Lessons from 2020: How Agility and Resilience Have Defined Successful Business Leadership

COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of digital transformation for many businesses. Carolyn Horne, our president, EMEA, looks at how a disruptive 2020 has acted as a catalyst for change—and how business leaders are increasing agility and building resilience within their organisations.

It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t quite kicked off the new decade in the way anyone would have liked. But, in spite of all the uncertainty and disruption, I believe this climate of continuous change will be the catalyst for business leaders to finally transform the way they operate to thrive in the digital world. 

Born out of necessity, business leaders the world over now face a harsher reality about the urgency with which digital transformation must take place. They’ve been forced to take a harder look at what they’re doing right, and what needs improving inside their own organisations. 

In my mind, changes in the way we work, where our employees choose to work, how we engage with technology, and the way we think about our customers are all underpinned by one key factor—organisational agility

Agile Companies Reaping the Rewards

If the COVID-19 pandemic has brought one thing into sharper focus, it’s that businesses must be more agile. They must be able to pivot in order to react to persistent change. Whereas agility had become something of a buzzword for doing things better, it is now a business imperative. 

And there’s evidence to suggest that agile companies reap the rewards in terms of performance. A McKinsey study, “The Need for Speed in the Post-COVID-19 Era—and How to Achieve it,” found that “fast organizations outperform others by a wide margin on a range of outcomes, including profitability, operational resilience, organizational health, and growth.”

Similarly, a forthcoming global study from Workday, “Organizational Agility: Roadmap to Digital Acceleration,” echoed those sentiments. The research found that agile organisations—those “with the capabilities to react quickly and effectively to opportunities”—have never been as strongly placed to benefit from the ability to operate at speed.

Disruption as the Catalyst for Transformation

During tough times, I think it’s common, even prudent, to show caution when looking at new investments. Innovation is often the first lever for finance to pull when purse strings tighten. Yet for many global businesses, the march towards digital transformation has not been halted by the current situation. Indeed, it may even have been accelerated as companies realise the systems they have in place simply cannot cope with the current pace of change. In fact, IDC noted that 30% of European businesses view the COVID-19 crisis as a driver to move key systems to the cloud now, not later. 

Transformation is not risk free, but embracing agility can counter this by providing businesses with the resilience needed to meet continuous change with confidence. Ask yourself, are your processes agile enough? Could your core business systems react to major operational changes at speed?

Organisations that responded fastest to the pandemic are more likely than others to have embedded agile capabilities.

Defining Agility and Making it Real

While the COVID pandemic highlights the business need for agility and speed, it’s important we understand it is not simply about doing everything at break-neck speed. Organisational agility is about looking for innovative ways to build business resilience, future-proof revenue streams, improve operations, and ensure employees are well-managed and supported. I think it’s compelling that both McKinsey and Workday studies showed that the organisations that responded fastest to the pandemic are more likely than others to have embedded agile capabilities, such as data accessibility and cross-functional collaboration. 

Access to data and the ability to collaborate across functions are key components of agility. As Lesley Ballantyne, director of people operations for the John Lewis Partnership, said in a recent interview on the Workday Blog. “We’ve already seen this during the crisis, where we repeatedly had to respond quickly to a change to our payroll or a change to time entry for all of those people with different working patterns—that agility from Workday allowed us to do that.”

We’ve all had to find innovative ways of doing traditional tasks and processes during the lockdown, and much of that is about how agile your business is. Mike Neller, senior vice president, global controller, and chief accounting officer at Aon plc, recently explained how his team closed the financial period remotely for the first time. “In the end, our close went without a hitch—it was fantastic. It was quick and efficient. When you think about being in over 120 countries, that's a lot of people working to close a lot of sets of books,” he explained. “Everybody was able to manage it without any kind of delay and without any kind of inefficiencies. The team did an amazing job of staying connected to deliver on time, and we never had to use the contingency plan.”

It’s been a tough start to the new decade, and while on the surface it may be hard to find the positives, what has impressed me is the resilience of businesses to get the job done. Business leaders have smashed down the barriers that inhibit change, and embraced organisational agility to truly transform the way their companies operate. We don’t know how 2021 will pan out, but the businesses that are built to respond quickly to persistent change will thrive in an era that promises to be anything but normal.

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