For most executives we know, embarking on a transformation journey at the helm of an organization is thrilling. It’s nothing short of an adrenaline rush, like the climbing expedition we’ve been comparing it to over the last few weeks. However, journeys come to an end, and life -as well as business- goes on. Business as usual, they say. At the foot of the mountain, the heroes of the hike blend with ordinary folks and continue onward. That part of the story typically gets left out of the books because… who wants to hear about the ‘normal’? We revive that story here, in the final article of the series, The Next Normal of a New CEO.
In the first article, we laid out a roadmap for the first 100 days of a CEO and the ‘new’ leadership team that results from that appointment (from A to B in the illustration above). We continued with a second article where we explained the focus of the team’s next 100 days in its safe descent back to base camp (from B to C). We finish the series with the ‘next normal’ of this team (‘new normal’ sounds too definitive for a VUCA world).
The Next Normal of a New CEOBeginnings, or new beginnings, are exciting. They create momentum, but it’s a hard job to keep the flame alive. If the leadership team does an excellent job with the four D’s mentioned in article two, there’s a higher chance that the flame will last longer. However, they will need a sustainable fuel source for that flame because eventually, it will die out. No matter how well-intended the leaders are, their behaviors are not enough to consolidate an evolving or transforming culture. Culture needs to be hinged on systems to endure.
 

Systems and Symbols

What are systems? For us, systems are to the organization what behaviors are to individuals. They are the workflows, procedures, policies, practices (you name it) that shape collective actions. As such, they can be powerful symbols of what the company values, regardless of the words on their posters.
An example of the power of systems and symbols is how top leadership deals with ‘airtime’. What they spend time on, or whom they spend time with, sends a loud message to the organization. Take one of our clients. They decided to end their hierarchical, command-and-control leadership style because their business strategy called for swifter moves that they believed would happen with more autonomous, empowered, and customer-centric teams.
Their leadership manifesto called for them to be ‘servant leaders’. Some took on the challenge of transforming their mindsets and behaviors to become that type of leader. However, their meeting protocols remained unchanged. Front-line employees were still called to provide status updates to top leadership, which meant taking an elevator to the ‘noble’ floor, projecting the same lifeless PPTs as always, as if they were making a case in front of a tribunal waiting for the verdict.
The culture only started shifting when the executives brought the change to another level. No more status updates at the top of the high-rise corporate headquarters. They systematically took the same elevator down, attended the forums where teams did the actual work and asked questions when their turn came. Their leadership manifesto got grounded in their collective rituals, which had a compounding effect on their behaviors.
 

The Road Ahead

Other systems and symbols in an organization are how the budget is allocated (what do they spend their money on?), whom they hire, who gets promoted, what gets celebrated and punished, and how they reward and discipline. These are the infrastructure on which the leaders keep traveling when they return from their climbing expedition. They arrive eager to reach milestones on their ongoing journey toward long-term, sustainable success in the form of robust business results, healthy relationships, and personal fulfillment. Excellent leadership teams realize that:

    1. The road ahead is full of curves. They will arrive at crossroads where the tools they gathered on their way to the peak will come in handy. The good news is that, after a climb, a curvy road pales in comparison.
    2. They can’t let their guard down. Continuing to measure how the team is doing on their levels of trust, conflict management, commitment, accountability, and results is paramount for them to keep working out where they are weaker. No matter how well they’re doing, they know that the moment they quit going to the gym, they’ll get out of shape. Staying at the top of their game is a life-long sport.
    3. They need to get rid of the inappropriate infrastructure that slows their momentum, sometimes to a halt.
    4. They found their fuel – a healthy fuel that keeps the fire (the one they kindled at the fireside chat at base camp) burning and lighting the way. Holding on to their purpose, their true North, they move not for themselves, but for something that transcends them.
    5. There is a legacy to leave behind, and they have decided what they want that to be.

We hope you enjoyed the journey alongside this new CEO and leadership team. Let us know in the comments which part of the journey you found most helpful for your own!

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!

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!

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?
Developing an innovation mindsetWhen 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.

“Decision making is an art only until the person understands the science.”
―Pearl Zhu, Decision Master: The Art and Science of Decision Making

The average adult makes about 35,000 conscious decisions daily (Sahakian & LaBuzetta, 2013). Considering the amount of time we spend on this, have you ever stopped to think how you could be more effective at making conscious decisions? Even the time of day we make a decision can affect the outcome. So, what is the best time and moment to make important decisions?
Let’s consider an excerpt from a study published in 2011, on how the time of day influences our decision-making ability.
 

Decision Making and Time of Day

 

“Three men doing time in Israeli prisons recently appeared before a parole board consisting of a judge, a criminologist and a social worker. The three prisoners had completed at least two-thirds of their sentences, but the parole board granted freedom to only one of them. Guess which one:

    • Case 1 (heard at 8:50 a.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.
    • Case 2 (heard at 3:10 p.m.): A Jewish Israeli serving a 16-month sentence for assault.
    • Case 3 (heard at 4:25 p.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.

There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was all about timing, as researchers discovered by analyzing more than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year. Judges, who would hear the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.

The odds favored the prisoner who appeared at 8:50 a.m. — and he did in fact receive parole. But even though the other Arab Israeli prisoner was serving the same sentence for the same crime — fraud — the odds were against him when he appeared (on a different day) at 4:25 in the afternoon. He was denied parole, as was the Jewish Israeli prisoner at 3:10 p.m, whose sentence was shorter than that of the man who was released. They were just asking for parole at the wrong time of day.”

 

Making Effective Conscious Decisions

 
Our decisions are influenced by external circumstances and the effect these have on us personally.
Making Effective Conscious Decisions
The time of the day is a big one! How rested or tired, how hungry, stressed and/or rushed we are at that time, among other things, are crucial conditions to keep in mind when wanting to make more effective decisions.
Here are my main takeaways about making effective conscious decisions based on different cases, studies, and science:

  • The mental work we do over the course of a day wears down people’s decision-making capacity.
  • As our energy is depleted, the brain will look for shortcuts. One shortcut is to make more impulsive decisions, the other is to postpone decisions. Which do you think is the more effective route?
  • These experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. That’s why it’s harder to resist temptations at the end of the day.
  • Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from our fear of giving up options. The word “decide” shares an etymological root with “homicide,” the Latin word “caedere,” meaning “to cut down” or “to kill,” and that loss looms especially large when decision fatigue sets in.
  • Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision-making.
  • Glucose level influences decision-making. Do not make decisions on an empty stomach.

So, what does this all mean for making effective conscious decisions? We may not always be able to control the external factors influencing us, but by being aware of them, we can choose to postpone important decisions or take care of ourselves in a better way to make them more effective.
 

If you would like to know more about effective decision making, meetings, and commitments, check out my webinar, Making things happen: improving the way we make decisions.

 
Sources used in this article: Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? and “Extraneous factors in judicial decisions” by Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso

In the first article of this series, we shared the specific challenges we witnessed when launching an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. In the second article, we shared our thinking around the principles that informed our approach. Now in this third and last article of the series, we share the top lessons we learned alongside the participants and sponsors of this journey.
 

What we would keep doing

    1. Preserve the spirit of wholehearted co-creation. As a consulting firm, we have our proven methods and tools. However, we chose to be highly vigilant and not drink our own Kool-Aid. Show me practitioners who have only a handful of red lines and are willing to adjust everything else on their book, and I will show you professionals who truly put clients first.
    2. When working with top leadership, there is a weight attached to their positions – conscious or unconscious. We genuinely strive to connect from human to human, scrapping all titles. Now we insist more often that leadership journeys begin with coach and coachee sharing a virtual coffee, free from agenda, simply for the sake of connecting.
    3. We will continue to act on feedback as if our lives depended on it. This is no minor task. The distinction between integrating feedback and accepting to do everything your client asks for is not commonly understood. It takes serious preparation.
    4. We will always honor the past AND look forward with curiosity.

Is Agile Shaping Your Culture by Accident or by DesignAllow me to emphasize this fourth lesson for a moment. Agile is often presented as the remedy that will heal all corporate ailments. This is overly simplistic, and some may even consider it an insult to their intelligence. However, the natural tendency of this person is to sway to the other end of the pendulum and negate any benefit of the new way of working. This, too, is foolish.
Many leaders feel trapped in a false dilemma because they think they are facing an either-or choice when we present the gap ‘From-To’. Either we are pro-command and control OR anti-command and control. When we introduced polarity thinking, this subliminal tension dissipated. We honor where we are coming from AND (not OR) acknowledge that moving forward, we need to do some things differently. In Dr. Marshall Goldsmith’s words, “What got you here won’t get you there.” It was no longer a problem with a single solution (agile or bust) but rather a polarity to manage. For leaders, that meant they needed to maximize the time spent on the benefits of agile and the benefits of what preceded it, instead of viewing agile as a new, unquestionable dogma.
 

If we could take a Mulligan…

If you’re not familiar with golf, the term Mulligan means a ‘do-over’. It’s a second try given to a player, without penalty, after a first stroke that did not go well. So, if we were granted a Mulligan, there are some things we wouldn’t have done or that we would have done less.
 

What we would do differently

  1. We are executive coaches, so we didn’t think it was necessary to connect with the agile coaches in the organization. We figured that our work was different. In hindsight, this was a missed opportunity to join forces. In future assignments, we would make it a point to connect the ‘do-agile’ and ‘be-agile’ parties.
  2. We took the sponsor’s brief for granted. Our prototyping, co-creating approach saved the day in the end, as it allowed us to pivot from the original learning journey design. Nevertheless, in the future, we would push for an if-then scenario planning. If the brief is accurate, we will deploy plan A; if it isn’t, we will go with plan B.
  3. We used an in-house feedback tool. We knew it was not ideal and we wouldn’t compromise on it again. A robust feedback tool provides participants excellent traction for change. It is paramount to select it with care.
  4. The preliminary design allowed several weeks between group workshops, and only two individual coaching sessions per participant seemed sufficient. Experience tells us that it is far more effective to shorten the time between team sessions to keep the cohorts focused and on-task. It would also be wise to dedicate a higher number of individual coaching sessions than we had initially planned.

 
These are the lessons we learned behind the scenes of one of the boldest adoptions of agile in a non-tech industry. Are there any lessons that you would like to share around leadership development in an agile context? Have you had similar experiences or were they entirely different? Let us know in the comments! We would love to have a mutual learning conversation with you.

In the first article of this series, we shared the specific challenges we witnessed when launching an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. At Axialent, we deliberately expose and analyze ‘the gap’ before we intervene. We call it the ‘From-To’. It helps us gain a deep understanding of the problem and empathize with our clients as we embark on co-designing the solution with them. In this second article, we share our thinking around the principles that informed our approach to this Agile leadership journey.

The Journey

Following is an illustration of the Agile leadership journey:
 

It consisted of three collective workshops, each a few weeks apart, and individual coaching sessions in between them. During these 1:1 encounters, the coach and participant worked on the coachee’s commitment to experimenting with his/her behavioral change. Full disclosure: this structure was presented to us as a suggestion based on successful deployment at the Executive level with another business partner. We took it on to adapt, test, and learn further with the remaining top-200 leaders (executives included).
 

The Participants

 
The first aspect of this program was defining the target audience. Traditionally, our client would offer leadership development programs at their corporate university campus, as the location where they ‘built culture’. They liked to mingle leaders from around their geographical footprint, resulting in diverse cohorts that did not necessarily work together daily. This had its pros. However, we wanted to test a new approach: we directed this program at intact teams, meaning leadership teams that worked together every day. We believed that this would allow them to have more earnest conversations around real-life challenges that affected them all directly. The most significant plus for us was that they could make commitments that genuinely mattered to their shared agenda. Participants would be primed for mutual accountability.
 

Cadence

 
agile team workingThe second aspect that made this program different was that it was not designed as the typical immersive, residential, intensive x-day workshop. Instead, we scheduled shorter interventions several weeks apart. This design was deployed before the pandemic, so the sessions were held face-to-face. Nevertheless, this concept has survived to this day as a valid structure for most of our hybrid or purely online leadership development journeys.
 

Test & Learn

 
Another principle we followed was a prototyping approach of sorts. We ran pilots for each group intervention and led retrospectives where feedback was gathered from participants as if our lives depended on it. We moved past the typical satisfaction survey and got extremely curious about the participants’ experiences. Which were their ‘a-ha’ moments and pain points? When did they flow? With whom did they connect? What did they learn? This provided a wealth of feedback that we integrated into the last legs of the journey.
 

Shared Accountability

Lastly, we took a shared responsibility approach to facilitation. Both coaches and participants were responsible for the best use of the group’s time together. This is not a new concept, but it gained even more traction as we added elements to the program that emphasized this approach: each program milestone ended in commitments, draft experiments, individual and collective action plans, and a learning buddy system for participants to hold each other accountable for their learning goals. The burden was not on the facilitator; we equally distributed it among all involved. And in teams where circumstances changed mid-journey, both leaders and their facilitators jointly decided how they would shape the agenda differently moving forward.
 
As you can imagine, some things worked, and some things did not click at first. Far from disappointing us, we confirmed that the approach was valid: prototype, test, gather feedback, integrate it, learn, and share the responsibility to improve iteratively and incrementally. This was an agile learning journey after all. We would not have it any other way. Or would we? In the next and last article of this series, we will share the top lessons we learned alongside our clients as we deployed this leadership journey.
 
We look forward to exchanging points of view and continuing to learn together if you’d like to comment below!
 

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?
agile shaping your cultureAdopting 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!

Ten years ago, I decided to focus my career on helping organizations innovate by developing new products and services. Because of that, I did my best to embrace what I considered an “Innovation Mindset.”  I thought to myself: I need to become an innovator and adopt this mindset in my life. For me, this meant not being afraid to try new things, takings risks, and doing my best to be creative. However, as a result, I became someone who struggled with routines because I thought an innovative person should not be static.
As I started to grow personally and professionally, more complex problems appeared in my life. The idea to optimize, or improve, some aspects of my life did not resonate with my “innovation mindset.” I didn’t have a problem with the idea of improving and trying new things. The conflict I had was that for me, optimizing meant finding a routine and sticking to it.
 

The breaking point

 
my innovation mindsetThen, eventually, there was a point when I realized that the pain of not doing anything was larger than the pain of change. So, I started my Optimal Me journey. I decided to start with my nutrition. I reduced sugar, carbs, and read some books on the topic. I have to be honest, I could not become a keto person, but I became conscious about how I eat and how my body feels when I eat garbage (aka “junk food”).
Then, I continued my journey and started tracking how many hours I was sleeping. I downloaded an app and noticed how bad the quality of my sleep was. I kept going and explored new ways of exercising, measuring my HRV to understand my nervous system. In other words, I got quite nerdy about it. I started to read about meditation and practiced it 3 to 5 times per week. I tried specific ways of breathing to deal with stress, and so on. My point here is not to talk about all of my experiments in the Optimal Me program, but to reflect on the fact that what started as a small step became a deep dive on improving several aspects of my life.
 

Readjusting my innovation mindset

 
As a result of implementing these improvements, I was able to cope with some personal and professional problems and found the balance I wanted to achieve (for now). You might wonder if I currently have a fixed routine that includes all of these tools or techniques? Not quite. I do have some routines, but there are a lot of things that I stopped practicing. I thought I had failed because I had explored so many things during the last two years that I was not applying regularly. For example, I remember thinking: “Why am I not tracking my sleep anymore?”
The answer is simple. I am aware that now I sleep fine. Then I realized that some of those experiments helped me to deal with moments of stress, anxiety, and more. I was not using those techniques, apps, or routines simply because I did not have those problems anymore. However, now I have a set of tools that I can use when I feel I need them again. And this is the whole point of optimizing my life. Develop awareness, learn, test, and repeat if it makes sense. Otherwise, save it for later.
I realized I had a framed optimizing my life in the wrong way. It’s not a journey that you start and finish. It’s a life-long learning process of self-awareness and trying new things to deal with all the life-changing challenges that appear along the way. The cherry on top is that this is how innovation in organizations works. Having a successful business is not possible with a fixed optimization formula. The things that worked in the past may not be useful in the future. This is how I optimized my innovation mindset.
 

According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., procrastination is a common human tendency. About 20 percent of adults have regular bouts of procrastination. She claims it is so common that no one can ever completely avoid it. Psychology researchers say that procrastination is characterized by the “irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences.” How can we overcome this paradoxical challenge that so many of us are facing?
Recently, I committed to writing an article for our website and, at the time that I did, I was energized and enthusiastic. Time passed, other work piled up, and… ahem… I admit I was tempted to renegotiate the deadline. The challenge is that at Axialent, our culture frowns upon the behavior of making excuses – one is expected to be a player, own up, and honor commitments, or renegotiate the terms of the agreement.
Bummer.
The victim in me was agonizing, wanting to say, ‘I don’t have enough time.’ A more culturally acceptable version of this at Axialent is, ‘I prioritized other commitments.’ But what about my commitment to write the article? What happened to my willpower in this situation? In any case, that was not the best version of myself.
Instead of letting this angst go to waste, I decided to use it to jumpstart this article. I wondered whether others who may read this could be beating themselves up for similar situations. And I thought that those readers might find it helpful to know that, 1) they’re not alone, and 2) there’s a science-based method out there that allowed me to put this article together and get-it-done.
 

So, what can we do when procrastination gets the best of us?

 
What happens when procrastination gets the best of us?
If you think that I listened to a pep talk that made my fingers glide across my computer keyboard, think again. The fuel that got me going was something I learned in one of Axialent’s newer programs called Optimal Me. There was no motivational speech, just scientific facts on how the brain works, how our mind works, how our body is this smart machine that I had neglected. Among many other provocations, this one nugget of wisdom stuck with me: better than having the motivation to do something is having a motive. Why? Because motivation depends on my emotional state, while a motive will always be around when I need it.
So, as all my anguish poured in at the thought of submitting this article, I turned to my motive. I just had to remember that the ultimate reason I had for writing this is not to produce a perfect literary piece, comply with a deadline, or respond to a colleague’s request. My motive is to share less-than-extraordinary experiences that could make ordinary people’s lives a little better. It’s to be of service and maybe help others out.
Once I connected with that, my energy reset. My mood was out of the question. I put in the work. A less than perfect first draft came out. I trusted my colleagues to edit it with due professionalism. And got-it-done.
 

The Optimal Me method

 
Optimal Me is not a recipe book from where I took this advice, plugged and played. It’s a journey that exposed me to thought triggers from a carefully curated stack of knowledge about our well-being. More importantly, it enticed me to experiment my way to better-being (yes, I just made that word up). How? The course’s experimental nature made it attractive because it became a game that I was happy to play – albeit without gamification.
I’ve participated in development programs before where learning outcomes were based on knowledge consumption. Others, the transformational ones, relied on double-loop learning. This program is different in that the main goal is to learn to experiment for the sake of experimentation. Knowledge was not there to be consumed but to shape my experiment. I was free to pick the topic that I was more drawn to among all the curiosity triggers I received. I felt empowered to shift mindsets and learn!
This comes with a bonus: I, the participant, reaped the benefits of this program in full. I did not learn something that I was expected to ‘pay forward’ to my team (like leadership skills) or ‘pay back’ to my company (like technical skills applied to my job). What I learned by experimenting with productivity directly affected my well-being at work. What I learned after experimenting with nutrition, sleep, and exercise affected my body.
Given the constant uncertainty we’re living in these days, more and more companies we engage with are earnestly concerned about and caring for their people’s well-being. If you work at one of those companies and want to explore a non-threatening, enjoyable, and science-based method to address this pain point now, I recommend you give Optimal Me a try. Experiment. It will be worth it.
 

If you would like to see the recording of our live Optimal Me webinar with Oseas Ramirez, click here.