“I also have a very relaxed and undogmatic understanding of “agile”. I don’t believe it’s something you are, or can become – it’s a way of improving. So “agile leadership” is not a specific way to lead – it’s a way to improve how you lead. We want people to understand how the way they show up influences the results they get – and how changing how they show up leads to different results.”
1. Q: To many people in Serbian Agile & IT community you’ve been already introduced as a coach at the Certified Agile Leadership course. To start with, can you tell us a little bit more about your life and professional devotion?
A: I started my “work life” as a software developer in the 90s – it was the time where you got a dev job if you could put the letters I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T in the right order. I was a typical introvert tech guy – preferring the basement to daylight, machine to human interactions … I proceeded to become a tech lead and then manager, which did not work well: I had no idea how to tell people what to do, and I assumed I could not ask anybody for help because I was the boss and supposed to have the answers. Painful. The dot com bubble burst which kept me from doing that for too long … then I was hired by a great boss in Berlin who said, “Olaf, you could do many great things in my company and I can’t afford any of those (remember, dot com bubble had burst, that was 2002), so you need to become a consultant and make me more money than I have to pay you.” Scary, honest, and challenging. I had to go visit companies and people I did not know to help them improve. It turned out to be something I liked and was good at. Over the years, I lost most of my introvert traits, became a coach … I had started XP in 1999. I’ve never written code to a specification, or worked on a project with a “project plan”. I’ve been agile all my life and been helping organisations to improve in that way ever since.
You’ve asked about devotion. I grew up in West Germany having strong connections to the East, and been exposed as a kid to intense discussions about oppression, exploitation, freedom, and interesting topics like that. My Dad has influenced me to become a rebel and question authority – and I’m passionate about increasing people’s ability to free themselves from limitations. Especially those in our own heads… Most oppression in our world comes from expectations we impose on ourselves. This is a continuous topic of self-discovery for me – learning how I set traps for myself and limit my own happiness … and then helping others identify these patterns too, especially as they play out in our organisations.
At the 3rd Agile Serbia Conference, you will speak about the topic titled “How does a technical guy become an Agile Leader?” on the EPIC stage. You will describe a journey from an introvert engineer to an Agile Leader.
A: Yes I’ve shared some of that here now – but there’ll still be other stories to share 🙂
2. Q: In Serbia, it is a common situation that a senior or an architect in a development team is expected to take on the role of a leader, even if he/she doesn’t have skills or attitude of the leader. What could be the consequences of such practice for the team or even the company?
A: This is a very common pattern in Germany, too – in contrast to the U.S. where leaders learn management. We tend to promote experts at something to managers of experts – and their expertise gets in the way. This is exactly what happened to me. The key out of this trap is asking for help. Admitting we don’t know. Making mistakes and talking about them. None of these I dared to do when I became a boss – but, now I encourage young leaders to do that because I know it really helps.
What happens if we don’t do that is that many places of power and influence in our organisations are occupied by people who are afraid that someone might eventually find out that they are not good at their jobs – because they are outside their expertise and comfort zone. And then people like me – “agile coaches” – come in and talk about transparency and openness, and scare the shit out of these people. And these managers resist – for very good reasons. For reasons they can’t or won’t talk about. And what we see is an unchangeable organisation. I used to blame “middle management” as an “invisible wall”, a “blocker to change”, for a lot of my consulting career – and it did not help me to work with them. Coming with understanding and compassion for their situation, valuing their expertise and good intentions, is far more helpful. As a community, we talk a lot about “respecting people” – it’s sad we don’t always remember that managers are people, too.
A very common, interesting, and actually easy-to-mitigate situation is that one of your peers becomes promoted to become such a leader. Often this breaks friendships, creates unspoken conflict, and generally doesn’t feel good! How could it? Let’s say Peter and Paul are developers and have been working together in the same company for years. Now their team lead quits to join another company, and their management decides to promote Paul into that position. Let’s assume they are equally qualified, but only one of them can get the position. Management will have had a hard time deciding – maybe they just threw a dice. Now Peter feels bad for two reasons: he’s envious as someone obviously thought that Paul was somehow “better”, and his relationship with Paul is in danger, because now there’s a power difference. Plus Peter knows Paul’s leadership skills… What about Paul? He’s afraid about their relationship too, he needs help but doesn’t know how to ask for it…
If you recognize yourself in one of those situations, here’s what you can do: talk about it. “Wow. I don’t know how you feel about this decision, but if I were in your position, I would feel… “ show empathy. Talk about the management decision, talk about what unites you. Don’t focus on what might separate you now. “I like being your friend, I don’t want to spoil that by being a bad boss. What kind of leader do you need? How can I help you?” “I don’t know how this is going to work, and I don’t want it to ruin our relationship. How can I make you look good in your new role?”
3. Q: To link to the previous question, can you elaborate how someone can become a leader? Who should take the initiative for that, and why do we need more leaders?
A: I think we need more leadership, not more leaders. Leadership is an activity, not a position, and everyone is a leader: you are leading your life, your family, your marriage… we have adults in our companies who build homes and raise children, but at work we assume they need to be parented. Let’s start treating people as if they were adults, and learn how that affects management and leadership needs in our organisations.
We need more leadership because relationships are becoming more central and crucial to organisational performance. As objectives, structures, processes change, relationships are what we need to rely on. They give us safety, and they are where value is created. Leadership used to mean that I know how something works so I can help you: learn your job, plan your project, improve your process…
So, the question is not how you become a leader, but how you improve as a leader – which is a lot less intimidating and daunting. And improving your leadership is exactly what our course is about: make sense of how and why you do what you do – and how it is getting you what you want. That’s what an agile team needs to inspect and adapt – and we give leaders the awareness and language to do the same. How do we manage contexts? How do we develop relationships? How do we focus attention in our contexts, and relationships? How does that nurture growth?
You are responsible for the difference you make in this world. Increasing the difference you make in your context is exactly what growing your leadership means. Take initiative. And if you don’t know what kind of leadership is expected, ask for help. Tell your peers or bosses that you want to take more responsibility and see what happens. It’s easier if you talk “we” instead of “I” so that people don’t assume it’s about your ego: “Let’s take more responsibility for this – it’s not going to improve by waiting. Whining is not enough.”
4. Q: We are constantly mentioning, but have never explained – what is the difference between an Agile leader and just a leader?
A: Leadership books, trainings and programs have been focusing on all of those great qualities we are looking for in, or demanding from our leaders. Agile is different. Agile Leadership, how I understand and train it in our TrustTemenos programs, is focusing on how we learn and improve while leading, not how we lead.
Leaders have inspirations and aspirations enough – and we happily share these examples, and models, of course. What they really need is practical support to reflect and change how they show up every day.
Agile Leaders grow their awareness of their intention and impact and learn from feedback, every day.
5. Q: In the end, tell us about the key benefits of Certified Agile Leadership program. What are the practical takeaways that one can apply “tomorrow”?
A: Beyond the official Learning Outcomes of the Scrum Alliance, which are helpful but not sufficient in my view, leaders take away the following from our course:
- Knowing, understanding and appreciating parts of themselves they had less awareness of before.
- Identifying a key leadership challenge they want to work on.
- Understanding relationship dynamics of that challenge and designing progress for the coming weeks and months.
- Inspiration for further growth and learning.
- Relationships with other leaders they can continue to learn from and with.
- Leadership principles and tools that the course is built on and of – most exercises of the course can be taken home and used the next day with their peers and teams.
- Increased courage and confidence, commitment to lead and improve.