Follow your North Star: your first step to becoming an ‘agile’ business leader

By David Reynolds, General Manager Client Development, Davidson Executive & Boards

The push for organisations to embrace the concept of ‘agility’ is quickly gaining traction in the business world as we accept there is an ever-increasing need to be able to respond quickly to a  rapidly changing world and achieve better business outcomes.

But where do you start if you are a forward-thinking business looking to be proactive in this area? I would argue the best place to start is to establish yourself as a “North Star” for the business, to guide, inspire and empower those around you.

First, let’s review what an agile organisation looks like and why it is becoming such a valuable business trend. In McKinsey’s October 2018 report, Leading agile transformation: The new capabilities leaders need to build 21st century organisations, the authors say typically agile organisations have the following traits:

  • They have a “north star” embodied across the organisation
  • They work through a network of small, empowered teams
  • They use rapid decision and learning cycles
  • They have a dynamic people model that ignites passion
  • They use next-generation-enabling technology
  • Are somewhere in the middle of traditional and agile approaches, applying some elements of some of these trademarks

This approach complements and aligns with the need to engage the whole organisation - staff at all levels - in a sustained conversation over time if the company is to become truly agile.

I believe, as do many others in the sector, that it is the role of the North Star in an organisation to be a leader who works to ensure there are learning opportunities at all levels and that they form part of regular operations and daily routines and conversations.

Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, authors of  An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, go further stating that an agile organisation has a focus on developing the learning goals of its staff, pursuing business excellence and helping people to become the most capable versions of themselves.

They said senior leaders should be role models and cultivate an awareness of learning and development as well as the cultivation of new skill-sets and mind-sets by pushing themselves to learn and initiating and running experiments in various parts of the organisation.

Guided by a North Star, an organisation is able to re-imagine both who they create value for and how. They are obsessively customer focused and are committed to working with a wide range of stakeholders including employees, investors, partners, and communities to create that value.

Further, an organisation’s North Star guides and frames everything that the organisation is and does, from high-level strategic discussions to day-to-day tactical decisions at the front line where responses to customers or the environment are made quickly and confidently. 

Over time, this holistic and agile thinking should become deeply embedded across the organisation and in its wider ecosystem.

To lead agile organisations, leaders must learn that this unity of purpose, manifest in an organisation’s people, is a source of competitive advantage every bit as viable as - and in many ways more robust - than capital, intellectual property, design, technology, and physical resources.

And importantly, leaders need to learn to communicate this message to all staff at all levels with authenticity and passion.

The design and work on culture begin to mutually reinforce each other in pursuit of the organisation’s purpose and it is here that the opportunity for wholesale transformation presents itself for both leaders and the teams they lead as they work together to co-create the agile organisation of the future.

For more on being a North Star for your  organisation, McKinsey’s reports on the need for organisation’s to be agile in structure and approach and read my White Paper, Why organisation’s need to become more agile to survive.

David Reynolds