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The new recruitment rules for an agile workforce

Agile employees value flexibility, learning and freedom to be creative, and often follow non-linear career paths. Is your talent acquisition strategy keeping up?

Agile organisations are often defined as networks of empowered teams able to respond swiftly to changes in the marketplace, and operate with high levels of efficiency, collaboration and flexibility. It’s a working style that appeals to those who can make decisions quickly, pivot constantly and maintain a customer-centric focus at all times. So where can hiring organisations find these quick-thinking, autonomous go-getters who are completely at ease with agile practices? 

The most obvious place to look is in talent pools where people are used to working in this way. However, in light of the great resignationMicrosoft research has revealed that 41% of global workers are considering throwing in the towel – companies need to consider alternative candidate demographics. This includes women returners and career changers, as well as people from non-traditional backgrounds with non-linear career paths that could indicate an agile mindset used to learning quickly and thinking differently.

Paul Chapman, sales director at software firm Endava, says: “While hard skills can often be taught, fresh perspectives can be a compelling addition to your company. By prioritising character and lived experiences among employees, agile companies can attract people they previously might not have, who can add real value to the company’s ability to deliver meaningful solutions.” 

To facilitate this hiring approach, open mindedness from recruitment and leadership when building teams is essential. Hiring well is vital, but to retain those agile-enabled individuals, organisational leadership needs to afford employees a level of autonomy. The best people need to be taught, guided and led, but not managed. They also need space to learn continually, be recognised for their aptitudes and allowed to grow beyond their role. 

“Siloing staff into certain functions and predetermined disciplines runs counter to allowing people to flourish in agile teams,” says Chapman. “Combine this with a ‘talent density’ approach, where companies hone in on fewer numbers of higher-quality recruits with more appropriate attributes, and you have a powerful cocktail. When hiring effectively, often less is more.”

Hallmarks of agility

Appropriate agile attributes are also very specific. Energy, curiosity and speed are three that a hiring firm will want to see evidence of, says Simon Severino, founder and CEO of growth consultancy Strategy Sprints. “When interviewing internal and external candidates, agile businesses use ‘demo’ sessions – live demonstrations of the skills needed for the role at hand,” he says. “A coder might be asked to write a few lines of code during the session, while a sales representative might be asked to demonstrate how they start a sales conversation.”

Ideal candidates are also primed towards experimentation, like scientists testing hypotheses. “In the business setting, a concept or draft becomes a project, with deadlines and a budget,” Severino says. “Instead of running market research projects for three months, the agile approach creates many quick small drafts and tests them in a low-risk environment in less than a week. The winners become the elements of the campaign.”

Others argue that companies can become focused on finding ready-made talent when instead they should be trying to create it. Workflow management software company has grown its agile teams by creating an academy, Monday U, to help people gain the agile skills needed for a career in the tech industry.

While hard skills can often be taught, fresh perspectives can be a compelling addition to your company’s global director of HR Hadas Mor-Feldbau says: “By fostering talent with a growth mindset, companies can help identify a diverse group of people who can learn and adapt to an agile way of working. However, they also need to create a culture that promotes transparency, impact and ownership and provides agile teams with the knowledge and autonomy to make a meaningful impact, with the freedom to admit and learn from mistakes.” 

Retaining agile talent is vital, and incentives need to reflect what motivates these particular individuals. Money isn’t necessarily the answer, as many employees today would choose perks over a pay rise. In an agile setting they want more of what makes them valuable to the organisation: autonomy, flexibility, freedom to be creative, and support rather than oversight. 

Upskilling to agile

With the current dearth of talent, organisations also need to consider ways of upskilling their existing talent to become agile, with leaders and managers able to span cross-functional silos, teams, remits and responsibilities to operate faster and more efficiently. The challenge is that this new manager archetype isn’t easily developed with conventional management or leadership training.

Ben Graham, co-founder and managing partner of global executive search firm TritonExec, says: “Exposure to being different characters is key. Companies getting this right have typically exposed staff at every avenue of the business. For example, we’ve seen some transition from sales to consulting to digital, giving them a much wider understanding of the business functions and its overall goals.  Also      building on existing strengths by role-changing has often brought out the best in agile teams, where for example we’ve seen solution architects transition into sales, and sales transitioning into consulting.”

Creating agile teams is as much of an attitude as it is a practice. Leaders who are successfully inspiring agile teams are typically excellent communicators, not barking out orders and instructions, but leading by positive and believable example, warts and all. This is characterised by leaders who share their life and business journeys on social media, are transparent and remove barriers. 

“Showing the balance of their lives, whether marathons, charity endeavours, family life, politics and business milestones, shows a breadth of versatility that should act as a brand of culture for all staff within the business,” says Graham. “They should feel inspired to be as diverse and robust as their leaders who share elements of their ‘wholehearted’ life journeys.”

Supporting the transition

Upskilling managers to agile working requires support that is ongoing and integrated, particularly in the new landscape of hybrid and remote working, where teams are collaborating largely through virtual channels. Organisations must establish an infrastructure that allows agile ways of working to flourish. Without it, new recruits become a flight risk, and upskilled leaders and managers can all too easily revert back to familiar, more traditional ways of working.

For the individual, the transition from conventional management styles to agile working practices can be a huge challenge. Agile is about the capacity to quickly catch the weak signals of change so that teams have enough time to tweak processes and products accordingly. “Managers need to adapt quickly to real-time reports and tracking metrics that move the business in the right direction and at the right pace,” says Severino. “Instead of 40 to 50 metrics, they will collect and discuss between three and nine metrics, and the cadence will be weekly, with live dashboards instead of long quarterly reports.” 

To help ease the transition he advocates the adoption of three key habits: a daily habit of reviewing how your time was allocated today and what you can improve tomorrow; a weekly habit of reviewing core weekly marketing, sales and operations numbers; and a monthly habit of competitive analysis and velocity review of whether the business is moving in the right direction at the right pace. “These three habits have helped to keep my business and my team resilient and agile,” Severino says.

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