Clare Holt is head of corporate strategy at St. James’s Place plc, one of the UK’s largest wealth managers, and previously worked in the life insurance industry with PwC and Zurich. She has a strong track record in finance, risk and compliance, and major transformation projects. Here, Clare shares what marks agile organisations out from the rest, and what large, regulated businesses can do to accelerate governance and speed up decision-making.
What does organisational agility mean to you?
It’d be helpful to define “inagility” first, as it’s much more easily recognisable for most organisations.
I spent the majority of my career working for life insurers and large financial institutions. These businesses sell very long-term products — products that they’ll sometimes be managing for their clients for the next 50 years — and, because of this, they have a culture of “inagility”: big decisions must go up the chain of command, change-makers are forced to jump through administrative hoops, and the amount of governance is overbearing, causing extreme delays in implementing any sort of change.
Agility, then, is about flipping that around, to ensure that — even if your business model involves long-tailed products coupled with long-sighted policies — your organisation can still react at speed to sudden external changes.
What factors traditionally constrain agility in an organisation and what can organisations do to become more agile?
Larger organisations tend to face more structural problems with agility; they have large hierarchies that shift decision-making to other people. Vital decisions often land at the feet of a board that only meets once a month, so, while they may have the infrastructure and technology to respond at pace, their ability to do so is hamstrung by their governance process.
“In larger organisations, vital decisions often land at the feet of a board that only meets once a month, so, while they may have the infrastructure and technology to respond at pace, their ability to do so is hamstrung by their governance process.”
If you can accelerate the governance process — and not need to wait for a meeting in a month’s time — you can get right to making the decision. For instance, SJP’s culture is highly entrepreneurial and encourages quick decision-making, putting the onus on the individual to enact change when they spot an opportunity. Also, because of the relatively small size of SJP, and the broad range of business backgrounds from which our board members draw their experience, our board has a better sense of what is happening in the wider organisation than at most large firms.
Why has there been a greater push for agility in recent years?
Since the financial crisis, there has been a focus on operational resilience and business continuity, with particular emphasis on reacting quickly to sudden external factors, especially within senior management. This seems to have trickled down within organisations like SJP, resulting in increased focus on agility throughout the company.
“Instilling a similar sense of urgency to what we saw throughout the Covid crisis, even when there is a less obvious obstacle to overcome, is becoming a priority for businesses.”
Also, the landscape is changing. Consumers are favouring digitisation and the increased speed that this brings, so businesses must keep pace. And the pandemic forced boards to realise that their organisations — and they themselves — could be more agile than they had previously thought possible. Instilling a similar sense of urgency to what we saw throughout the Covid crisis, even when there is a less obvious obstacle to overcome, is becoming a priority for businesses.
Who is responsible for an organisation’s agility?
“Decision-making = empowerment + responsibility.” Where people feel both empowered to take control and responsible for the outcome, they make decisions for themselves. And so, it’s very much the leaders’ responsibility to create a culture where these elements are present, but it then becomes everyone’s job to make independent, entrepreneurial decisions. When every link in the chain is flexible it can bend without fear of snapping; it shouldn’t be one person’s job to make up for the inagility of the whole organisation.
“Your governance, too, should accelerate change.”
Your governance, too, should accelerate change. Governance is sometimes sluggish due to the quality of information being fed to the board and ineffective preparation, but committees can play a huge role in supporting the executives: getting the right information to the board clearly and on time, outlining decisions, and holding executives to account over their choices are essential for timely, effective decision-making.
Is agility a goal, or is it an intrinsic part of an organisation’s culture?
Saying that “agility isn’t in our culture” is just an excuse — because all cultures can be influenced. Agility is an attitude, something you have to model, rather than a hard-and-fast plan you can draw up and stick to; as such, it should be incentivised and adopted rather than enforced by higher-ups.
“Agility is an attitude, something you have to model, rather than a hard-and-fast plan you can draw up and stick to; as such, it should be incentivised and adopted rather than enforced by higher-ups.”
There’s a Peter Drucker phrase that I really like: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Culture should be part of strategy, and we should celebrate examples of where it’s working well and try to move people towards best practices. Culture cascades down the hierarchy — if you start at the top, it will find its way to the bottom.