How agile leaders have tackled the pandemic’s pressures

“We have moved with a speed that I never believed we were capable of,” says Anne Sheehan, director of Vodafone Business UK. “Our networks have coped extremely well with the increased demand.”
Sheehan is talking about how companies and leaders have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. She was part of a roundtable recently convened by WIRED and Accenture and chaired by WIRED editor in chief Greg Williams, which brought together business leaders to examine how the crisis has forced companies to embrace agility, adapt to change at speed, and think the unthinkable.
Agile leadership is a method of management derived from software development which emphasises the division of tasks into short phases of work with frequent reassessments – allowing teams (and companies) to adapt quickly and learn fast, and is particularly well-suited to periods of rapid disruption. Agile isn’t a new concept for many organisations, but harnessing its potential could be key to not only surviving the COVID-19 crisis, but also thriving in its aftermath.
Andrew Young, a managing director with Accenture’s Talent and Organisation/Human Potential practice is an advocate for agility: “In fast-changing conditions, agility really matters,” he says. “You need to respond quickly, but you also need to have a stable core of leadership and talent and culture. To deal with the challenges going on outside the organisation you need to make changes inside. It is a bit like trying to get your bike pedals moving while not falling off the bike.”
For many businesses, the first stage of the pandemic involved extreme shifts such as redeployment of staff to working from home, the widespread implementation of technologies such as videoconferencing, and the restructuring of hierarchies. This often meant accelerating digital transformations which were already underway and the reinforcement of Agile principles which were already in use. Companies have been rethought from top to bottom – and at great speed.
Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, describes the response to the pandemic as a journey in which we are through the initial phase, and have entered stage two. “Business leaders are beginning to realise that this is an emerging reality,” she says. “A big part of being a leader at the moment is to foster a sense of collective identity and help people make sense of what’s going on.” Gratton adds that leaders also “need to begin telling stories about the future.”

Stage one was necessarily fast and improvised. Now, companies can be a little more reflective and considered. Greg Williams notes that many firms are now looking at Agile and other innovative ways of achieving their longer-term goals remotely. “Switching teams from offices to remote working has placed huge demands on organisations, but it’s also been a really powerful way of making change happen,” he says. “So many businesses we’ve talked to have made changes that they consider to be positive for their teams and for customers. What’s interesting is that some of this has been predictable, but there is a huge amount of innovation happening that wasn’t anticipated.” The good news, he continues, is that leaders are also discovering talent and capabilities within their teams which they hadn’t anticipated.
Others talk of forging new communication channels, rolling out new tools and recreating the serendipitous, informal and social side of work (which is hugely valuable in areas such as engagement), while recognising that this is a challenging time for many staff. For this reason a large number of organisations have bolstered their mental health and pastoral care provisions.
Tara Reddy, CEO of Loveshark, which makes video games for Gen Z girls, says that there is a strong empowerment angle: “I think our staff feel that they have been given the freedom to make more decisions for themselves. It has pushed us to give more ownership and trust to the team and made me realise that there are some areas where I should step back more.” She adds that having a strong culture and shared sense of corporate purpose helps here.
Other business leaders are viewing this as a time to catch up, bolster skills and redeploy staff. From restaurant groups to events organisers and IT suppliers, employees are being shifted to places where they can add value and be used in different ways. They will learn, gain experience, broaden their perspectives and become more flexible. For many working from home, it has also been an enormously empowering experience – they will come back more self-sufficient.
The next (and possibly final) stage in this great working experiment will be something of a return to normal – albeit a new normal. Some restrictions may linger for years. The widespread use of remote working and rapid decentralisation of companies will have lasting effects. Lessons will have been learned, new tools taken up and alternative ways of working will have become commonplace. Again, agility and rapid decision will be needed.
Many of the changes are likely to be permanent and will lead to more effective ways of working. “We will never go back to the way we worked before,” says Sheehan. “That’s just not an option. And, to be honest, we wouldn’t want to – we’ve learned so much.”
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