[Podcast] Changing Culture, Changing Leadership
On our latest episode of The Agile Reformists podcast, MATRIX VP of Professional Services Joshua Jack and Agile Coach Todd Sussman had an open conversation on changing culture and changing leadership.
Listen to the full episode or read some of the transcript below.
TS: The topic up for discussion today is changing leadership + changing culture and I think it's a very important one.
Often, it feels like the journey is viewed strictly as an IT initiative, and while we get support from senior leadership, they don't always know the best way to support change moving forward.
To me, it's summarized in a quote by Dr. Edward Deming: “it's not enough just to do your best, you have to know what to do and when.”
JJ: When the Agile manifesto really hit, we were already into Agile transformation as far as culture or in software development. And it really started out more grassroots with a bunch of guys who wanted to try something different.
And so a lot of the change we initially saw was bottoms-up, because I'm a sort of an inverted pyramid kind of guy when it comes to leadership.
It left the leaders scratching their heads saying, “how in the world did you get done so fast, or how did you do that so well, or how did we meet our customers’ expectations so well?”
And that took us a long way. We saw changes to not just a single slice, but it changed how we look at product, and it changed how we looked at the world.
I lived in the operational side of things, and we saw that impact, but we kept hitting this roadblock because at some level in the organization, you hit somebody that had their own goals, or you hit a scenario where somebody was being held accountable for a KPI or some metric that would be at odds with the people that were doing the work.
So, what we're starting to see now are executives that are bought in and we have this grassroots kind of campaign that's been going on for 30 years, if not more, and now we're meeting at what we may call your traditional leadership layer.
They're getting squeezed from both sides and they're not sure what to do. What we're seeing is an organizational level of fight or flight response going on at this middle layer.
If we're really going to transform, if we're really going to change the way that our culture works, we're going to have to address what do we do there. Maybe the traditional folks who used to say we don't need the middle managers are starting to realize that they play an important part.
It’s not only from a feeder to executive layer, where we groom and help grow people into being amazing executive leaders, but also because they can be roadblock removers, if they have enough clout in the organization.
They understand what's gone on long enough to know where they can really be effective if they're allowed to be, and so what we're seeing is it's not enough to do your best, you have to know what to do, then do your best.
I really see that as being part of the of the roles and responsibilities. The charter, the North star of leadership, is helping everyone to understand what the best is, so that we can encourage them and grow them in the best way.
TS: I couldn't help but think, as a former developer, my career started in in the.com bubble era and you're absolutely right, it used to be all of us sitting in a room together.
We were either coding or you had direct access to sales folks, we just called it getting things done. And while it might not have always had such a happy ending, a lot of these original startups have long since failed because a big part of that was, we didn't have mentors to look towards and model behavior. It was actually “did you get funding, did you run, run, run?”, and we didn't really have a purpose.
So, when you think about today's day and age, what do you think “good” looks like in terms of leadership? What are some of those standards that people might want to strive for?
JJ: The types of leadership we need to see are ones that understand what it means to be extremely flexible and willing to consume massive amounts of change continuously.
And they need to be people who aren't offended by new and radical ideas. We still need this desire to meet our customers and our clients’ needs, but it shifts- it's no longer “hey, how do we just be ultra flexible and do everything we can to meet the customer needs” and it starts to move from a purely customer-centric approach where we're saying we're sort of like the genie from Aladdin, poof!
With our clients, we start moving into who are we and as a leader, we start to establish what our true north star is. Then we start to set guardrails that help us protect our north star. We're willing to listen to challenges to it. We're willing to listen to maybe shifts and changes to the approach or to our language or whatever else, but our north star stays true, and we start to build our relationships and we start to build our products and, more importantly, we start to grow and shape those people that were responsible for according to what that north star is incorporating their differences and their uniqueness and their viewpoints into that but always staying focused on that on that true north.
I think that as an organization gets bigger, we have started adapting the lean startup ways again, we have to start thinking of ourselves as being highly adaptable and start being focused on the radical ability to consume change.
It’s at a different scale, but we have to as we grow and as we get bigger. Leaders have to start thinking smaller. I know that sounds like irony, but we have to start thinking about how the system can change.
We have to start thinking about what our impact on that system is, and what are the small things we can do to tweak and to keep that energy going forward and keep the movement and the focus on consuming change from our customers and clients again, so I guess it's almost got big bell curve.
So, if I were to wrap all that up it would be the ability to be flexible and to be ultra-customer centric.
Then we start getting into where we're seeing that north star becoming more product centric. And in leading our people to understand what that is and incorporating their amazing ideas. Then we get back to our having to learn how to experiment again and I think that advice to those leaders is learn where the appropriate place to be is around.
Are you being ultra innovative and extremely customer responsive? Or are you starting to move across the paradigm, a little bit more into being more focused on establishing what your true north star is, and growing people to be able to sort of fulfill that.
In the case of modern leadership, organizations are transitioning from the old way where they would say “I'll give you information when I get it or when you need to know.”
Modern leaders ask, “how do I develop a relationship, how do we build a relationship with the people who are around me?”
It’s standing up and saying, “hey guys, I don't have any more information” because let's face it, people are going to make up things that are going on and it's best to just come out and say, “I don't know any more than you do, or here's what I do know” and that's a specific example, but it's this whole idea of learning to communicate for relationships’ sake, not just for information’s sake.
TS: It's a really interesting take having been a developer and more of a team coach. As a general rule, I constantly talk about value statements and user stories to drive the emotional bond. To use those communication patterns and relationships to encourage autonomy so really thinking about it, as it starts with communication patterns, at the very top that ultimately drive down to the team.
Back in the day, when you thought about leadership and commitment, it was a commitment to deliver a service scope, at a certain amount of time.
But that really is changing. We're no longer encouraging organizations to predict when they will finish everything. When you think about commitment in terms of Agile leadership, how is that changing for the modern organization?
JJ: I'm a recovering project manager. So, you really never stop being a project manager, you're just always on the 12-step process to not be a project manager.
So, what that means to me, is that I used to be really concerned about that stuff like “am I going to complete this project on time, under budget and completing all the scope?”
In doing that, I never felt totally fulfilled, because I’m super extroverted first of all, so I get a lot of my energy from being around people. But on top of that, I hate bullies, and so I felt like as a project manager I was almost turning into a bully in a way.
I noticed interacting with project managers their demeanor changes on a daily basis, depending on the status of the project. The red, green or yellow flag.
TS: Yeah, if you're in a green day, you come in and everyone's happy. “We'll figure that out, we'll make it work.” And if it’s a red day, everyone comes in and says, “we're working weekends and staying nights.”
JJ: Right, exactly, and I hated that. Unfortunately, a lot of project managers turn more inward to the team when things don't happen right.
If we’re thinking about it from the old standpoint, why aren't we talking about the commitments of our stakeholders and whomever else to our teams? It’s never one side of the story is always correct, but now let's shift that to “what does the commitment mean now to me”?
Commitment means, “am I committed to the partnerships that we've created in our clients and our customers? Am I committed to their valuable outcomes? Am I committed to maintaining relationships with them regardless of what kind of ups and downs that we go through? Are we committed to one another?”
It becomes more focused on individuals and interactions rather than processes and tools.
Number one, we have to understand where the customer is going and am I committed as a leader to helping my team or my teams or my organization help our partners achieve that?
What can I do from a commitment standpoint to make sure to validate that all is being done to meet the goals of both my workers and our end partners?
It's almost like collaboration is the center of a Venn diagram between communication and commitment. If we're committed to each other, if we're committed to an end goal, if we're committed to our relationships, and our partnering and to seeing success and value delivered.
If we're willing to communicate what that is, isn't that in the end, what collaboration is? Where we're taking both of those things, and we're building a collaboration point to where we can see all this other stuff happen?
It's easier to have collaboration across the board when when we're focused on those two items, and it also frees us up.
If we're truly collaborative, if everyone understands the commitment, if everyone is highly communicative, then when we're collaborating it gives us the ability to have autonomy. It builds trust between all parties, it builds trust in leaders, and it builds trust across companies to the people they're delivering work to.
TS: It's a great thing when the teams are empowered and self-organizing- that they can make decisions, while still maintaining that alignment with the greater good.
JJ: As a leader, it's our responsibility to coach our teams and the people that work for us to become self-organizing. Self-organization is not an input. We talk a lot about it: “Agile teams should be self-organizing and self-managing and they should be all these things…” Yet we've spent the past 50 years teaching people to take orders, so if we're going to move to truly self-organizing and self-managed teams that have a focus on the north star, that understand the value prop from our customers and have high communication, if we're going to demand this commitment in collaboration and leaders, we're going to have to learn how to coach our people to be able to do that. We're going to have to talk about some of the hard things about being transparent, about the communication that we need to have.
It's important as leaders to coach our people in these modern practices, starting with 21st century skills and going through some of the other activities that are needed to grow people and to be good team members. So that's the role of this new leadership. And that's the culture that we need to create as leaders.
TS: That's a great segue into the next sub-topic that I have for us and, and that is when you think about traditional leadership, it was really built around the ability to do tactical problem solving.
How do you go from being a tactical problem solver and having your value measured in knowledge to being more influenced based, more relationship based, and thinking about outcomes, as opposed to just what's in front of you?
JJ: Any time I am coaching leaders or any time I'm thinking about what it means to be a good leader, I’ll always start with “you have to start within yourself”.
You have to develop the leader within. So, the first thing is if your worth is set around your ability to know everything that's going on then you're setting yourself up for failure and an inability to scale.
The first thing that has to happen is a mindset shift and that mindset shift is, “I don't know everything. I can't know everything.”
As a leader, I would say start disseminating knowledge. Start learning the things that you need to learn, but also start to pass on the knowledge that you do have and be ready to be wrong and not know everything.
The second thing I would say is learn how to ask questions, and not just have a list of questions that you ask, but learn to be inquisitive and truly seek to understand what's going on around you.
There will be times when I’ll ask somebody questions and I get this look like, “you don't know what you're talking about.”
Part of me wants to answer and say, “actually I do, but what I'm trying to do is to create space and seek first seek to understand, and then create space for somebody else to answer a question.”
So, there's these little tangible things that we can start to do, that help us to change how we think internally.
You also have to learn how to ask good questions, but then we start moving into some of the things that are more externally facing.
Both of those things I mentioned - changing how you think and employing some of these other things- they're not meant to be silver bullets; they're meant to expose other challenges.
If you put yourself into that position where you are the single source of information, not only are you hindering your team from growing, but you also make yourself uncomfortable because you can't leave your current job if there is no one behind you that can seamlessly fill that gap.
JJ: We've been having this conversation I jokingly call, “the hit by the bus conversation” for when you're planning for what happens when you leave the company.
It really is an eye-opener to say, “have I as a leader set up the people around me for success?”
The new approach is, “how do I make sure I'm bringing people along with me and helping them grow and helping them so that I can work my way out of a job?” And that in a nutshell, is how we approach more modern leadership.