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What Do You Look For In a Servant Leader?

Posted by Johanna Rothman on Oct 29, 2013 |

In my article, Which Scrum Master Are You Hiring, I suggested you articulate the type of leader you might be hiring. Why? You might not be hiring a “Scrum Master” at all—but you are likely hiring a servant leader.

In this article, let’s discuss the kind of qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills you might need in a servant leader, your potential Scrum Master, agile project manager, potential account manager, or whatever role you need filled.

Start With Qualities, Preferences, and Non-Technical Skills

Your servant leader has talents that are different from the technical skills. You could lump them all into one bucket called “talents.” But I have found that not so useful. Instead, I like to differentiate those into qualities, the talents that a person exhibits that are culture-sensitive; preferences, innate behaviors that are part of a person’s personality; and non-technical skills, such as interpersonal skills that a person has acquired over the years.

No matter what position this person has, let’s start with non-technical qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills. Those are the characteristics that will help a candidate succeed in the position and fit into your organization's culture.

Notice that I am not suggesting you start with a certification. Why not? While this person needs to embody agile values, principles, and of course, practices, a certification is no guarantee of that. However, the non-technical characteristics, the qualities, preferences and non-technical skills that you require in this servant leader role will help you define what you do need. We will discuss certification later.

What do you need in your position? Again, it depends on the servant leader you are hiring. Let’s take a few of the examples.

Is Your ”Scrum Master” Working as an Agile Project Manager?

For the sake of argument, let’s say you have an agile project manager, someone who helps the team define the charter, set the release criteria for the project, facilitates the team’s work, and also is the interface with the operations committee or the PMO or some other decision-making or governance body. This person’s job is to represent the team at the project portfolio decision meetings, and to advocate for the team. This person is the outward face of the team.

In the previous article, Ruth decided to hire a very senior person who could perform both these servant leader activities and the project portfolio activities. You might disagree with Ruth’s decision, but that’s the decision she made (I certainly did!). What qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills would she look for in a candidate?

Servant Leaders Must Enjoy Working with People

One of the major qualities of a servant leader is that he or she enjoys working with people. Servant leaders serve the people on the project. They also serve the people in the organization. They might have to keep the goals of the project in mind, as they facilitate the people, but remember, they are not “driving the project to completion.” That is not the job of a servant leader, no matter what this job is called.

This role facilitates the people doing the work. Here, Ruth decided to hire a senior person, because this person needs to interact at the project portfolio level to advocate for the team. Ruth suspects that the team will be able to facilitate itself pretty soon. I was nervous about Ruth’s assumption, because in my experience it takes a while for a new team to fully transition to agile. She wanted someone who was also a great negotiator, and could communicate well, both in email and in person.

She needed someone who was, as she said, a good “diagnoser.” Someone who could look at the project measurements, hold up a mirror to the team, and ask, “What’s going on?” Ruth was sure that was some sort of an agile skill, so she knew she needed someone experienced in agile. She also knew she needed someone who could learn enough about their system quickly.

If we summarize Ruth’s criteria for her servant leader, here’s what her first iteration looks like:

Essential skills for Ruth’s Agile Project Manager
  • High collaboration skills with the project team and project portfolio team
  • High facilitation skills with the project team
  • High negotiation skills with the project portfolio team
  • High communication skills across the organization
  • Diagnostic skills for what’s going on in the team
  • Able to learn our system quickly

Ruth might have other desirable qualities, preferences, or skills, such as budgeting, or ability to travel. The fact that she wants someone who can work at the project portfolio level is part of her culture.

That’s just one kind of servant leader. There are others.

What Happens When Your “Scrum Master” is a Manager?

Harry was the senior manager who was trying to make Scrum stick. He noticed that the teams were not sticking to Scrum—they were doing water-scrum-fall—because the people are not being loyal to their project teams. The people were loyal to their functional silos.

When you have a strong matrix organization and a weak project organization, as Harry had, it’s quite easy for people to do the work for their functional teams. Their managers ask them, “Can you do this little task for me?” Who wants to say “No,” to a manager?

Those little tasks take time away from project work and make it more difficult to accomplish the project work.

What can you do? Ask the managers to help the projects, not help other work.

I had suggested they change the organization to remove the many managers and create project-based teams instead. You should have seen the look of horror on his face! Not going to happen. Instead, he suggested that the managers become Scrum Masters for other project teams—not their own projects. Well, okay, that might work.

When Harry wrote the job description for these Scrum Masters, it was clear he was focusing on impediment removal:

  • High collaboration skills with the other managers
  • High facilitation skills with the project team
  • High negotiation skills with the other managers
  • High diagnostic skills for what’s going on in the team

Harry wanted the organization to complete its transition to agile and he was willing to make the managers Scrum Masters for cross-functional teams. He wanted the managers to work across the organization to accomplish this.

When Your Servant Leader’s Primary Role is Coaching

I normally separate facilitating the team from the coaching. But Valerie decided that she needed just one person in this position. And, the coaching would have to be subtle.

To me, this is a tall order. Subtle coaching as part of facilitation? This might require a very special person. I asked Valerie what the activities and deliverables were. “Retrospectives with action items are the first piece. If we don’t have retros with action items, we are still doing something wrong. So we need someone who can facilitate our retrospectives.” I asked about metrics, because I had not seen any velocity or burn-up charts or any other useful charts.

“Yes, we need data, too. But we can’t have someone beating the team over the head with data. Otherwise this will turn into command and control again”. I agreed with her.

Valerie needs someone with very strong facilitative skills. They need the ability to run retrospectives and be able to suggest alternative approaches to the team at any time. Someone who understands what data is valuable in agile and what data is not valuable.

Valerie’s initial draft for her essential qualities, preferences, and skills were these:

  • Strong facilitation: in retrospectives, team meetings, and one-on-one
  • Strong coaching skills: one-on-one and in teams
  • High collaboration skills in the team
  • Able to suggest data gathering approaches to the team

As an initial draft to use in a job analysis, these are great. Valerie will be able to use these to create her interview questions and auditions.

Leading Geographically Distributed Teams is More Difficult

Once you add in the stress of managing a geographically distributed team, you need not only a change agent, as in Anne’s case, but someone who can understand the cultures of the people in different places.

If you are lucky, and you have a geographically distributed team with people in just one country, you might not have too many cultural issues. My experience is that when you have distributed projects, you have projects with people who are many time zones away, and who represent multiple cultures. You have problems with language, how to share the stories, and coming to a common understanding of what done means.

Your servant leader needs to help facilitate the team meetings. First find a meeting time that everyone can make. Then make sure everyone understands what’s going on.

Does your servant leader need to access the people on the project through managers in different countries? Sometimes that happens. Does the leader need to make it easy for people to explain, “I don’t understand the wording of the story. I need more information.” That happens too.

It’s quite common that a story that appears easy to one person in one time zone is non-trivial to a person in another time zone. A servant leader may have to act as a coach, to help people articulate why they are not done with a story, and diagnose remaining work to see if the rest of the team can assist with work for that story. This can be quite difficult, the more time zones separating the people. It can also appear to the distributed people that the leader is criticizing the distributed folks. This takes talent and subtlety. Maybe the team doesn’t have a common definition of done.

Arriving at a common definition of done is not trivial when people are partway around the world. It is easy for people to misunderstand words and not just miss a deadline, but create the wrong thing entirely.

Servant leaders for geographically distributed teams need to learn to build trust, to help people learn to collaborate, to help people learn to speak in a way that creates teamwork, and to avoid the management insertion that too often occurs. There are many potential pitfalls in geographically distributed agile teams.

Anne decided these were the essential qualities, preferences, and skills:

  • Able to facilitate phone calls all over the world
  • Able to manage these people’s managers—high negotiation skills, political capital
  • Able to recognize small wins and help the team deliver without being command and control
  • Influential in the team to deliver fast wins

Anne was so successful the project grew into a program. That turned into a headache for Anne.

Managing Programs Requires Other Skills

A geographically distributed project is one thing. A geographically distributed program is another beast. A program is several projects, all coordinated to meet one business objective.

Managing programs requires coordination and collaboration across the organization.

What Does a “Real” Scrum Master Require?

By now, you’re probably wondering, what the heck are the qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills for a real Scrum Master? Let’s assume we have a collocated five-to-seven person team and the Scrum Master only has this job, no other.

Remember a Scrum Master is also a change agent. Here’s a full job analysis, according to the job analysis template from Hiring Geeks That Fit:

Defining Questions

Needs and Observations

Who interacts with this person?

Team members and any of their manager(s)

Product owner, Other coaches

What roles does this person have in this job?

Coach/Facilitator

Organizational change agent

What level is the company willing to pay for?

What’s the management component?

?

Manage own backlog

Provide feedback for project portfolio

What are the job's activities and deliverables?

What periodic deliverables are required?

Coach team(s)

Facilitate team meetings

Ensure information radiators are up to date. Does the team need other radiators?

Advocate for the team

Identify and remove impediments

Coach on agile practices

Help team see what they are doing to see how they can improve

Coach on technical practices

Help the team become self-sufficient

What are the essential qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills? Initiative? Flexibility? Communications skills? Ability to handle projects of varying scope? Ability to work on multiple projects at one time? Influence and negotiation skills? Goal-orientation? Technical leadership and problem-solving skills? Responsibility and independence? Passion for learning? Teamwork skills? Others?

Initiative

Flexibility

Communications

Resilience

Determination

Perseverance

Ability to find another option

Recognition of management power, but not intimidated by it. Ability to use that power.

What are the desirable qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills?

Able to live with the ambiguities in the organization.

Able to live with conflict.

What are the essential technical skills? Functional skills? Product-domain skills? Technology/tool skills? Industry experience? Others?

Coaching

Feedback

One-on-ones

Agile practices

What are the desirable technical skills?

Facilitation

Influence

What is the required minimum level of education, training, or experience?

At least two years working on an agile team releasing product.

What are the corporate cultural-fit factors? What benefits should be offered? Company growth? Cash position? Industry leadership? Entrepreneurial environment? Benefits? Company size? Others?

Check to see that your culture is close enough to the candidate’s culture.

What elimination factors should be considered? Travel? Availability? Salary? Others?

Command-and-control people, People who inflict help, Highly judgmental people, people who are easily frustrated are not good candidates for this role.

A job analysis requires thought. The good news is that you can iterate on it. Once you have a job analysis, you can craft interview questions and even an audition to know if you are hiring the right people.

About the Author

Johanna Rothman is the author of Hiring Geeks That Fit as well as several other books. She consults, speaks, and writes on managing high-technology product development. She enables managers, teams, and organizations to become more effective by applying her pragmatic approaches to the issues of project management, risk management, and people management. Read more of her writing on jrothman.com.

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The role of HR in the process by Mary Haasch

Great article. The only way this works is if during hiring you actually get to see the resumes of everyone, not just the select few chosen by HR based on key-word criteria.

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