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Why your business needs a Bezos-style agile leader

Successful business leaders may be bold visionaries but they don’t put themselves on a pedestal or go for glory. Instead, they empower and facilitate staff from behind the scenes, enabling them to unleash their potential within a safe, supportive environment

Two creative designers sitting in meeting in modern office, woman with note paper and pen listening to man with cheerful expression

He is the world’s second richest man and built his fortune on agile leadership. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has tamed bureaucracy and made his company one of the most agile, and profitable, on the planet.

Bezos famously organises his workforce into “two-pizza” teams, small enough to be fed by two pizzas and flexible enough to move quickly. They are agile, highly autonomous, have clarity of purpose and prove fast to innovate.

The online retail and cloud services multi-billionaire expects everyone in his organisation to put the customer first. He is known to leave one place empty at the conference table and tells his staff they should consider the seat occupied by their customer: the most important person in the room.

His “multiple paths to yes” approach fosters a robust internal idea-sharing process. Every employee could pitch their ideas to company leaders.

By empowering teams, and always being customer centric, agile leaders like Bezos can unleash the full potential of their workforce. They know how to nurture high-performance teams to keep them operating at the top of their game. 

Just as they avoid placing the individual above the group, agile leaders don’t put themselves above the team. Although capable of bold action, they work in the background to facilitate processes. They’re not trying to be heroes or micromanagers, rather they strive to produce desired outcomes for the business.

To progress, leaders must relinquish control, ensuring their teams have the clarity and competency required to achieve the same goal. This can be a difficult transition for a leader but it’s an important step to take

“The changes for all involved are profound, but so are the results when everyone’s goals and ways of working are aligned. Effective leadership is essential to support this change,” says Simon Kneafsey, professional scrum trainer at The Scrum Master.

“Many organisations are still in the midst of the changes required to increase agility and more leaders inside these organisations need to adapt the way they work to suit this new environment. This shift to increased agility is essential to deal with the increasing complexity of the world of work in the 21st century.”

Judging by the characteristics of successful agile business leaders, they are focused, dynamic, strategic, bold, open, inspirational, collaborative, always listening, continuously learning, resilient and able to deal with frequent disruption.

Under an agile leadership model, staff are encouraged to share ideas and experiment. Communication is transparent and employees have the information they need to make quick decisions with confidence. This minimises the bureaucratic roadblocks that stifle creativity.

Agile leaders communicate openly with their team members, and are always listening and observing. Listening to employees on the frontline is key to agile leadership as practical process solutions are likely to come from the people most intimately familiar with them. Giving and receiving feedback are equally important.

If an initiative isn’t working, agile leaders don’t throw blame around. They look at the data to see why it didn’t work and use what they learn from it to correct course.

Creating a safe culture

Importantly, they lead by example and create an inclusive culture in which teams feel recognised for their contribution. Team spirit and a positive environment are promoted.

Crucially, agile teams rely on psychological safety – an environment of rewarded vulnerability – to engender collaborative dialogue.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Timothy R Clark, founder and chief executive of LeaderFactor, a global leadership consulting and training firm, says high psychological safety elicits a performance response, with innovation as the goal, whereas low psychological safety results in a fear response, with survival as the object. 

“When team members stop asking questions, admitting mistakes, exploring ideas and challenging the status quo, they stop being agile,” says Clark.

“Remember, there’s always the risk that a team’s culture will snap back to fear-based norms, so focus on individuals and interactions as the highest priority. Small and seemingly insignificant acts of disrespect, rudeness or indifference can push a team back into withdrawal and personal risk management.”

As Bezos and other successful agile leaders know, the rewards are bountiful. According to the State of Agile Culture Report, building a strong agile culture will result in an increased commercial performance of 237%. The incentive to be an agile leader could hardly be greater.

Leaders’ biggest challenge

But the report points out that adoption of an agile culture is cited by 48% of organisations as their biggest challenge.

It finds that leadership is the enabling factor for building a strong agile culture and empowerment is key to unlocking this, especially as remote working has increased owing to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“To progress, leaders must relinquish control, ensuring their teams have the clarity and competency required to achieve the same goal. This can be a difficult transition for a leader but it’s an important step to take,” it says.

However, there is a lack of engagement and under-investment in leadership development. “Too often, leaders invest heavily in agility learning and development for delivery personnel but neglect the equivalent for themselves,” the report says.

It warns that the number of business leaders perceived by employees as using agile approaches, such as effectively prioritising the highest value outcomes and experimenting to improve performance, dropped to 44% last year from 56% in 2020.

So, there seems to be a degree of disconnect between what agile leaders think they are achieving and how they are regarded, indicating the need for more and improved input.

“There are many organisations that say they are agile but do not understand it, and are yet to truly embrace it,” says Kneafsey. “Managers are incentivised to install agility but not empowered by the organisation to make the changes it requires.” 

Employees closest to the work often experience the negative effects of this reality, he says, and that number has risen “as more organisations have moved to become agile to handle the effects of the pandemic”.

Without the right training, skills and wider organisational support, many leaders will struggle to be effective, says Kneafsey. “The move to becoming an agile organisation is significant and takes time, resources and ongoing support.”