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Defining the Agile Leader of Today

How CEOs can embrace vulnerability, humility, and inclusivity

  • December 2019

“Agile” is a buzzword in the leadership space—and for some mostly good reasons: It is used to describe leaders who are able to adapt to a constantly changing environment—and to help their companies acclimate as well. What does it take to become an agile CEO, and what is holding leaders back from doing so? We partnered with AT Kearney to ask a panel of leaders just that. Hosted by Karoline Vinsrygg, leader of the UK Board Practice at Egon Zehnder, and Konstantinos Apostolatos, leader of the global Strategy & Top-Line Transformation Practice at AT Kearney, our “Getting Real About Agility” event welcomed 160 attendees and the following panelists:

  • Alistair Cox, CEO, Hays Plc

  • Annette Thomas, Former CEO, Web Science Group (Clarivate Analytics)

  • Dr. Inken Braunschmidt, Chief Innovation and Digital Officer, Halma plc

  • Lutz Schüler, CEO, Virgin Media

  • Ron Kalifa, Chairman, Network International

  • Former CEO/Vice Chair, Worldpay

While most CEOs aspire to be more agile, the understanding of what agility entails and how it can be achieved is limited; leading to lots of talk but little effective action and this is what we wanted to explore. These questions resulted in a valuable discussion around humanity in the workplace and the power of learning and showing one’s vulnerability as a leader in a complex and rapidly changing world.

Some of the key themes:

The challenge: An aging workforce and new technologies are changing the talent landscape

Today, we face an aging workforce coupled with a declining working age population. At the same time, younger generations are entering the workforce with different aspirations and expectations of leaders. To add to that, jobs will be lost due to technology, AI, and robotics. As reported at the World Economic Forum, by one popular estimate “65 percent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.”

Our take: Upskill your current workforce while engaging new generations of employee

Companies must appreciate their workers—regardless of age—and be sure that age biases are not hampering employees’ development. Upskilling and re-training older workers is important as new technologies emerge, and leaders must also accept that new ideas may come from anywhere within the organization.

The challenge: Companies have more stakeholders than before, with differing expectations

Today, there are four key groups of stakeholders: customers, shareholders, employees, and society at large. It is no longer acceptable to consider only one of these four; instead, businesses must consider and satisfy all of them equally and holistically.

Our take: Be an authentic, vulnerable leader who is aware of the varying interests of each group of stakeholders

It is important to understand: what are we trying to solve and why? Often business strategy is packaged as though it works for everyone, where in fact, it only works for some. This means that being an authentic, candid leader, who is aware of these groups and their varying interests, is critical to translate strategy across interest groups. Showing vulnerability as a leader is essential: this builds trust with employees; in turn allowing constructive conflict and difference of opinions that can lead to better decision making and better results. As the leader, one must open the door oneself, by being vulnerable and initiating more “spicy” dialogue. This will improve your followership as a leader; resulting in a much stronger team. It is important to always start with the person, and recognize that as the leader, you have a big impact on people’s lives: take responsibility for this. Remember that the people who work “for you” will discuss you at weekends with their loved ones; always remember that you are dealing with human beings. People remember you not for what you said or what you did, but how you made them feel. Often, it is necessary for leaders to flex and reflect on their style, it is important to make people feel good about coming to work. Admittedly, it can be difficult to show vulnerability but a leader has to actively engage with this.

Equally, conviction in a leader is paramount and achieved via consensus from the team, who have collective ownership of this consensus. Once a decision has been reached and agreed, businesses should not tolerate indecision or team members undermining this decision.

Leaders today have to be able to both operate the levers of the hierarchy to make things work and to ensure the organization responds in the right way to a whole series of events. However, they also need to lead in an organic, inclusive and horizontal way in order to build buy-in, and learn from others who may know more or have a different point of view.


Getting Real About Agility: Event Recap Video

The challenge: Determining the type of culture you have—and the type you need

Establishing the right team is difficult: Leaders should reflect on whether it is an arrangement or a relationship. Is the team invested on a personal and group level? There is still a prevalent “command and control culture” within many organizations and these companies can evolve by more consciously deciding how often they empower people to choose – and when it is necessary to be more directive.

Our take: Be an enabler as CEO

The CEO should be the enabler of her people. It is about encouraging ideas and empowering those around you: Everyone feels inspired by feeling ownership. People also like to share their opinions and feel these are heard and valued. One of the panelists at our event shared that they had enrolled themselves in a coaching course; not to become a coach, but to ensure that they were getting the best out of their people.

It is also important that a leader makes a decision or gives an instruction based on the context of the situation. For example, in the event of a fire, an evacuation command should come in a top-down, command-and-control way. But when it comes to drawing out the subtle understandings of your millennial workforce on how they want to be managed, that approach would be the wrong one.

This also feeds into how an organization makes decisions. There are four ways of reaching a decision:

  1. I decide
  2. You decide
  3. We discuss; I decide
  4. We discuss; we decide

The relationship between the employee and the enterprise has changed. It used to be about promotion within one organization. Now it is about a series of experiences, sometimes described as horizontal growth. Employees are also much more engaged in governance and the environment. It is easier to access information and get organized.

The challenge: Finding—and keeping—your North Star, and ensuring your employees share the same guide

The concept of each of us having our own “North Star” came up several times during the event. In most cases, teams do not have their own unique definitions of a North Star. For example, when asked to write this down without being able to confer, team members often write down completely different things, which means there is a lack of clarity on strategic direction and broader purpose.

Our take: The CEO must prioritize and adhere to his or her story and direction while also being flexible enough to change

It is important to be able to articulate your own North Star and to stick to it—while also ensuring your employees’ own guiding stars are in the same direction. The CEO must have visibility of the overall framework and provide stability, while allowing for agility underneath. The difficulty is balancing a servant leadership model with one’s overall responsibilities: a leader who totally subscribes to the servant leadership model could end up relinquishing their responsibilities as a leader who leads the way; thereby not actually helping agility. It is important to keep a strategy evolution mind-set: be flexible, be prepared to be challenged, and be open to changing your mind as a leader.

The challenge: Making difficult people decisions in a new CEO role

Deciding who to retain is a grueling but vital task. You need to make these decisions quickly but not without doing your due diligence first. Putting the right person into a role can be highly valuable, while of course leaving the wrong person in a role can be very damaging. Often a CEO concedes to the team that he or she inherited, and the longer this goes on, the more damaging it becomes.

Our take: A CEO must be transparent and have the courage to have difficult conversations

The Litmus test is simple: Would I hire this person into this role? Transformation requires a sophisticated HR business partner and an articulate Communications Director, so be sure you have both. Take a step back and ask, “Are the people around me the ones for the future?” This is your responsibility alone; the CEO cannot abdicate responsibility for the people strategy or talent agenda and pass on to another department.

The challenge: Creating an agile relationship with the Board

Hiring non-executive directors (NEDs) who have a well-developed understanding of the business is essential. When you do not have the right board composition, you end up with NEDs who ask questions that highlight their lack of experience, that they are badly informed – or simply “out of date.” This leads to a strained relationship with the CEO, as he or she becomes frustrated and impatient with these types of questions.

Our take: Get the right Board members and leverage them appropriately

While it is not the CEO who is responsible for the composition of the board, they of course hold significant indirect power and have a responsibility to voice their view. Assess if the board you have is the board you need for the future. If you are missing skills, make decisions about how you will add them, whether it is through a new director or an outside expert. If you are missing diversity of thought, you may have to be bold and take some risk in appointing NEDs that add grit to the oyster. CEOs must know how to work with the board. One panelist revealed that he “did not know how to use a board member” when he first stepped into the CEO role. The CEO should view NEDs as coaches and confidants.


While there is lots of disruption still to come, the crux of being agile is remembering humanity. Hierarchy is always likely to exist in some form, but, the more serious the problem the less rank applies. Be open to learning as a leader, and be courageous in showing vulnerability to your team. Stick to your North Star, remember the broad array of stakeholders beyond the shareholders, and always endeavor to empower those around you.

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