Agile Leadership – What Clients Want
May 28th, 2019
(Agile Leaders Series, No. 3)
“Our intelligence is what makes us human, and AI is an extension of that quality.”
– Yann LeCun
This is the third in a series of articles by Potential Plus International of what it means to be an Agile Leader in the 21st century.
How do agile leaders keep their organisations ahead of the curve? 25 years ago, I recall vividly being at a conference of futurologists where people were predicting that, in the future, mobile phones would be incorporated into jewellery and watches. It was hard to imagine at that time. What particularly impacted me was when someone stood up and said, by 2020, the most valuable transferable skill we would need to be successful in our career would be the ability to engage and communicate, since everything else would be automated.
Customers with access to technology and digital tools are broadening what they are looking for in business and in life, and expecting greater value. This presents tremendous opportunities for agile companies which continually reinvent their offer, can spot the signals from clients and competitors and adapt with speed. Agile business relies not on asking what your customers need now but predicting what they will need in the future, that even they do not yet know. As Henry Ford famously said, ‘If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.’
Yet companies risk being distracted by technology at the expense of genuine competitive value: Forrester, in its latest Predictions 2019 report, warns that “Technology is becoming commoditised – companies and clients have a lot of access to technology but not a lot of differentiation.” Vivienne Ming, neurologist and entrepreneur, says of the impact of automation on competitive edge: “You have to think, what is left of what I do that is truly valuable?”
Even when technology can do an adequate job, there are times we still want to deal with a person. According to a recent New York Times article, in our technology driven world, the ‘human touch’ is becoming a luxury. I recently tried to book a hotel online for a special occasion. Not a single website, including the hotels’ own, could tell me whether there was a bath rather than a shower, a pleasant view and rooms next to each other. I phoned two hotels, and chose the one whose helpful response offered some additional personal features of the room.
Successful agile leaders embrace technology but recognise that human creativity, insight and wisdom is required for competitive advantage: in defining, building and delivering your customer offering. Here are five key questions agile leaders ask to gear organisations to solving the future problems of your clients:
- How do we lead and influence different generations?
What happens when your clients are a different generation to you? Or more tech savvy than you? It is critical to build diverse teams – experience, age, technical ability, sector focus, emotional intelligence – which can cross-fertilise ideas and make new connections. Bring in people who have nothing to do with your sector. Ask their view. Spread the net widely.
- How will we know what clients will need (when they may not know themselves)?
Why guess? The most forward-thinking of agile companies are co-creating solutions with their clients. Even if clients do not know what they need, engaging them directly in a process of innovation identifies challenges and possibilities, gives you access to direct market intelligence and to your customers’ customers for testing and exploration.
- What is our intelligence really saying?
Pay attention to where your intelligence is coming from. Customers are bombarded with online surveys today about their experience, but how true is this information? An online food delivery company emailed me with a list of reasons as to why I had unsubscribed, none of which corresponded to the real reason. I was pleasantly surprised when they phoned me, and it was during this real conversation that I was able to convey the valuable information on which they could take action. Are your teams incentivised to have those conversations with clients, and is there a mechanism for them to share that information in a way that is not linked to their performance?
- How do we build into the unknown?
Look at your customer offer from the outside in: are your business models fit for purpose? Does your service still add value? When all is stripped back, where is the value? How can technology, how can AI, improve the service? Which parts of the service are less ‘threatened’ by AI. What do we change, what do we preserve?
To develop solutions, start small and go for quick wins. Andrew Ng, in his recent FT podcast, explains how he started a small AI project with the Google speech team, and the success attracted Google Maps which asked to work on a project; the success has now moved to the Google Ads team.
- How do we stay motivated to drive client value?
Are your teams motivated to do what you need? If people see how what they are doing will benefit their career and their clients, they will support it. A client recently introduced a CRM system that required inputting of data, something that the client-facing teams were reluctant to do because they believed it was an administrative task that took them away from their client focus. Rather than roll out ‘a new systems programme’, we created an interactive programme that engaged them in the bigger picture and why it would benefit their client management and their clients. The impact of this ‘joined up’ approach yielded results and was soon rolled out globally as best practice, enhancing the careers of those involved and the competitive edge of the organisation.
Some smart agile organisations are aligning career paths directly with people’s strengths and how they relate to client needs. We are all familiar with sales people who have been promoted to management positions they no longer enjoy. A client recently created dual career path options based on strengths. People who are client facing but realise they don’t want to manage large teams have chosen the path that keeps them doing what they love and are innately good at; and people who are good at people management were given the opportunity of leveraging this skill of building and developing teams. This agile approach not only drives added value to the organisation and its clients, but creates diverse teams and increases retention and the wellbeing of its people.
The futurologists today are already predicting that in the next 20 years, shopping will become a thing of the past as we stop owning things and pay instead to ‘borrow’ on-demand; we will be sending people to Mars; and we will have found evidence of intelligent alien life. Who knows? Yet as American scientist George Church said, ‘the best way to predict the future is to change it.”
If you are a CEO or leader who wants to be at the top of their game, our bespoke executive and team programmes are designed to challenge and provoke creative thought for growth and competitive edge. To begin a conversation, please contact Oona at
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