No Thanks, I’ll Walk

In my teens and twenties, I was a runner.

Never a great runner, but a runner nonetheless. I believed that running was a key element to my fitness and wellbeing. I got up early on my own, trained on my own, and entered races on my own. Each time I finished a race, I accepted my medal as a badge of honour for my training and hard work. I then stuffed these symbols of grit and effort into a shoebox that I dedicated to collecting such artifacts.

In my thirties, something wonderful happened… I realized that all my actions aimed at making me a better runner (the right training, the right shoe, the right weather, the right running partner, the right nutrition, the right running path)… none of that aligned with what I really cared about in my life. I finally accepted the signals from my body and from my heart – I no longer needed running in my life.

That’s when I became a walker.

The challenges of being a walker are different than those of being a runner. When you are a walker, you continually have encounters with the world of runners and most of these encounters highlight how walkers are second class citizens in the world of foot races. This happened to me so frequently, that I created an unspoken mantra every time I encountered such a situation. I would breathe deeply into my body and my heart and say to myself: “No thanks, I’ll walk.”

Walking proved a serious shift in wellbeing and fitness for me. Walking allowed me to train with my best friend regularly. Together we completed long walks and we connected in a way that wouldn’t have been possible for us to do if we had run instead of walked. I will never forget our half-marathon experience… enjoying a hot sunny May day, being in flow, connecting with fellow racers, and taking in the journey together. When we stopped to help a dehydrated and disoriented racer on the side of the course (other racers jetting by us without a second glance), we knew full well we wouldn’t make our best time and we didn’t give it a second thought.

I’m sure that must have been given a medal for my efforts at the finish line (we completed the race in more or less 3 hours), but I have no idea where it ended up. “Medals and best time” are no longer what I value in my fitness and wellbeing practice…

So what’s all this to do with Agile leadership?

In a world of high achievers and high performing leaders… it’s very much a runner’s world out there. I know. I’ve been there. I’ve even collected a few medals myself.

For Agile leaders, our craft is about creating a context whereby our teams are honoured for acts of collaboration, for caring about end users, for deeply connecting and acting with courage to meet the collective vision of our business. In essence, we are asking our teams to put these values ahead of racing as individuals to chase a prize. For many, this means intentionally slowing down to get things right.

Now, consider the impact to our teams when we as Agile leaders continue to chase medals and best time? What happens when we are unable to embody the very values we claim to hold dear?

Now, breathe deeply and consider, how can you slow down and genuinely connect with what matters to you most? In essence, what would it take for you to say (with the strength of your own convictions) – “No thanks, I’ll walk.”?

Manager, Mentor, or Coach – What’s my leadership style?

Last week, a group of us gathered for our very first Leaders’ Circle Session – where we discussed and shared collectively our experiences with developing and growing our leadership style inside Agile organizations. The discussion was framed around three different leadership stances…

Armed with these different approaches, we each explored our “current way” as leaders in more detail. Throughout this exploration, we surfaced pressures (internal and external) that drew us as leaders more towards the left (Management). We also surfaced an invitation to shift to move towards the right (Coaching) from our Agile mindsets. This lead us to each defining our unique “new way” and to determine what actions we might wish to take to transition from the left towards the right skillfully.

While it is difficult to replicate the experience of our session, it’s worthwhile sharing the actions we surfaced during our coaching circle. For deeper exploration of your leadership style… please consider the practices proposed below and choose what serves you best.

Actions for exploring (and developing) your Agile leadership style:

  • Take a moment in your day to reflect on that day’s interactions. How much time did you spend managing, mentoring, and coaching today? What was the impact of those interactions?
  • Did you engage in a different approach depending on the situation? Depending on the person? What patterns do you observe stepping back? What assumptions underlie your approach?
  • Have you ever clarified for yourself AND with your colleagues / boss the expectations in your role? How do you know “what’s needed” in the moment?
  • If your colleagues / boss were to describe your leadership style in a few words, what words would they choose? What impact does your leadership style have within the team from their point of view?
  • Identify a situation where your desire is to establish more of a servant leadership approach (leaning more on coaching skills than mentorship and avoiding management approaches)… what conditions would need to exist to support? What can you do to create those conditions? Take the time to prepare yourself (and possibly others) before trying it out.
  • Become more aware of your approach “in the moment” by building awareness of what you offer in response moment to moment. Are you “instructing” (Managing)? Are you “suggesting” (Mentorship)? Are you “exploring with curiosity” (Coaching)? Note: Building this muscle of awareness doesn’t need to happen in the workplace – can just as well be applied to personal relationships like parenting and friendship.

To close, I would like to offer gratitude to those who participated in this inaugural Leaders’ Circle session… your engagement and courage to build upon the ideas presented improved the calibre of the topic for us all. I am looking forward to the next Leaders’ Circle session… stay tuned – coming in May!

Coaching from the Inside Out…

As coaches and leaders of change, we may well have worked very hard to establish our way of working. Our expertise, knowledge, and experiences are hard earned – spending time and money on improving ourselves – we have worked very hard to birth and share our ideas and knowledge with the world.

And yet, for all our effort and hard work, we continue to struggle. We think: “if only other people understood as we do”. And so we keep searching – the right metric, the best facilitation technique, the most advanced training (or certification) surely will show us the way. So that, when our expertise and experience has expanded enough, then everything will be ok.

And yet, for all our effort and hard work, we continue to struggle. We discover that some people think as we do – hallelujah! And so we gather at meet ups, attend retreats, and go to conferences. We hang out on social media – seeking to engage and test out our ideas with other like-minded (and not so like-minded) individuals. So that, when we are well connected and established in a community, then everything will be ok.

And, for all our effort and hard work, we continue to struggle. And so we wisely decide that we need to become more “zen”. We tell ourselves things like “it depends”, “context matters”, and “be patient”. We may download a meditation app, attend a yoga session, or schedule a massage. So that, when we are able to remain calm in the face of struggle, then everything will be ok.

And, for all our effort and hard work, we continue to struggle… 

In coaching, we take all of that effort and hard work – we honour it – and then work together to get connected with your center of gravity. We stop seeking answers outside and make space to seek answers inside – to understand how your way of being (way of seeing, doing, checking) might be getting in the way of addressing your struggles. We work together to include and transcend all that came before… making space for a new way of directing your effort and hard work – one that is energizing and better aligned with your own inner wisdom.

If this speaks to you (or sounds like someone you know might benefit) and you would be interested in exploring a coaching relationship for self-development as coach or leader of change – please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at InsideOutAgile.

Transcending a Culture of Independence

“Under poor leaders we feel like we work for the company.  With good leaders we feel like we work for each other.” – Simon Sinek

This quote by Simon Sinek (in combination with a re-read of Stephen Covey) inspired a train of thought… ok, a rather long train of thought… and inside it, surfaced an important underlying assumption for me.

We all work for each other – there is no other way.

In that light then, what happens when a culture of independence (I work for the company) meets a reality of interdependence (we work for each other)?

  • Production (ship it) is consistently prioritized over production capacity (enablement & capability to ship). The impact of ignoring production capacity is most keenly felt when production invariably slows down. This slowing down is internalized as shame (it’s our fault, we need to do better) or blame (they never give us time to work on this important stuff). Which leads to the following…
  • Heroes are celebrated and rewarded for the pain they endure, as it takes increasing amounts of effort and time to compensate for the production over production capacity imbalance. Heroic efforts are the real measure of professional growth within the independent cultured organization. Meanwhile, more complex acts of collaboration, learning, and growth go unrewarded and unrecognized.
  • Leaders are compliant, protective, and siloed. A culture of independence tends to build trusting relationships through loyalty. Implicitly, looking good is more important than being good. Constructive and healthy conflict is disabled within the organization’s culture – creating an echo chamber. This behaviour inherently supports the following….
  • Information is a form of currency and power.  One-on-one discussions and decision making are favoured over collective discussion and decision making. In general, healthy team dynamics are considered a delivery team thing, not a leadership team thing – creating inner circles of power within these peer groups.
  • Dissonance between leadership intention (what I say) and action (what I do). Consequently, people stop hearing these leaders and miss important messages from them over time. This lack of clarity in turn motivates employees to tell their own stories. These stories are rarely positive and create a self-reinforcing cycle of miscommunication and fear… which in turn feeds the culture of independence even further. I must protect myself and look out for #1.
  • Disengagement is the only way employees feel that they can safely express their emotions in a manner that restores balance for them. Not happy? Feel frustrated? Feeling sad? Take a sick day, work from home, or take a vacation. Whatever you do, don’t tell your boss because that would expose a flaw (see “Heroes are celebrated” above) that could prove career limiting.

All in all, it’s really hard to work together. To compensate, staffing functions are created to implement measures of control. More discipline is applied in a wasteful attempt to align in the reality of interdependence with a culture of independence.

Transcending a culture of independence requires strategic investment in the development of leaders both as individuals and as a team to support genuine embodied behaviours aimed at meeting the complex reality of interdependence. There is no other way…

Embracing the Mess

I was cleaning our mud room closet the other day – a big mess of coats, snow pants, toques, mismatched mittens… not to mention mud, salt, sand, and a thriving population of dust bunnies.

I’d been avoiding it.

And as I looked at the mess all around me, I realized the part that I had been avoiding was the inevitable mess making that is involved in sorting it all out. There I stood, amongst the piles of laundry, boots, and various odd things that somehow called our mudroom closet home over the past year – feeling uncomfortable and annoyed about it all.

It was in the mess that I had created that I realized that this feeling of aversion is natural – the yang to the yin of our the desire to see the outcome.

It’s hard to wade into a mess and to knowingly make it more messy. To just be with the pain of it and embrace it as part of the process. And yet, messiness is part of every event where change takes place – whether we chose to embrace the pain of it or not.

When I see all the angst expressed in the workplace as teams adopt new ways of working, I wonder how accepting we all are – as coaches and leaders of change – with embracing this messiness? How can we help others to dive into it all, knowing that it will only get more messy before it gets better?

The closet is now btw – looking fabulous – and while I enjoy this fresh state of things (new beginnings are so full of promise), I do so knowing that I will be encountering dust bunnies and new odd things that will have somehow ventured into our mudroom closet again in a few months time… but maybe this time, I won’t actively avoid what it takes to get it where it needs to be for me and my family.

New Leaders Series – Part 3: Manager vs Coach Stance

Let’s start with a key assumption: Managers and coaches are different roles.

Blending manager with coach can be a source of frustration and confusion for the people you are seeking to help and support as a new leader. As a leader in an Agile organization, it’s important that you clearly understand the difference between manager and coach and clarify for yourself and others your own embodiment of these different roles in the moment. Consider the different roles:

Manager – focused on ensuring balanced investment – focusing the growth of the individual in service to the growth of the business. The manager provides the necessary one-on-one support and work context necessary to meet the needs of the business.

Coach – focused on providing the framework and growing capabilities of the coached individual by meeting them “where they are at”. A coach provides a one-on-one interaction aimed at skills growth based on what is required and important for the coached individual.

Now, consider the impact of confusing coach and manager stance:

  1. As a manager, your reports may view your “coaching stance” as suggestion rather than direction – in which case, you risk being unclear about expectations.
  2. As a coach, coachees may see your “manager stance” as controlling. Your instructions may not resonate with the coachee and they may not choose to challenge this with you.

The danger here is made worse if you interpret the report / coachee behaviour as a challenge to your role when the truth is that your helpful – but unclear – approach has failed.

The only way that I know to remove ambiguity is to be very clear as to the mode you are engaging in. As a manager, I strive to be very clear when I engage as a coach – quite literally framing my questions and suggestions as “coach”. When I do this, I’m checking-in, inviting feedback, and am very open to reframing the suggestion. When I’m engaging as a manager and being more directive – I aim to be equally direct and transparent – in this case framing as “management \ business expectations”. When I do this, I emphasize clarity of expectations, inviting questions, and am not open to reframing the suggestion.

Ultimately, regardless of role / stance, what’s important is how this is received and heard by the other person. Knowing when to coach and when to manage is the next level of this but not truly possible unless the leader is able first to clarify their own stance in the moment.

New Leaders Series – Part 2: The Royal “We”

The first practice I would recommend to any new leader making a shift from “me” to “we” is to understand the deeper implications of what’s meant by “we” – if you’ll allow – what I like to call the royal “we”.

The royal “we” isn’t about blindly worshipping hierarchy – it’s about understanding the much broader context of where your team operates. In order to understand the royal “we”, new leaders need to understand the business…. enough of the business to:

  • be able to appreciate and articulate the value that their team and team members deliver
  • enable them to help the team and business to make good decisions

Blindness to the royal “we” is a serious failure in leadership and is usually most notable in it’s absence, such as…

  1. Not understanding the business value delivered by the team within the context of the needs of the overall business. This can lead to a kind of “white knight” behaviour where the leader champions blindly for issues that are not really important to the business. Such leaders will mistakenly value effort over output – putting the business, their team and themselves at risk.
  2. Favouring “politeness” or “likability” with their team members ahead of ensuring clarity and sound decision making based on business value delivery. Over the long run, the charismatic nature of such leaders won’t be enough to counter balance the overall ineffectiveness of their approach – again, putting the business, the team, and themselves at risk.

To be clear, the practice IS NOT to “stop championing for your team” or to “become impolite / unlikable”; rather, it’s to learn how the business delivers value and how you and your team contributes to this with great and constant clarity.  Balancing the needs of the team with the needs of the business is the true and skillful expression of the royal “we”.

BTW – In writing this blog post, I wish express my deep gratitude to Adam Murray (@AdamRMurray) Mike Kelland (@Mkelland), Mike Nash (@MichaelPNash) as well as Tim Redpath (@tredpath) who patiently worked with me as I slowly practiced this skill for myself… I would humbly submit that I still have a long way to go on this path.

New Leaders Series – Part 1: Shift in Stance

After years of hard work as a software developer and high performing team member, you’ve found yourself facing a whole new set of challenges. You are a leader (architect, team lead, scrum master, mentor, manager) on your team.

Looking back, everything that you’ve done along the way has supported you to get to this point. You’ve never backed down from challenge and have embraced the uncertainty of solving problems in code. You love the focus that comes with being able to tackle these problems with confidence. You’ve enjoyed the satisfaction that comes each and every time you’ve transformed an idea into a solution.

However, all the skills you worked hard to hone in yourself reflect your stance as “expert practitioner” and while expert practitioner skills are foundational to your role, these are not the skills that you will need to grow in order to succeed as a leader.

And no one told you this. When you got the promotion, no doubt your manager told you of the confidence he had in your abilities; however, your leadership up to this point has been fundamentally built on your ability to hone your craft expertly.

Your new role requires a shift in stance. You are now responsible for supporting others to do what you did so well. There is a hidden assumption there; indeed, a fundamental change in how you perceive your value on the team.

Your work is less “about you” and more “about them”.

This shift from “me” to “we” isn’t a small change in thinking and being. It’s one that I’ve seen many new leaders struggle with as they are drawn instinctually back to the joy derived in expressing their craft…. the satisfaction and joy they experienced in being “the guy who solves the problems” rather than “the guy who enables others to solve problems”.

In this series, I plan to explore some of the new skills that young leaders might consider as part of their new practice – assisting them to make this shift from “me” to “we”. It is my sincere hope that my own lessons (sometimes learned the hard way) can be of service to others beginning on this journey.

Death of a “Job Well Done”

The expression of a “job well done” has always been a bit awkward for me  – both on the giving or receiving side.

As I see it, “doing well” should have merit in itself and something we should all strive for – so that it is really a baseline rather than a true accomplishment. As a consequence, I would suggest the expression of a “job well done” could…

  1. Be redundant to satisfaction already experienced by the receiver who is actually “doing well”.
  2. Be perceived as an insincere statement that is more harmful than helpful to the relationship between the giver and receiver of the compliment.

Instead, I would suggest that we all need to dig deeper. This takes time and insight, but is well worth the effort. Consider transforming “job well done” into:

  1. Telling the person how you feel about what they have done. Did it make you happy? Ease your stress? Give you confidence?
  2. Expressing gratitude for their actions. Never underestimate the value of saying thank you sincerely.
  3. Acknowledging the effort that it took for them achieve. Achievements are usually the result of going above and beyond – that’s hard work and worth noting!
  4. Offering your support. How can you help this person go further? True collaboration is a gift.

I therefore call for the immediate death of a “job well done” and would invite a deeper level of insight in its place. The sharing of such insight will in turn meaningfully strengthen and build confidence the person receiving the message.


Retrospectives – Not Just a Team Thing

How often do you take a moment for a personal retrospective?

I try to do this every three months or so and I’ve found this practice to be very revealing and helpful for both my work and my life.

A personal retro  is no different than a team retro:

  1. Start with what happened (collect the data)
  2. Categorize, identify highs and lows, prioritize (curate the data)
  3. Take a moment to analyze and understand what made the highs so good and the lows so difficult (analyze the data)
  4. Take a moment to acknowledge the commitment and effort you put towards your work and life. Consider actions that wish to take towards improvement moving forward (acknowledge and take action)

I’ve learned that taking on the practice of personal retro, over time naturally leads you into a set of personal principles and values – indeed, the practice helps to develop a personal vision for your work and life. Even better, the practice ensures that the principles, values and vision that you live by are continuously improving.