Leadership Agility from 2002 to 2020 - Interview with Bill Joiner


Leadership Agility from 2002 to 2020 - Interview with Bill Joiner

Most of today’s leaders have come across the concept of business agility and its implications for leadership throughout the last 5 years. However, the concept of Leadership Agility – now more relevant than ever – has been explored by the US American executive coach and author Bill Joiner almost two decades ago. As we celebrate our company’s 5th birthday, we proudly publish an exclusive interview with Bill Joiner whose research forms the basis of much of our work with leaders and agile pioneers. Many thanks to our colleague Charlotte Kreft (CK) for reaching out to Bill Joiner (BJ)!

CK: Bill, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

BJ: I got interested in becoming a leadership and organization development consultant when I was in my last year at university and took a course with Bill Torbert. A big part of Torbert’s work focused on the relationship between stages of personal development and leadership effectiveness. I then got an MBA with a concentration in leadership and organization development, but felt I still was not really prepared to consult. So I went to Harvard to get my doctorate. There, I studied and apprenticed with Chris Argyris, who was a “father” of the field.

For about two decades my consulting work focused on three key areas: First, advanced interpersonal skills as taught by Argyris, which has morphed into a domain I call “pivotal conversations.” Second, the development of high-performing teams. Third, organizational change, beginning with culture change, then expanded to include the facilitation of creative strategic thinking and business process redesign. Along the way, I became a coach before coaching was a recognized field.

In 2002, I started working on a book I’d always hoped to write on the relationship between stages of personal development and leadership. The catalyst for this was meeting Stephen Josephs, who assisted me in researching and editing the book. Leadership Agility was published in 2007.

CK: Can you briefly tell us the basics of the Leadership Agility framework?

BJ: In doing the research for the book, I was able to confirm that leaders increase their agility by growing through a predictable set of stages of personal development, and by putting the cognitive and emotional capacities that develop congruently into their leadership behaviour. The three stages, or as I call them, “levels of leadership agility,” most relevant for today’s leaders I call Expert, Achiever, and Catalyst.

CK: Could you give our readers an overview of these three levels of agility?

BJ: Sure. The Expert approach assumes that leadership is about having others follow you because of your authority and expertise. When Experts lead change, they focus on tactical, incremental changes within their span of authority and do not engage much with stakeholders. They don’t build their direct reports into a real team, but supervise them one-on-one. In pivotal conversations they are highly assertive or highly accommodative, or flip-flop between these two extremes.

The Achiever approach assumes that leadership is about motivating others to contribute to larger objectives. When leading change, Achievers consider developments in the larger environment and craft strategies to achieve intermediate-term objectives. They orchestrate their direct reports into real teams. In pivotal conversations, their style is predominately assertive or accommodative, but they are able to compensate to some degree with the complementary style.

The Catalyst approach assumes that leadership is about creating an inspiring vision and empowering and developing others to make it a reality. In leading change they not only focus on strategic objectives, they also build their organization’s capacity to deal with new and unexpected trends by developing an organizational culture characterized by participation, empowerment, collaboration, and straight talk. They build high-performing teams that embody this culture and that can lead change together as one team. In pivotal conversations, they are equally comfortable and adept at asserting their views and at inviting and seriously considering other views, thereby creating high trest and real dialog.

I should add that the Leadership Agility research shows that Experts (about 55% of leaders) can be effective in environments where the pace of change is low and there is minimal need for engaging stakeholders. Achievers (about 35%) can be effective in environments with moderate change and interdependence. Catalysts (about 10%) are the most effective, and most resilient leaders in today’s environment of unprecedented change and interdependence.

CK: Thank you Bill. This concept is also the basis of much of our work in Germany with individual leaders and organizations at large. Many times I get the question: How does Leadership Agility relate to Agile Leadership as it is discussed in the movement for Agile software development and Agile organizations? What is your answer to this?

BJ: In the past few years, it’s become clear that using Agile methods alone does not work. Especially for Agile transformations, intended to go beyond the bounds of software development to other functions, Agilists have discovered the need to emphasize leadership and culture. What the Leadership Agility framework shows is that Catalyst leadership is consistent with the true spirit of Agile. As important as it is for leaders to adopt an Agile mindset, this is not enough. They also need to develop certain cognitive and emotional capacities, and a repertoire of the Catalyst leadership skills that these capacities make possible. I describe all this in my article, “Bringing Leadership Agility to Agile.”

As important as it is for leaders to adopt an Agile mindset, this is not enough. They also need to develop certain cognitive and emotional capacities, and a repertoire of the Catalyst leadership skills that these capacities make possible.

CK: We often quote the VUCA environment as a main reason for the need for Agile leaders, teams and organizations. How do you perceive the global Corona pandemic in the context of VUCA and the need for agility?

BJ: Corona lays bare the two powerful global trends I believe generate the VUCA environment and the need for agility: Accelerating change and increasing interdependence. The pandemic itself is a shocking example of how quickly and unexpectedly the business environment can change these days. It is also a striking example of increasing interdependence, both globally and locally. The global health environment is highly interdependent. The virus itself knows no boundaries. Whereas interconnection brings many opportunities. It also brings many challenges. While an interdependent economy can generate robust economic activity, it also has many vulnerabilities. Significant problems in one region or sector can quickly spread to other ones.

Regarding the need for agility, we’ve had a number of recent conversations with people in our global network of trained Leadership Agility 360 coaches, where we’ve heard the almost unanimous view that the current pandemic only increases the need for agility, as well as the need for resilience, which I see as the emotional dimension of agility.

CK: What we observed at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic was that many people first closed, focusing on themselves and their inner circle and now after some weeks they are opening up again. Do you share such observations from your US perspective? And what opportunities do you see in this in the context of leadership agility?

BJ: Among our client companies, I’ve seen a range of reactions to the pandemic and the need to retool for remote work. The automatic reaction to this level of stress is to hunker down and put your nose to the grindstone. This brings about a mainly Expert approach to leadership, which does not bring about the level of resilience and effectiveness we need at this time.

The other, seemingly counterintuitive, response is to open up more, to look at things within a larger context, to reach out and understand the needs and perspectives of customers and other stakeholders, to develop creative solutions, and to learn actively from our own experience.

The core practice of Leadership Agility is “reflective action,” the ability to step back from absorption in a task focus to gain a broader, deeper perspective, then incorporate insights from this perspective into the way we take action. It’s a mental “pause” that allows us to clear our minds, step back from our current assumptions and priorities, and approach things anew.

CK: Can you give us some specific examples of what reflective action looks like?

BJ: There are many versions of reflective action that I think are very much needed at this time. We can begin by pacing ourselves more as we move through our day, building very short breaks into our schedule, so we don’t feel so fatigued by excessive screen-time and back-to-back meetings. If you must be on the screen a lot, use a timer to remind you to stand and move for a minute before proceeding. One of our client companies ends meetings 5-minutes earlier than usual and starts meetings with a 2-minute pause to allow people to mentally transition from their previous preoccupations.

I’m reminded of one client I coached a few years ago. He had just been promoted into the executive ranks, but felt his job pressures left him with no time to think and work strategically. But he soon realized that the main reason he had so little time to be strategic lay in the fact that he was leading his team like an Expert. He held “search-light” meetings where he zeroed in on one function at a time and rarely invited group discussion. To change this, he created meeting agendas with topics that needed to be discussed by his team as a whole. Over time, as his team got good at this, he was able to put an issue on the table for discussion, leave to attend a strategic meeting with his peers, then return to hear his team’s recommended solution.

He was able to change his “off the cuff” approach to leading meetings by adding doses of reflective action throughout his day. For example, as he walked down the hall to a meeting he was about to lead but had not had the time to fully prepare for, he would do what he called “the pause.” That is, he would step back mentally, allowing questions to come to mind, such as, “What is my desired outcome for this meeting?”

CK: What are some other forms that reflective action can take?

BJ: Some clients have used the commute home to reflect on what they learned during the day from trying new leadership practices to which they have committed. Now they are doing this by getting out and taking a walk. Some others use home workouts and meditation practice to help sustain their resilience during these challenging times.

Whatever forms of reflective action work best for you, we need to use this time to build a reservoir of resilience and to increase our agility so that we can more easily and effectively meet the new challenges and opportunities that are around the corner.

CK: Thank you very much for these great insights, Bill. I look forward to our continued transatlantic collaboration in the coming years!

About the author:

Charlotte Kreft

works with us as a change consultant, mindfulness trainer, design thinker and lean management expert. She has many years of experience in the corporate environment in functions such as communications, marketing and brand management. Charlotte supports organizational transformation by helping individuals to adapt their behavior as part of team trainings and individual leadership coachings.


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