Creating the Culture of Agility – Gerard Penning [Session Summary]

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If Dave Ulrich outlined the technical basis of why agility is so important for organizations, Gerard Penning, EVP HR Downstream at Shell, provided attendees at The CHRO Virtual Summit Reloaded with a practical overview on how to create a culture of agility within a large established company. Within the modern context of uncertainty, near-constant state of technological revolution, and a speed of business change unparalleled in recent memory, creating a culture of agility is no mean feat – and especially for a large established organization. So as an HR or business leader, where can you start?


People tend to be inspired and gain confidence from leaders who are authentic versions of the themselves, who are confident about who they are and their abilities. Authentic leaders know that creating an environment where people are able to be authentic is an incredibly important way to create a competitive differentiation in a crowded marketplace. Penning argues that authentic leadership creates an environment where people can be the best they can be, and out of this environment, leaders must find the mix of personalities and skills that will enable them to navigate the trust and control paradox. This is a lesson in balancing teams within a workplace of authenticity – leaders simply cannot be everything or create a team of individuals in their image. Authentic leaders must create a workplace with an effective blend of people to deal with the challenges the business faces.


Penning suggests that growth in the context of agility is to possess a vision of where you want the company to grow not only in the financial sense, but in a broader holistic sense as well. Thus, the question business and HR leaders must ask is: where do you want to lead people – what is the meaning of your work? The reality is that financial dynamics alone do not motivate a large proportion of people, you have to offer something else, something meaningful. Leaders should therefore be able to articulate ‘the view from the top’. This could be an underlying ethic or a motivating reasoning for why this company and its work matters. It can be defined in a limitless number of ways, but nonetheless it requires a leader who has a vision and the skills to communicate that vision beyond the remit of financial data alone.


Creating the Culture of Agility, sketch by Ingrid Nouwens


How do we make sense of an ever-increasing amount of data available to us? We all have to deal with information overloads these days, and this can really challenge our ability to glean insights. It can be quite easy to get carried away with all this information, to get carried away with working faster and faster. However, agility does not necessarily need speed. To move towards agility, sometimes it’s best to slow down and ensure you are clear and focused on what you are trying to achieve. Insights will come with the capability to listen, to be curious, and to be present in the room. By taking the time to think things through and to approach topics from as many angles as possible, result is usually that you’ll end up fighting the real issues, rather than the symptoms.


Learning is about incrementally improving the work that you do each day. With the process and act of learning comes an attitude of openness towards change – the organizational capacity for learning is therefore significantly informed by the attitude of senior business leaders. Penning suggests that leaders must learn to exercise and demonstrate their learning ‘muscle’, to set an example by doing new things (not only in the business environment, but also in your personal life). With this attitude comes inevitable failures and successes. However, the result is that you’ll learn a lot – practical evidence and experience is never a problem whether it stems from a success or a failure. Penning argues that the willingness to test and evaluate new things constantly is a cornerstone of agile organizations.


Simply put; leaders should help their people to be the best version of themselves they can be. Empowering your employees is a fundamental need for agile organizations, as it’s not just about creating enthusiasm, but nurturing a depth of thought and meaning. Penning suggests that empowerment will unlock a creativity within people and help build an environment where people feel safe and compelled to give 100% on a daily basis. Leaders must be cognizant about how important it is for them to recognize the skills that each individual possesses. What are the people on your organization good at both in the office and outside the office? If you recognize their skills, you’ll make people feel at home at work, and in turn, they’ll be empowered to create and perform in the best way they can.

Becoming an agile organization owes a lot to both technical and principled changes. It owes a lot to making sure the right HR and business strategies are in place. But it’s also about shifting mindsets and setting positive examples. Leaders are essential in this step and must take the responsibility to work on some of these ideals. An agile transformation is not an easy thing to accomplish; but creating the culture of agility is something that can be tackled by those willing and motivated to change.

If you missed the CHRO Virtual Summit or some of the presentations – don’t worry – you can purchase access to the presentations and slides for a 30-day period by following this link.

The 3rd HR Congress Brussels, November 27-28 will feature a selection of sessions that will explore this topic and much more! Make sure you follow The HR Congress Blog and #HRCongress18 to stay posted on all the latest news, updates and content from the world of work!

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