career in this company?”, “How can I protect my safe haven?” “Will we increase risk by letting go of control?” “What do you mean that control is ‘bad’? We’re a regulated company! Control is not only good – it’s mandatory!”

Reconciling these dilemmas was suddenly part of their job description. They looked at their toolkit and realized they needed a different set of tools to deal with this new reality. So, we set off to replenish them from our stock.

Understanding these gaps helped us walk in our clients’ shoes as we embarked on this journey alongside them. In the following two articles of this series, we will explain the design principles we followed and the most prized lessons we have learned and would apply in the next opportunity that comes our way. Come along for the ride!

Many companies begin their culture journey motivated to make big changes. While the intention of major change is there, some will lack the follow-through to sustain focus and solidify lasting change. Taking the time to measure the progress of your culture in a conscious, intentional, and continuous way is important to keep your initiatives on track.

The first step for many organizations is to conduct a baseline culture assessment, typically consisting of quantitative and qualitative data. The purpose of the assessment is to identify their ideal culture, measure the current culture, and find out where the gaps are. This data helps leaders get aligned on their vision, as well as to better understand the mindsets, values, and beliefs that are widely shared in the organization, and how they may enable or get in the way of attaining results.

As the culture transformation process unfolds – roadmaps are defined, workshops are conducted, communication strategies are implemented and change agents are mobilized – measurement typically goes to the bottom of the priority list.  Rarely do we find that the same level of rigor that was used in the assessment step is applied to measure the progress and impact of culture change initiatives.  The approach is often limited to informal sensing based on unstructured conversations and casual observations, or relying on employee engagement surveys, which seldom measure shifts in mindsets and behaviors. This makes it hard to pinpoint where are we making progress and what we need to do to accelerate the change.

However, administering comprehensive culture surveys and conducting multiple interviews and focus groups may not always be feasible if you want to keep the pulse on the change and assess progress in a continuous way.

Here are some ideas to help you design your culture measurement strategy:

Identify where you are in your culture journey

Have you recently started your culture transformation effort?  Have you already started mobilizing people and launching initiatives?  Understanding where you are will help you define what you need to look for (your key hypothesis and key research questions) and the data sources that will be most helpful.  For example, you could assess the following:

  • Change readiness – Do you want to see if leaders and employees are aware, willing, and able to drive change?
  • Culture drivers – Do you want to see how effective the new programs or initiatives are?
  • Mindset changes – Do you want to assess if the desired culture mindsets and behaviors are becoming norms?
  • Outcomes – Do you want to understand how culture is impacting key business and people results?

At the beginning of your culture journey, you may want to focus on measuring change readiness and the effectiveness of culture initiatives.  As your process takes root, you can focus more on behavioral and outcome measures.

Identify potential sources of data

Since culture is experienced, the best insights typically come from a mix of quantitative and qualitative data.  Based on your key research questions, you can strategically identify potential data sources (such as employee lifecycle surveys, leadership 360s, performance evaluation forms, training feedback, sentiment analysis from employee comments, or feedback data) that can be re-imagined for intentionally capturing meaningful culture insights.  If your focus is more on assessing outcomes, consider conducting advanced analytics, integrating people metrics (such as engagement, retention, development and performance measures) with employee surveys and customer data.

Identify potential experiments

Many successful culture change initiatives are rolled out in phases.  This gives the organization the opportunity to learn and adjust, create success stories, and form culture champions.  The phased approach also lends itself to measuring the impact of the culture initiatives over time for certain groups and to compare the differences among groups who have experienced the change vs. those who have not.  Designing and measuring experiments will help you refine your approach before committing to bigger investments, make participants an active part of your broader change process, and assess the ROI of your initiatives.

Conclusion

Your strategy to measure the progress of your culture should be aligned to the mindsets that you are looking to drive – whether it is agility, innovation, accountability, or inclusion.  Be intentional and approach the measurement process with curiosity – you are not looking for a pass or fail grade, but for powerful insights that will help you shape your best next step in your culture transformation journey.