Find a way to practice the leadership qualities you want

Sara Eaton
Oct 22, 2019 · 5 min read

After spending the first part of my career as a developer and architect on software development teams, I learned how important it was to see how others expected to work as a group. Building software is not an individual activity, and you are continually working with everyone around you to mold and shape the final product. Much like playing a team sport, you are trying to put people in roles that they can work together to create an excellent end product.

So a few years ago, when I started helping leadership groups at large organizations think about supporting DevOps practices and being Agile (instead of doing Agile), I relied a lot on my background in coaching soccer. Helping leaders shift their behavior in developing technology to run businesses is very similar to coaching soccer.

1. Bring people together to work on skills to grow and nurture.

Create a regular cadence with the leadership team to come together as a group to discuss a new approach and how it will change the current state. Let everyone talk about it openly in the group. Discuss concerns. Highlight the particular topic of the day and dive into that topic at different levels. Each time you get together, you should be focused on a different aspect of being a leader in building/supporting technology.

This is like practice in soccer. The best practices focus on an area for the day — 1 on 1 defense. Passing. Dribbling. Scoring. Receiving the ball. Long ball service. And the practice plan created ahead of time builds upon that theme — start with something at the individual level, then move to small groups and finally end with everyone together — but all outcomes of each drill should be rewarding and supporting the topic of the day. The best part… you don’t always have to tell the kids beforehand what you are working to build.

2. Create games that let you simulate the behavior you want to model

When working with leaders about MVP, I don’t say let’s play a game about MVP and then give them something precisely like what they do every day at work with their team. We create a fictional example and fun competition. Whenever I am playing a game with a large group, I follow a pretty set pattern. First, establish a topic we want to talk about during the day. This could be MVP; it could be CI/CD; it could be focus vs. context switching. Next, we play a game that has nothing to do with their day to day work but everything to do with the topic. Lastly, we spend time discussing as a group how that game tied back to the topic. It is essential to talk about how they felt and what they believe they can apply in real life.

Soccer coaching is similar. When I want the kids to learn how to take the ball out of the air with a great first touch, we have all sorts of drills that train that at an individual level, but we also do exercises that let them get points and compete in games that are different than just a soccer scrimmage. This rewards them for mastering the skills and encourages them to see how, if they got better at the skill, they would be able to do better.

3. Tie the rest of the session back to the game.

As you move out of the game and into the broader discussion about the topic — MVP, Agile Roles, Dedicated cross-functional teams, DevOps Pipeline — keep referencing the game you played and why it is crucial to the topic you are discussing. There is an excellent activity around context-switching with a large group working on completing three different simple tasks, all related to counting and saying the alphabet as a group. When a group plays it together, they see how much longer it takes to complete a set of activities if you keep flipping between the activities instead of just focusing and getting the work done on a single one. This leads to a great conversation about multi-tasking and, more specifically, for teams, the disadvantage of having tons of stories in progress at the same time. Most of the time, we end up discussing why you would have lots of stories in progress at the same time. We work on how to remove roadblocks for teams as leaders to help them be able to focus on a single item. We talk about what it does to a team to walk in mid-sprint and ask them to completely change the stories planned for the sprint. And for each conversation we tie it back with the standard game — how did you feel, what did you wish was different, how could it have better with the game.

Soccer coaching is the same. We do simulated activities “crocodile pit” for 1 on 1 defense, “sharks and minnows” for dribbling, “short, short, long” for long-ball service, and we always bring these back up when something goes awry in a scrimmage or a game. We pause the scrimmage or incorporate the feedback during halftime during a game to “do you remember when we did X game at practice.” We watch for situations where it would have been beneficial to use the simulated result and show how it applies to gameplay.

The significant part about finding games and activities to build the behavior patterns you want the whole organization to use is that most people like to play games. I have now coached soccer at every level below college. Never fail, from my high school seniors to my 3-year-old players, everyone is waiting for the game. If all we ever did were work on individual skills and watch videos of others playing, they would still get better, but they love the games. The other thing you should remember is not everyone likes every game, and they will each take different learning back to apply with their teams. I have people I have worked with who love the marshmallow spaghetti game and others who swear by the learnings from the ball game for DevOps, but the best option is to work with the leaders over time and try out different games each time to find ways to connect your topics with something tactical and real. Create the experience you want to use to showcase the outcome you hope to get.

Sara Eaton — Technology Director at Slalom


Slalom is a modern consulting firm focused on strategy, technology, and business transformation. In over 30 markets across the US, UK, and Canada, Slalom’s teams have autonomy to move fast and do what’s right. They’re backed by regional innovation hubs, a global culture of collaboration, and partnerships with the world’s top technology providers.

Founded in 2001 and headquartered in Seattle, Slalom has organically grown to over 7,500 employees*. Slalom was named one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2019 and is regularly recognized by employees as a best place to work.

Slalom Technology

For perspective and analysis on everything IT: cloud computing, security, blockchain, AWS, Salesforce, and more!

Sara Eaton

Written by

Technology Transformation Leader in Dallas. I love all things about building technology solutions and how to do it better. Also I love my family and soccer.

Slalom Technology

For perspective and analysis on everything IT: cloud computing, security, blockchain, AWS, Salesforce, and more!

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