What leaders do to create an agile organization


It’s not the combined skill level of the team that counts, so much as the chemistry (or lack thereof) between the members.

CEOs often receive most of the credit, or blame, for how their company performs. But the “buck stops here” idea of leadership is at odds with how organizations are actually managed. CEOs do not preside alone but are surrounded by subordinates—C-level executives—who are supposed to inform, advise, and balance the authority of the chief executive. 

However, the connections between senior leadership teams (or SLTs) and corporate performance can be subtle and complicated to trace. A new book co-edited by Richard Klimoski, professor of psychology and management and associate dean for research at George Mason University School of Business, attempts to do just that. 

Senior Leadership Teams and the Agile Organization (published by Routledge as part of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Organizational Frontiers Series) explores how social dynamics between the CEO and SLT members can encourage or inhibit organizational agility, roughly defined as the ability to anticipate and respond quickly to threats or opportunities. (Klimoski’s co-editors were Nathan J. Hiller of Florida International University and Stephen J. Zaccaro of George Mason University.) 

Rich Klimoski
Richard Klimoski

As Klimoski explains, “The stimulus for the book was the observation that the business and social environment of work organizations is increasingly volatile, and that organizations need to adopt better ways of coping and dealing with this state of affairs. We chose to start at the top of the pyramid, where the CEO and the SLT control the organization’s capabilities when it comes to providing resilience and agility.” 

The book’s 12 chapters address a wide variety of topics including the role of CEO personality attributes, the effects of the composition and staffing of SLTs, and a host of possible interventions to promote agility. It represents a rare example of researchers from different scholarly domains—leadership and team dynamics, organizational behavior, and strategic management—coming together around an urgent and timely business challenge. 

“We purposely sought out well-regarded researchers across disciplines, people who could speak to the various facets of agility,” Klimoski says. “For example, Mahesh Joshi, of our business school at Mason, who studies business strategy, a fundamental discipline, was able to glean insights from the available research literature that turn out to be very important for developing a better understanding of the causes of organizational resilience and agility.” 

To be sure, a good reading of this book will reveal that there is no magic formula for bringing agility to large organizations. But across several of the book’s chapters, several qualities of the SLT occupy a central role. 

The first is characterized as “distributed cognition”. This has to do with how the SLT members complement one another in their knowledge base, backgrounds and specialties—and how well they collectively cover the range of threats or opportunities that are likely to affect the organization. As Klimoski says, “For the organization to have the potential for agility, it must have the right mix of people on the SLT. The assumption here is we will know more collectively than as individuals.” 

To be sure, a good reading of this book will reveal that there is no magic formula for bringing agility to large organizations. But across several of the book’s chapters, several qualities of the SLT occupy a central role. 

However, a well-functioning SLT should be more than the sum of its parts. Ideally, the members would get along well (or at least be able to sidestep their conflicts for the greater good), be willing to share information and leave their egos on the shelf when it comes to making decisions. These desirable features of a SLT capture the notion of “behavioral integration”, the second quality that the book’s authors associate with organizational agility.

SLTs that are particularly challenged in either of these areas may require outside help. In doing background research for the book, Klimoski identified the chief of staff (COS) as a potentially invaluable resource for SLTs, not previously acknowledged in the available research literature. With Steven Zhou, a PhD candidate in industrial and organizational psychology at Mason, Klimoski co-authored a chapter describing how the COS—acting (variously) as an administrator, trusted advisor and “connector” with those at the top of the organizational hierarchy—can help SLTs function in ways that better promote agility. 

“As an executive that I know once said, ’I don’t have to be at a decision-making meeting if I can determine who will be at the meeting and can structure the agenda.’ This is called ecological control. The chapter argues that the COS might be the one who assists the CEO to make these things happen,” Klimoski says. 

The book highlights a number of additional factors that can affect an SLT’s distributed cognition and behavioral integration, for good or ill. “If the CEO creates a competitive rather than a collaborative environment in which the members of the SLT must operate, this is likely to work against the antecedents of agility,” says Klimoski. “We might also look at how individuals get promoted to senior executive positions. The qualities used to vet and promote people will help determine whether those who ultimately become organizational leaders invest in the requirements for behavioral integration (e.g. building high levels of trust, fostering norms of collaboration) or make use of tools such as team building.

“Another vitally important lever is executive compensation. Very often, the reward or incentive systems set up for SLT executives can inadvertently undercut the desire to work amiably and actually foment forces that work against behavioral integration such as knowledge hiding.” 

According to Klimoski, working on the book was an enlightening experience. “As a result of working with our set of chapter authors, we as editors came to a deeper and better understanding of the nature of organizational agility. We were also able to identify some tools senior leaders might use to cultivate this capability and thus to perform well in the face of contemporary business challenges or opportunities. We feel that the reader will reap these benefits as well.”