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Avoiding Loneliness as a Servant Leader

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Team success is often celebrated without recognizing or acknowledging the role the servant leader has played. A lot of what they do can go undocumented or is not always visible to others. To avoid loneliness, servant leaders can create support networks to share what they do, celebrate successes with peers, blog about what they do and how they do it, and give demos to management about their accomplishments.

Nick Loe-Startup, agile coach at Holiday Extras, will be speaking about how he avoided becoming a lonely servant leader at Aginext 2020, to be held in London on March 19 - 20.

According to Loe-Startup, a good servant leader will not become a dependant in a team, quite the opposite - they will aim to enhance autonomy and self-organisation in teams to the extent they are no longer required. So while working alone with a team they are never really part of that team.

Aside from peer support groups in your own organisation, Loe-Startup suggests going to conferences to network and, if you get the opportunity to, speak about your successes and challenges as that can be really rewarding for servant leaders. It helps you validate what you’ve been doing and share stories with like-minded peers.

Finding ways to quantify what you have been doing with quantitative and qualitative data can really help too. Loe-Startup proposes giving demos to senior stakeholders as that crystalises the need to document your output - demonstrating how busy you’ve been and the impact you’ve had on your team/business is much easier with data to back this up. Regularly reviewing this data can give you tangible evidence regarding the areas where you’ve had the most impact.

InfoQ interviewed Nick Loe-Startup about what servant leadership looks like, avoiding loneliness, and insight into how servant leaders are contributing and what they have achieved.

InfoQ: What does a day in the life of a servant leader look like?

Nick Loe-Startup: A typical day will involve plenty of one-on-one conversations: coaching mainly, some mentoring, training and counselling as required. There will also be facilitation of team sessions, using the same skills to improve team performance. More recently for me, it’s also about using data, such as Jira reports (Sprint Reports, Burn-up and Cumulative Flow) as well as qualitative information based on discussions with teams and our observations, to help teams identify potential problem areas where we can use our expertise and coaching to suggest or prompt teams to investigate and experiment to bring about improvements.

We’ve always been conscious of the tools available, but recently with more time to step back from the intense support for our teams, we’ve had time to focus on the data that they may not be utilising to its full potential - for example, concerns around velocity fluctuations that sprint reports can identify, highlighting concerns around scope creep through burn-up charts and bottlenecks through cumulative flow.

InfoQ: Servant leadership can become lonely as you are working alone with the team. What do you do to avoid this loneliness?

Loe-Startup: Servant leadership is not a role for people who seek constant recognition. A lot of the work servant leaders do is in the background, and laying foundations for people and teams to blossom. Another frantic day can often, on reflection, actually feel massively unproductive.

I avoid the loneliness the role can bring by creating support networks. I’m fortunate that I’ve always worked in a servant leadership role with others in that role. Regular check-ins with my peers helps me celebrate my success - they can relate to the small wins, highlight those I’ve not acknowledged myself and challenge and motivate me. I also blog about the successes I’ve had and try to talk at conferences, and expand my network of peers outside of my organisation so that I can talk about my successes and challenges to ensure I’m continually improving.

InfoQ: What can servant leaders do to get a better insight into how they are contributing and what they have achieved?

Loe-Startup: This one has taken a while for me to feel comfortable with! I’ll often think, "What have I actually done today?" Those support networks are a good sanity check to talk about the successes and challenges I’ve had throughout a day/week. I may have spent the vast majority of the day talking to people, but those conversations have coached a number of people to solutions.

More recently, we’ve started to demo as part of the Web Team Leadership Group to one of our directors to summarise those successes. These demos are alongside our people leads (line managers) & head of team and highlight both our contribution towards the Web Team Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and other contributions we’ve made over a two-week period. There’s very much a focus on looking at reports, reviewing draft documents/presentations/training materials and debating the main challenges we’re facing at the moment. Our director is very clear that it’s an opportunity to showcase what we’ve been doing and not about lists of meetings we’ve attended, rather drilling into the detail of the significant contributions we’ve made.

We’re also developing metrics to assess when we check-in with teams, the measure of success being where we identify support and areas for improvement, regular check-ins and assessments show that we’ve shifted and improved the "ratings" in those focus areas. These range from Autonomy, Resilience, Leadership, Motivation, Morale, Team feedback culture, Retro frequency, Process Quality, whether they think Remote first (important to our organisation) and Stakeholder satisfaction, to more quantitative data like velocity, cumulative flow and burn-ups to identify trends such as scope creep. These more documented measurements help us see the impact we have on teams, and as a result the wider business.

InfoQ: What have you learned about being a servant leader?

Loe-Startup: It’s so rewarding to see others flourish and succeed as a result of the support you’ve provided, but you need to be a certain type of person to be able to get the rewards and motivation that come from the success of others. It is your success, but all too often you’ll not receive wide recognition for your part in things. That’s fine by me, but won’t be for everyone. Above all, servant leaders need to be great coaches; it’s something I’ve had to work on as a skillset, but hugely important.

InfoQ: What’s your advice to servant leaders?

Loe-Startup: Your success might often be subtle and underrated, so make sure you find ways to celebrate it. I’ve mentioned a few ways above on how I do it, but I’m sure there are many more others do - I’d love to hear about them! You can get in touch with me via our site we’ve developed to help our teams self-serve (as well as our wider organisation understand the benefits of working in an agile way), which I explain in more detail in this blog Developing High-Performing Teams at Holiday Extras.

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