The photo capturing the last few moments of the Global Goals World Cup (GGWCup) made it all look easy. UNDP Goodwill Ambassador Nikolaj Coster-Waldau beaming on stage, the crowd cheering and laughing, and nothing left to manage beyond how to clean up afterward. Yet months of planning had gone into this event, including coordination across four organizations and three continents…and almost nothing throughout the day had matched that original plan. Our success resulted from the collaborative efforts of multiple leaders, all adjusting to changing circumstances, sometimes only minutes in advance.
Early in 2017, when NIST’s partners at Chelsea FC approached us about the possibility of bringing Coster-Waldau to our school as a part of the GGWCup, my immediate response was “Absolutely!”. A high-profile star from Game of Thrones and a women’s soccer tournament raising support for the UN Sustainable Development Goals: how could it go wrong? The reality of the challenges began to set in after the first few Skype conversations with the GGWCup co-founder, Chelsea FC representative and UNDP leaders. With all of us tackling other projects and responsibilities, creating a comprehensive strategy in advance to ensure a successful event proved to be unrealistic.
Only when all of the leaders in each organization arrived in Bangkok did we begin to have a clear sense of what could happen, and even then, the agenda changed on a daily basis. From canceled public appearances to last-minute paperwork to continual schedule adjustments, we had to work together and coordinate our teams to ensure that, on the face, everything ran smoothly. Though I’ve occupied senior roles for over a decade, I still find that I learn a great deal every day, and the GGWCup served as a powerful lesson in the importance of agile leadership in three key respects, each captured by the words in the photo, drawn from our school’s mission statement.
Your first plan won’t be your last one…but changing circumstances can inspire
My approach in my work is, to put it bluntly, often obsessive-compulsive. I love having a plan, including multiple contingencies for almost every detail. Yet it’s impossible to foresee all possibilities, especially when dealing when multiple stakeholders and needs, and a rapidly changing environment. Though we all have a tendency to see changes in our plans through a negative lens, shifting that perception allows you to turn them into new advantages.
One of the key moments planned for the day of the event was a press conference in which Nikolaj would speak about his work as a UNDP Goodwill Ambassador. Yet it became clear when he arrived was that he much preferred a format that gave a voice to others, as he felt his role was to shine a light on their efforts to work toward the Global Goals. Less than an hour before the designated time, with invited press already gathering, we were still trying to determine the exact format and who would speak.
What could have been a misstep became an opportunity when our Head of School asked a simple question: why not have a student speak? This moment of inspiration turned a potentially dry speech into a powerful chance for our school to highlight how passionate, articulate and responsible our students are. Despite not being prepared, the head of our student council immediately agreed to join when asked.
As the members of the panel sat down and the moderator announced the format, our student rushed into the room and took a seat. Within a few minutes, it became clear that we had made the right choice, and the dialogue became one of the best moments of the day. Even when plans fluctuate from moment to moment, it’s important to look at the possibilities that are created through those changes and take calculated risks to capitalize on them.
Empower the people around you and trust that they know what they’re doing
The face in the center of the photo below may be the most well-known, but all of the others were stars in their own right during the GGWCup. As a leader, I’ve often struggled to entrust people with projects, preferring instead to tackle them on my own. The reality is that this creates an unmanageable workload, and it becomes a liability when others never receive the opportunity to grow through experience.
On the day of the GGWCup, both members of our school community and visitors continually complimented us on the smooth organization of the event and the work we put into it. This did not reflect my own efforts, but rather that of all of the people in this photo and many more. Thinking back to that day, I realized that through brief conversations and phone calls, I said “I’ll let you handle it” and “I’ll trust you” more often than any other time in the past.
From the UNDP representatives who managed Nikolaj’s schedule to students who stepped forward whenever asked, the team behind the scenes were the true secret to the event’s success through their ability to mobilize others as needed. Kevin Cashman, in The Five Dimensions Of Learning-Agile Leaders, identifies this skill as people agility: “Understanding and relating to other people, as well as tough situations to harness and multiply collective performance.”
As a leader, your role needs to be focused on an overarching vision, providing context and supporting others. When you begin to trust your employees, colleagues and partners to bring that vision to life, they will step up the challenge, especially when plans go awry. A leader who cannot step back and give others the opportunity will invariably struggle over the long-term. To put it in even starker terms, the GGWCup would have been a failure had I attempted to manage changing circumstances entirely on my own. Even if our plan may not have turned out in exactly the way we all envisioned, the important part is that others saw it as a success.
Enrich your work, and yourself, by embracing uncertainty
It’s easy to become frustrated when a plan changes and to begin laying blame. As a leader, taking this approach will erode trust and accomplish little. We often tell our students that failure is a learning opportunity in education, but we forget to apply this principle to ourselves. Taking the time to reflect on our behavior and choices in changing circumstances is an important part of growing as leaders. This is succinctly summarized on a larger scale in the 3 Top Traits of Effective Agile Leaders:
Being able to expunge information and learn from it starts with continual reflection and awareness…It’s through this reflection that you’re better positioned to identify when change, evolution or innovation are necessary. You’re better able to understand the complexities from a broader view and navigate through changes analytically and with greater clarity.
Throughout the GGWCup, I began to realize that the suggestions and solutions that others raised in response to the changing plans were often far better than any I could have created on my own. Their positive outlook and quick thinking when problems arose allowed me to put myself back in the mindset of a learner, cataloging ways in which we could make the event even more successful the next time it takes place. Uncertainty became an opportunity rather than a liability.
It is perhaps this final point that reinforces the importance of agile leadership. Whether overseeing an event or leading a company through major changes, our ability to adapt to circumstances, and always have a Plan C, strongly impacts our success: “Ultimately, our ability to continuously learn and adapt will determine the extent to which we thrive in today’s turbulent times.” (Learning About Learning Agility).