Agile teams crucial for CFOs, says Discovery's Terrence Taylor #GetSmart2016

"Being agile requires openness, the reservation of judgement and the ability to turn on a dime," says Terrence Taylor, General Manager: Talent, Analytics, Leadership and Learning at Discovery. Taylor will be giving a keynote address at the upcoming Get Smart event, which will be held on 23 February at Summer Place in Hyde Park. You need people with a cosmopolitan outlook, an open mindset and an eclectic set of experiences, he adds, and a leader who is comfortable sharing leadership and power.

  • Join us at the upcoming Get Smart event, taking place on 23 February in Hyde Park and hear Terrence speak!

Taylor leads a team of 30 people in a department with a total staff compliment of 50, working under Penny Tlhabi, the head of Discovery People. His focus is on building talent, developing leadership and identifying ways for the company to grow its people in a meaningful way. We spoke to him about what is means to build an agile and/or flexible team.

What is an agile and/or flexible team?
"In the Discovery context this is part of the company's DNA. The way our business moves is very agile and dynamic. We are thought leaders and offer excellent value to our members via a very proactive, innovative approach to products - Discovery does product launches twice a year. Despite the fact that some of our businesses are the dominant player in their part of the insurance sector, they still do product launches to offer additional value add to customers. Because this is the way the business moves, our department and my specific portfolio have had to match that pace, so we've had to be dynamic and ensure we get the basics right and that we keep up with business and support our people in doing amazing work."

How does one go about building an agile and/or flexible team?
"Making sure there is clarity about the purpose of the work that the team does is absolutely critical. A management style that believes in distributing leadership within the team is also key. As people demonstrate interests, passions and abilities, they can be given the opportunity to take a relevant part of the work aligned with the purpose and run with it. Integration among team members is also necessary. Formal meetings are one mechanism, and there should be at least some type of formal meeting with the team that works at a frequency relevant to that team. It is also critical to have touch points and touch bases with individual team members. These focus on solidifying the relationship between the team member and leader of the team. They also present an opportunity to offer support to team members and discuss any challenges they may be facing. In our team we call these one-on-ones. We focus on three questions: How are you doing, what are you working on, and how can I support you?"

"Also, it's important to be very open to supporting your team members in developing any skill sets they might need to develop, for example, through formal training or an opportunity to work on an assignment where they get an opportunity to develop those skills, or by finding an external subject matter expert that can guide them. To give you an example, when we developed a programme for our managers and divisional managers, the new person who was programme manager hadn't done this before, so we arranged for him to speak to a senior programme manager at GIBS. That was a game changer for him. He went on to design a superb programme that the company still raves about."

  • Taylor will be delivering a keynote address at the upcoming Get Smart event, taking place on 23 February in Hyde Park. Join us.

What are the core competencies of a flexible and/or agile team?
"You need people with a cosmopolitan outlook, an open mindset and an eclectic set of experiences. If you're a deep specialist asked to work in a very agile way, your training and mindset are likely to get in the way. If you're a specialist who has had an eclectic set of experiences, that prepares you better for the more general types of skills and approaches required to be agile."

"Agility requires you to change on a dime, so to speak. For example, a soccer player on a pitch needs to adjust and adapt very quickly - turn on a dime - as the ball changes direction."

"Specialists find that a bit difficult when they've worked for years in their specialty. Being open is also a critical aspect of being agile, as is reserving judgement. If you see someone doing something in a certain way and you think, based on your training, that it's not the right way, you should withhold judgement and give the person the chance to still accomplish the task even if it's in a different way to how you would've done it yourself."

What effect does the size of a team have on its agility and/or flexibility?
"Many of us in corporates believe the larger our teams are, the more effective they are likely to be just from the point of view that you have more resources. This is based on an assumption from the adage 'many hands make light work'. Interestingly, based on studies done and from my own experiences, a smaller team can be just as effective as a larger team, producing as much or sometimes even more. It comes down to whether or not the team can synergise. There is something to be said for a team that understands the strengths of each team member and how to utilise those strengths based on the task at hand - it's important to synergise strengths to the task at hand. Larger teams can be agile but need certain things in place, such as someone who is good at process and coordinating work to ensure collaboration happens."

What are some of the common failings of teams?
"What ultimately trips up teams is an underestimation of the need to make a group a team. So if you put five people together in a room and say this is what we're going to do, and clearly assign roles and tasks, that's not necessarily building a team. You just have a group of people who know what they're supposed to do. A team is built once those five people get to understand each other and know each other's strengths and weaknesses, in a lived rather than theoretical way. Once people have lived the experience of Terrence is good at X but terrible at Y - remembering there's no judgement at him being terrible at Y - once those types of experiences have happened and there's a genuine bond among team members I find it makes a huge difference in how the team actually functions."

"Emotional intelligence is also something we underestimate; the need to ensure that the collective emotional intelligence of the team is high."

"If the emotional intelligence is low, the team can find itself stuck in a cycle of gossip and sharing of innuendos. However, if the emotional intelligence is high, even when information that could turn into gossip gets into the team there's a very mature way for the team to uses and interrogates that information before it becomes detrimental to the team."

What pointers could you offer those wanting to build a flexible and/or agile team?
"In terms of soft skills, you as the team leader have to be very comfortable with sharing leadership, and you have to be comfortable with sharing power. I think you have to be very in tune with the impact your emotions have on the team. It's amazing how the team looks to the leader to have a sense of how things are going and whether or not things are going well. If you're having a day where perhaps things are going through your mind and you seem a bit down, it's amazing how that impacts on the team. If you seem a bit up, it's amazing how that impacts the team. A leader must be mindful that he or she is in a fishbowl and every aspect of their non-verbal behaviour is being observed and interpreted by the team. But if you've spent time understanding each other, the team can better calibrate what's happening with the leader. Hopefully the communication is good enough in the team for team members to approach the leader about this. Then again, the leader must be comfortable with being approached by the team."

What role should CFOs play in creating flexible and/or agile teams?
"Given that, at the heart of every enterprise is the need to ensure that cash flow is optimal, I think CFOs play a crucial role in ensuring the finance team stays agile in order to realise optimal goals. Within the teams that CFOs lead, ensuring that you do spend time varying the experiences of the team members, mixing up the experiences of specialists and ensuring they get an eclectic range of experiences within the finance function, is important - despite the fact that the team members are specialists in the finance function. This helps stretch their mindsets to be more open to different views and approaches."

"The challenge is that in the CFO role and finance function, there are a number of conventions and principles that govern what is done, and it's not like you can be extremely inventive and creative. But there is still a level of dynamism and inventiveness that can be utilised in how the work gets done, in how you approach it. There's some scope for agility."

What can finance professionals do to obtain a more flexible attitude themselves?
"Probably being open to learning more about other areas of the business beyond finance; finding a way to puzzle through what it is that finance can contribute beyond just the traditional value-add of ensuring we don't run out of cash. So ask what else finance can contribute to the business. More importantly, staying abreast of what is happening in the industry and what is likely to happen in the industry. For example, keeping conversations centred around business drivers as opposed to just finance. You need to speak the language of decisions makers in business."

What can public sector CFOs do to overcome a sometimes bureaucratic mindset among staff?
"This is difficult, but I think it comes back to the notion of being dynamic and inventive when you have parameters to follow. In the past, bureaucracy made the chain of command and division of labour very clear, but what I would advise is to think from the point of view of effectiveness; what it is that needs to be done to be effective as public sector CFOs. This begs the question of starting with what is the purpose of my particular state organ. And, because they work in the public sector, we can't run away from the Political dynamic, with a capital P. Some may be working for political appointees, while others may themselves be political appointees, so stakeholder management becomes critical in their ability to escape a bureaucratic mindset. In my opinion, having ongoing conversations with their political superiors or political supervisors to stay abreast of what the political dynamics at play are, and what their particular organ can do to ultimately help achieve the purpose of the state, goes a long way. And perhaps a good relationship buys them some flexibility in how they are able to approach things so they are not tied down to bureaucratic rules and ways of doing things."

  • Stay connected, up to date and in the loop on what is happening in the world of finance and keep track of newly published expert insights and interviews with CFOs and CEOs. Become an online member and receive our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook and join us on LinkedIn.