Embracing agility in financial services

A new Korn Ferry study looks at agility in financial services, offering firms a roadmap to transformation.

In an era where change is the only constant, the financial services industry finds itself at a crossroads, grappling with the need to evolve rapidly. The call for agility is not just a fleeting trend; it signifies a seismic shift in organizational culture and mindsets.

A new Korn Ferry study, involving over 30 in-depth interviews with top global leaders, unveils a profound transformation journey, shedding light on the motivations, successes, and challenges in embracing agility.

The financial industry is witnessing a paradigm shift as traditional operational models are being redefined. For many organizations, the race toward agility has become a strategic priority, driven by the need to respond quickly to evolving customer demands, regulatory changes, and emerging new technologies. And a sector notorious for its conservatism and adherence to legacy processes, agility may be the linchpin for maintaining a competitive edge.

But embracing agility is not only about adopting new tools or processes. Experts say it demands a fundamental shift in mindset, one that champions adaptability, employee empowerment, and continuous improvement. “Most banks and insurance companies implemented agile structures and methodologies see the true value of ‘agile’ in the agile mindset,” says Patrick Maeder, Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner, and EMEA Advisory Leader for the firm’s Financial Services practice. “The emphasis will need to focus on involvement, resilience, and patience for the employees and the whole organization.”

The path to agility, however, is not uniform across organizations. Korn Ferry’s research found that only one-third of the leaders felt they had top team alignment around the purpose of adopting principles. Just one company believed they were fully aligned regarding the direction of the agile journey.

Becoming a fully agile organization is also riddled with challenges—from cultural resistance to practical constraints. According to the study, some leaders believe resistance to agile terminology can be a barrier, emphasizing the importance of communication during transformation. Practical challenges, such as resource limitations and rigid organizational structures, further impede progress. "In the journey of transformation, the pivotal factor is the alignment of leadership,” says Tessa Misiaszek, Head of Research at the Korn Ferry Institute, Korn Ferry’s research arm. “While commitment is visible at the top, the imperative is a profound and unified understanding of agile principles across all levels of leadership."

While the overarching objective is to integrate agile practices broadly, Korn Ferry’s research found that the adoption and application of agile practices vary across specific departments or roles. Experts say this highlights the need for a consistent approach across all management levels, supported by a system that promotes bottom-up innovation.

Structured methods, agile tools, and coaching can build a foundation for agility while revisiting goals and incentives can help craft compelling career paths and foster internal mobility. This, in turn, engages high-potential employees, encouraging agility in the workforce. “Leadership support is crucial, yet empowering employees to innovate and contribute from the grassroots level fosters a robust and dynamic transformation,” says Dominik Dreyer, Senior Client Partner in Korn Ferry’s Financial Services practice.

Becoming an agile organization in the financial services industry is nuanced and complex. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, organizations must tailor their approach to the unique dynamics of their structures. But as firms embark on their agile journey, they will need to consider the interplay between leadership, culture, and employee engagement—each playing a critical role in driving this fundamental change. "In the realm of agile transformation, balance is key,” Dreyer says.

To find out how Korn Ferry can help you on your agile journey, learn more about the firm’s Financial Services practice.