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Creating Agile Leaders: A Conversation

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Scott St.Clair, Technical Delivery Lead, and Russell Mirabelli, Senior Director of Architecture, explore the nuances of developing agile leaders, touching upon cultural approaches, establishing norms, evolving leadership roles, and the transformative power of genuine praise.

Cultural Approach

Scott St.Clair: I was thinking we could start with the importance of growing leaders internally and how much better it is to have that retention and upward mobility.

Russell Mirabelli: I’m going to agree with you, Scott, but it even goes beyond that. Creating leaders doesn’t happen by singling people out and then investing in them with growth. You invest in all of your team members and then identify those who most embody leadership. You have to start from the premise that everyone can be an effective leader in an agile environment. You have to trust your team. 

SS: How do you set that expectation that we are here to grow leaders and this is an environment where we’re encouraging everyone to grow?

RM: That is a difficult question. We have to start with the premise that we’re working in an organization where we want our team members to just be better team members.

SS: Because it helps everyone, it helps leaders and it helps the people working for them.

RM: Exactly. Once we’ve established that there are a couple of dimensions that we’re trying to grow people in, now we can dig into establishing leaders.

RM: Yeah. Is it a requirement for everyone to become agile certified to meet that level? No. That is a luxury, and one that I’m glad that we have at bottle rocket. It’s a luxury but the key component to getting true buy-in is what leads us to be able to find the leaders to grow people. Because really, agile leadership isn’t even about the people who are leading a project. It’s about everyone.

Creating Norms

SS: So how do we create some of those norms in terms of setting expectations around what sort of participation is expected? Is that just built into the agile framework itself? 

RM: I think the first part is that it has to be taken seriously at all levels in the organization. It can’t work if part of the team is disinterested in using agile. When everyone is responsible, it establishes those norms. It requires a commitment at all levels. I don’t know any other way to say it than all levels.

SS: The main thing I appreciate about working in an agile capacity is the concept of iterative improvement. The key is to not get into a “why bother” situation.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss?

SS: So why can’t all the leaders just do everyone’s job anymore? Why is that concept antiquated?

RM: Because of specialization. It’s too important to trust the individual to be able to do their job competently and understand details that leaders don’t understand.

SS: Agreed. I think there’s an antiquated mindset as a leader that if you’re not vital to every aspect of success on the project you’re making yourself obsolete.

RM: You have to be purposeful with build teams so that they can grow and learn, working on the right things and focused in the right areas to build velocity. Then they get good at what they need to get good at and velocity is created. Then everyone gets a pizza party.


SS: Speaking of which, that brings us nicely into our next topic: praising team members. To me the amount of time that you have to spend relationship building can also make antiquated thinkers queasy. 

RM: You can’t just figure out what somebody is good at by looking at a spreadsheet of numbers. Literally, you cannot because what you can’t see is the emotional toll that it took. 

SS: Right!

RM: This is a big part of the building leaders part we talked about earlier. Coming across as someone who’s there to support you through successes and failures, so that you can build that person up. Get them to a place where they can build similar relationships and grow more leaders themselves.

SS: The cycle continues.

RM: The trickiest part of all of that is we absolutely have to be comfortable communicating the failures as well as the successes. 

SS: I think that’s your answer. You make people comfortable by being transparent. Admitting to your own failures and also admitting that you make mistakes and learn from them. This helps people be more comfortable sharing instead of always presenting their best selves.

RM: We’ve been in meetings together where I’ve come out and been the first one to say that I messed something up. I’ll take ownership for failures that aren’t even mine sometimes, just because I need people to see that failure doesn’t bring tragic consequence: failure is a path towards growth. 

Originally published in EXP Magazine.


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