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What Agile Leadership Means in a Digital World

April 23, 2021 Leadership
melissa henley
By Melissa Henley

When I started working in the mid-'90s, we sent faxes. Email was barely a thing. We did most of our communication by phone or in person. Everything — and I mean everything — was on paper.

Now I don’t even own a printer. Everything I do is digital. I’m on Zoom calls all day long. Things changed, and that meant I had to change.

Leadership in the digital age is different — and requires different skills. You need to be more agile. But what does it mean to be agile? Obviously if we’re talking about working out, I may mean flexible, able to bend, able to respond quickly to changes in my environment. And it’s pretty similar in the workplace, too. You have to be able to adapt and respond to change. You can’t be stuck in one way of doing things. You have to be able to learn, to change, to grow, especially if you are leading your organization through digital transformation.

You can build specific soft skills to help you show care and empathy for your team, even as you’re pushing through change. Think about it: If you’re communicating clearly, even in the midst of change, you’ll show others that you care and have empathy, which will help gain trust and win confidence, and prepare your team to thrive through digital transformation.

Lead With Empathy

Another way of showing strength is to lead with empathy. Many times, we think if we show our true selves — if we are authentic — it makes us weak. And that’s not true. Empathy is a key skillset for leaders. In fact, managers who practice empathetic leadership toward their teams are viewed as better performers in their jobs by their bosses.

So how can leaders show empathy?

First, be willing to help your team with personal problems. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that the line between work and home is becoming increasingly blurred. As leaders, we have to be willing to reach out when we see one of our team is struggling, whether that’s caused by issues at work or at home. Our role is to support our colleagues when they need us most. Reaching out, being authentic, encouraging transparency — those are all ways to help your team member feel psychologically safe and able to reach out.

Second, be compassionate. We have all gone through tough times. You may not be able to relate exactly to what your team member is going through, but we all understand the challenges of struggling through personal trauma while trying to be present at work. Even if you can’t relate to the specific experience, you can still act empathetically and let your colleague know they are supported.

And finally, listen and understand rather than interrupt or judge. You likely won’t be able to fix your colleague’s problems, but you can make your colleague feel supported. Simply giving people the space to say what they need to say and to feel heard is an important form of empathy.

Especially when you are dealing with change, people are going to be upset. Change brings up all kinds of emotions. To remain agile, to adjust and show true leadership, you have to be able to manage people, not just projects. Remember, there is power in the simple words, “Are you OK?”

Related Article: How to Practice Empathy in the Virtual World of Work

Focus on the Present

Focusing on the present starts with being present. And by “present,” I don’t just mean showing up for work — although that’s obviously important. Being present means you are fully immersed in what’s happening. You’re not thinking about what happened an hour ago or what’s going to happen in an hour. You are fully focused on who you are talking to and what you are doing right now.

Think about it: You can tell when someone you’re talking to is not present. You know when they’re scrolling the internet, answering instant messages or reading their email. Does that make you feel valued or cared for?

Being present is an important aspect of agility, as it’s key to building the trust that inspires the team to follow your lead. Here are some quick tips you can implement to improve your focus and be more present for your team.

  • Use Zoom or other video conferencing to be visibly present for meetings, rather than relying on conference calls. Don’t limit the use of video to group meetings. Using video for one-on-one meetings helps both parties be more present for each other.
  • Set a cadence for regular communication with your team. Set a schedule and stick to it: Your message will be anticipated, talked about, and be more impactful. Whatever schedule you set, remember to pay attention to what your team is saying, and listen with your ears, rather than your mouth.
  • When you are meeting with your team — or anyone for that matter — focus on what you are doing. Put your phone on airplane mode. Close your email. Put your instant messages on do not disturb. Do whatever you have to do to be there for the person you are talking to. They will notice.

Related Article: What 2020 Taught Us About Being an Effective Leader

Be Brave

We all know what bravery is, but what does it mean in the context of leadership? Brave leaders have courage, but what exactly does that mean? Does that mean you’re never afraid? Of course not. It means you aren’t afraid of the truth, that you confront problems head-on, and that you aren’t afraid of change.

As a leader, how can you practice bravery? One way is to seek the truth. Ask your team and your colleagues for feedback. What do they believe is working well? What opportunities do they see? Their insights will always enlighten you and may even surprise you. Brave leaders make others feel included, not excluded. They bring others along with them, rather than dictating.

To be brave, you have to be willing to take a risk. It can be challenging to change, and you have to have the courage to have confidence — in yourself and your decisions, in the people you work with, and in the need to change.

Change is inevitable, and you can’t control it. The only thing you can control is how you respond. But that means you have to change, too, because you can’t ask other people to change if you’re not willing to do it yourself. So, brush up on your digital leadership skills and be an example to others of the power of personal evolution! That’s the key to success to building a culture where digital transformation takes hold and thrives.

About the Author

Melissa Henley is Director of Customer Experience at Laserfiche, an enterprise software company that has served the public and private sectors for over 30 years. As a marketer, customers are at the heart of all Melissa does, and her passion is around connecting people to content that can have a genuine positive impact on their lives.

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