Sandra Kirkham Managing Director, Progress to Excellence Group and a Face of a Vibrant Economy 2017 shares her thoughts on the prerequisites for agile leadership.

For me, Richard Branson epitomises agile leadership and I love following him on Twitter (@richardbranson). His tweets epitomise what I’m striving for.

He posted recently about how important it is to upskill every employee to the highest possible level so that everybody in the industry wants them but they never want to leave you because you’ve got such a fantastic culture. It was just so relevant to me.

It’s a necessity in my industry because in the world of training, development and government-funded training you need to adapt continuously. The changes come fast and furiously without a lot of notification or a long lead time to enable you to plan.

Leaders have to be open to new concepts or ideas as they come in. They have to be able to adapt quickly to changing situations. Sitting alongside that are the unexpected demands they’ll have to handle in an efficient and lean manner. And underpinning all that is how do you cascade communication of a changing strategy to get the continuous buy-in from your workforce.

I consider myself an innovator, which takes you along the pathway of agile leadership because you’re constantly exploring the ‘what ifs’ and always pushing people by encouraging them to learn and develop.

Then, when you suddenly face a change of circumstances, you’re capable of a more rapid response to that change. It’s the ability to adapt to changing surroundings that makes the difference between a successful leader and an unsuccessful one.

For example, when presented with a range of new circumstances, how do we adapt to it when we are time-limited? How do you drive management teams and motivate the staff?

In my industry the onset of the Apprenticeship Levy is arguably our biggest challenge. Although there was a long lead into its introduction, the funding shifted radically from sitting in government to the purse strings of the employer. Until it went live on day one, nobody knew how the market would react in terms of employer take-up of their spend.

There was a fear of the unknown in the market – and there still is to a degree, where large employers are wondering what to do with the money. How are they going to spend it, how does it drop in?

In response, we’ve developed a consultative approach to raise awareness, to educate employers before they start to move on their journey. It was a huge shift and we had to adapt our plans in response to market reaction in just 12 weeks.

We had to take employers on a journey where they influenced and had ownership of training standards that were fit for purpose to meet the development needs of their workforce and which met their future recruitment needs.

We now work in a collaborative, innovative manner with other providers, where previously providers would work in isolation from their close competitors. In essence, we’ve had to respond in an agile manner.

I believe that the prerequisites to agile leadership are passion and a positive workforce culture, as  employee buy-in will not happen simply with agile leadership.

Just coming into work and being an average employee is not good enough for an agile leader. Everybody has to work with every ounce of passion for every minute that they’re employed through their working hours. If they want average they need to go and find average elsewhere because that’s not what this is about – and I suspect Richard Branson sees it that way, too. 

About Progress to Excellence Group
Founded in 1997 the group provides consultancy and training services. A subsidiary, Progress to Excellence Ltd, is a National Apprenticeship Training Provider working with more than 800 employers and 3,500 apprentices.