How to become an agile SME leader

  • 29 Jan 2021

By Peter Power, an author of the UK Government Standard on Crisis Management (BS11200) and a senior associate with Vondel Professional Development

SMEs need to be particularly agile in 2021. It’s an unchartered landscape for all of us where unforeseen crises can be just around the corner, but at the same time there are also new opportunities to be seized. 

Adaptability, speed and flexibility, which suit small rather than large organisations, can make the difference between success and failure in any scenario. That’s why agile organisations, led by agile leaders, are needed as we start to emerge from Covid-19 lockdown into an unexplored post-Brexit business terrain, with few recognisable landmarks or patterns by which to navigate.


SMEs are also vulnerable to unexpected surprises, especially where just-in-time supply chains mean there’s no slack left in the system to absorb any shocks. We therefore need agile change leaders with the ability to scan the horizon, the talent to mitigate crises, the courage to adapt and be flexible, plus the bravery to take risks.

The following tips will help you become an agile leader capable of meeting the challenges of 2021:

Be on the front foot

Exist at the front end of reality to recognise the significance of events, patterns and trends as early as possible. Take ownership of situations, but also engage with colleagues and welcome diverse opinions if you can. Agile leaders show self-confidence to help influence the actions, beliefs, and feelings of others. In chaotic times, the fastest path to success can also depend on making mistakes and learning from them.

Take action early

Be creative and act decisively on partial information when a crisis looms. The sort of data that you would normally like to analyse first will probably be elusive or might not even exist. It’s vital to remember that an imperfect but workable plan, critically delivered on time, is far better than a perfect one delivered too late.


Identify threats and opportunities

Spend time ‘horizon scanning’. Identify where risks and opportunities might come from, noting that some lesser risks could be insignificant, but collectively they might become a crisis – or even an opportunity. Then, walk through some scenarios with your team to find the most agile approaches to cope. Remember, crises often result from poorly-managed incidents and business fluctuations that are allowed to escalate to the point at which they create a crisis.

Understand ‘situational awareness’

This describes the best available appreciation of what is going on and what the impacts might be, the degree of uncertainty, the degree of containment, exacerbating issues and what might happen in the future.

Attaining all this is inherently difficult because so many things might be going on, the rate of change is rapid, and the spread of impacts and potential impacts is unclear. However, achieving a common appreciation of this (shared situational awareness) is the goal where technical knowledge or specialist skills might be required to help interpret some of the information.

Use different leadership styles

The millennial workforce is forcing radical change on how leaders relate to and motivate their people. Treat them as individuals, value their differences and involve them in decisions that affect them, ‘selling’ rather than ‘telling’ them your ideas.

Stay goal-focused

Agile leaders need an instinct for when to get into detail and when to maintain a 30,000ft overview. Avoid being distracted by pressing or easy-to-solve problems. Agile leaders keep their eyes on the prize, balancing urgency and importance to achieve maximum value from their time each day.


Avoid burnout

Agile leadership is mentally and emotionally demanding, particularly in SMEs with a small leadership team. Having an experienced mentor or executive coach can be hugely valuable in this regard, giving leaders a sounding board for new ideas and a safe space to vent when things get tough.

And finally…

Thank people. The value of sincere, personal thanks, particularly face-to-face, cannot be over-stated. It is a vital component of leadership, yet this simple motivational opportunity is all too often forgotten.



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