AGILE LEADERSHIP

Leadership Is Not A Role, It Is A Relationship

Why creating relationships can help you be a better leader

After joining my last company during the pandemic, I learned the power of creating a connection with the team members. I joined three teams as a Scrum Master at a time when everyone worked fully from home. I remember feeling very bizarre on my first day, no Daily Scrums, no meeting the teams, it seemed like the whole company was made up of two people who guided me through the onboarding. I slowly got incorporated into the team events and scheduled some rather random, as I think of it now, one-on-one meetings. Soon I realized I needed to focus more on one of the teams. I could only observe their interactions during the Scrum events — my only touchpoints with the teams. I based my knowledge on the notes I made there and on the managers’ opinions.

Only after scheduling one-on-ones with all team members a few months later, did I realize how far from reality my view on the team was. I missed a number of important pieces to the puzzle, like the team’s maturity in practicing Scrum. I was told they spent years working in Scrum, just to find out that the vast majority of them were new not only to Scrum but even to the Agile mindset. This changed my perspective and I became much better fitted to help the team after the meetings. I also got to know and understand them better.

Leadership and parenting

I thought about this story of mine after watching Gabor Maté’s Lecture “Hold On To Your Kids”. Gabor is a Medical Doctor and author. He talks a lot about attachment and empathy.

Gabor inspired this article when he said “Parenting is not a role, it’s a relationship.” I paraphrased it as it perfectly applies to leadership. I am frequently amused by the fact of how parenting tips help me in my Scrum Master work. It’s not that I want to discipline the teams but rather I want to see in them another human being worthy of our respect.

Let’s explore why creating a relationship with the people we lead is so important in today’s organizations. And let’s see some examples of how to put this theory into practice.

Leadership is a relationship

Gabor Maté starts his lecture by exploring what attachment is. For attachment you need connection. He explains that first, you need to connect with the kids before you can take care of them. Otherwise, they won’t let you, you need to get familiar with them first. You don’t just get a random person as a nanny and leave your kids with them without a warning. It won’t work. They first need to get to know each other and create a connection in a safe space with you being present. That’s why attachment is such a huge dynamic in our lives. We cannot survive without it because as children we are helpless.

The same goes for the relationships at work. If you want to be a great leader you need to create a connection with the people. Develop a relationship. How else can you imagine getting people to trust and follow you? Like “Hey, I’m your new leader and you have to follow me now.” They might obey you but is that what you are after? It is on you to create the right environment based on trust and psychological safety.

And this applies to all levels — from Scrum Master or a Tech Lead to Agile Lead and the CEO. What’s more, it is not even about the official roles as what we aim for is to create leaders at all levels and in all the teams.

Manage like a boss

Nonetheless, I can think of management as a role too, especially when thinking about the command-and-control management style. In his book “Management 3.0” Jurgen Appelo calls it Management 1.0. This management style was quite successful in the 20th century. Imagine you work in a factory and you need to assemble tens of thousands of the same parts and pieces. You tell the employees what to do and they do it. That’s a transaction agreed and accepted by all parties. It just won’t work for a leader surrounded by knowledgeable people who are experts in their area or work in creative fields. I can imagine Elon Musk would say that you cannot manage this way the people who work in Gigafactories either. Times have changed and the leadership style must follow.

Grow the leadership muscle

I guess that’s why nowadays we call some roles Leaders to set the expectation that the role goes beyond managing others — bossing them around and giving orders. Simon Sinek puts it simply “it is a transition from being responsible for the job to being responsible for the people who are responsible for the job.” And you can learn to be a good leader, you just need to practice and foster the necessary skills. Leadership is about consistency.

What are those vital skills and how does one deploy them to lead people? Let’s see how the leaders of our time do it.

  1. Start with meaningful one-on-one meetings — to establish a relationship, you need to start with getting to know your team. A former military leader and co-founder of Candor, Inc., Russ Laraway put a neat framework for the first one-on-ones for leaders who have people reporting to them. He compares it with the Commander’s Intent — explaining the “why” and the context of why something must be done. It helps the marines to achieve the goal even if the crafted plan becomes obsolete and there is no possibility for ongoing communication. He explains how to build great relationships with the people on your team with his technique to hold career conversations. The intent here is to understand what motivates people and how to help them achieve their career goals. Laraway explains a servant leader’s approach to career conversations:
    Tip 1: Have a Life Story Conversation — start from kindergarten and look for pivots, understand the motives behind them. It may sound a bit off but I listened to the podcast and they say that those were some of the most terrific conversations they ever had with people at work.
    Tip 2: Have a Vision Conversation — learn about the dreams and help clarify them into specific vision statements. Find a few vision ideas with each person. Laraway helps with some clarifying questions to make it actionable.
    Tip 3: Create a Career Action Plan — come up with some concrete action items to begin working on. Things like training, a conference, etc. that the team member needs to add to their role to start their career journey.
    If you know what drives people and what their goal and vision is, you will do a much better job at finding the right work for the right people.
    What’s also important, don’t review the goals once per year. Instead, ask how often the person wants to follow up on their goals and ask how you can help them.
  2. Sit around — I love the phrase with which a C-level person would typically end an all-hands meeting: “my door is always open”. My question is, why do you need a door in the first place? Jurgen Appelo reminds us of the “gemba walk” concept. It is a Japanese term for “management by wandering around”. Appelo goes even further and talks about management by sitting around. In order to establish a connection, a leader cannot just sit in his glass cage. Just buy a desk on wheels and work from any place in the company. Become a team member, not a stranger who silences all conversations when they show up. This is also the approach of Elon Musk who recently said in an interview for Wall Street Journal: “get out there on the goddamn front line and show them that you care and that you’re not just in some plush office somewhere.”
  3. Bond with distributed teams — GitLab, a fully-remote company, talks about the importance of human connection. They mention it in three out of seven points of their Remote Manifesto. They call out “Have face-to-face meetings online”. And they continue by “We’re human, we like to converse. Sometimes it can be critical to talk, even if only for a minute, when all other communication is written.” Then they remind us that “Daily stand-up meetings are for bonding, blockers and the future”. Just like me, they advise against talking about what you did yesterday and put emphasis on bonding during the daily. I recently asked the team leads in my company if they needed to go to every single Daily Scrum. And I received a lot of answers talking about the importance of seeing each other’s faces at least once a day, especially now when we all work as entirely distributed teams. How important it is for them to use this time as a kind of team building, especially for newly formed teams. I really enjoyed seeing the human face of the leaders.
  4. Turn the ship around — to be a great leader you don’t need to know the answer to every question. This is not your job. Your job is to help people grow and develop new skillful leaders. David Marquet, Former-Captain, US Navy Seals, and author of the book “Turn The Ship Around” encourages leaders to admit they don’t know something. This is how you open the door for learning — “When the leader says I don’t know, it makes it safe for the whole team to say I don’t know.” Be the first one to admit your mistakes and ask for help. This is how you create a culture of trust and psychological safety, you connect to people on a whole different level. A human to human level. I highly recommend to all leaders to read David Marquet’s book and watch his video here.

This goes for all leaders who are working remotely or presently. If you join a company in a leadership position, you need to get out there and become a servant leader. Go and talk to your team, look for opportunities to bond and relate. Be seen and be open to understanding their problems, how they work and what they need. Be genuinely curious about the people, their everyday struggles and challenges. This is how you will learn more about your role as a leader and what you can do to help and empower your teams.

The good news is, it is never too late to start over. Simply schedule those one-on-ones, make them meaningful and get on the right path. Based on my story, I can tell you that this is the simplest way to get to know the people and understand how to do your job to provide the most value for your team and your organization.

Agile Coach and Content Creator at Agile State of Mind https://www.youtube.com/c/AgileStateofMind

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