Creating an Agile Workforce: Context Matters

Are agile workers enough to succeed in today’s demanding environment? The importance of context in identifying best-fit talent for any given role.

In preparing for a panel discussion on leadership assessment at this year’s signature gathering of I-O Psychologists in North America (SIOP), I’ve been thinking about the broad theme of leadership requirements in today’s organizations. We know that companies require an agile workforce to compete successfully in today’s global market. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every employee needs to be agile. Having agile workers may help, but it doesn’t ensure success. The key is in the ability of organizations to align talent to the challenges of the job. This means that flexible and agile talent management processes that can easily adapt to the needs of the business are especially important.

As an organization that specializes in identifying leaders who can effectively address business challenges, we regularly respond to organizations’ concerns about talent problems they’re facing now and are likely to face in the future. I hear about key themes like retooling and harnessing the potential of digital and AI all the time. We talk about managing complexity and the accelerating pace of change as well as about disruptive competitors and the criticality of success in new markets. The underlying question with all of these themes is, “How can I ensure I have the leadership talent to address these future challenges?”

As we delve deeper into these organizations, looking at specific roles, the challenges come into sharper focus: the Regional Sales Director needs to implement a new strategy, the Head of Operations needs to work with the General Manager to create a new strategic incentive plan to spur growth in an existing business, and the new Product Leader needs to get a dysfunctional, globally-distributed team working together well.

Partnering with these organizations to recommend talent solutions, I am reminded of two certainties:

  1. Role-to-role, situation-to-situation, leadership challenges differ and
  2. Different people are more—or less—likely to perform well in different jobs.

While it could be interpreted that organizations need agile workers to fit these various situations, what it really suggests is that they need an agile workforce. The truly agile worker—who can succeed in any situation—simply doesn’t exist in nature, and you can’t create them by just exposing them to enough experiences to become fully agile. Having a growth mindset may be beneficial, but is not sufficient. The context that talent needs to perform in matters. When we understand the context and understand the current talent and their potential, the alignment between roles and people takes shape. Fit happens and leaders flourish.

Accurately diagnosing the context enables organizations to identify the best-fit talent for any given role. Sometimes the context requires the person to be adaptable. If, for example, the role requires delivering rapidly changing products and services, being particularly open to new ideas would be crucial. If the greatest challenge for the role is ensuring compliance to safety standards or effectively representing the organization externally, other characteristics are likely to be more critical than simply being adaptable.

Thus, as we look across the enterprise, we see specific capabilities that are best suited to address – and perform well against – particular challenges. And so, in response to the question of ensuring the right talent, the answer lies in having a range of agile talent management processes that can deploy the right talent when and where it’s needed. These are the underpinnings of a truly agile workforce.


Author: Greg Robinson