Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Servant Leadership: Sometimes it's less good to be the king

Mel Brooks once said many things (and is still saying them, the guy is a riot). The applicable saying here, copied by Ash in Army of Darkness is, "It's good to be the king."

Being a manager, however, is sadly not being a king. Honestly, you don't even get to be consort or princess or court jester. You're pretty much a Knight Errant, running around saving people from dragons and making sure the honest every day folks get what they need in terms of food, seeds, protection, etc.

I see being a manager as being the person who makes it easier/possible for the people you manage to do their jobs. In Agile, this is called Servant Leadership. It's not 'My Team' when you talk, it's "Our Team" or "The Team." You do not succeed as a manager, the team succeeds. Mind you, when the team succeeds you, too, succeed, but you never can claim their victories as yours alone. People see through that, it causes problems with the team, and generally it's just kind of a dick move all together.

As I noted in my first ever blog entry, my father thinks you can get ahead by climbing over bodies or by having people lift you up. Servant leadership counts on you being lifted up by people willing to work with you again and again. It is not what most people think of when they think of "the boss." Typically they may see themselves in an office with a great view, telling people what to do, and, if they think further than that, giving reports and presentations to other admiring and astonished folks.

Now, don't get me wrong, some folks to whom you give presentations will be astonished, but often not for the reasons you'd like them to be. Maybe they want more from the presentation, or less, or a different presentation all together. This involves a lot of talking, taking time in meetings, and extra work. This is the exact type of thing that a manager protects you from...and you're becoming someone else's manager where you'll be doing lots, and lots more of this to protect the time and efficiency of the folks with whom you work.

The world your manager manages--project manager, scrum master, boss, etc.--includes people who don't like things or like things a lot...either way translating into a lot of information coming in to manage and potential work. Those managers keep schedules and employees on track, and they do it by standing between all the various sources of potential distraction. Being a manager can often mean one less level of shielding of that for yourself + all the duties and obligations of shielding the folks that you manage.

What this translates to, in practical terms, is not giving anyone orders. It does mean TAKING ORDERS from the team, in a manner of speaking. It involves regular meetings with the team if you are a direct boss (at least once a week if possible, for a scheduled half hour, though less is fine). It doesn't just involve asking what people need help with, either. It involves taking an interest in their work life and a little in their personal life (nothing that will get HR after you, but it is nice if you can remember the names of their kids). In this way you can talk about what they're doing and FIND issues where they need help. Folks often don't realize help is available, want to "figure things out on their own" when maybe they cannot, and may not realize they need help unless they are talking to someone regularly about their work.

Taking from those meetings--formal and informal--what the folks on the team need, you now have to fill the order; finding additional technical expertise, altering the schedule to increase the time or reduce the features, altering the work day to accommodate child care needs...whatever it takes, that is within your power and not illegal or immoral, you should try to do.

This is because the more successful these people are, the more successful their work will be. As their manager, you'll be known for the work of the team you are on. Further, you get additional benefits from the team. If you come through for them, they may well work longer hours for you, or research something on their own time, or put in a good word in another meeting where you're not. A servant leader is basically there to make the team successful and to be the best manager that team (or those individuals) have ever had, without sacrificing efficiency, productivity, or anything else.

This adds a lot of work to your plate; mediocre managers will push this off onto other people on the team. A superlative manager will take it on, plan for it, and make it part of their normal work tasks when they take on how much they, themselves can do within a time frame. Plan for it. The people component, the managing their time, the issues, running interference with folks that would give them more work to do,...all that is the real job of a manager...everything else, like status reports and representing the team outside of the team (which is often like giving a status report) is secondary to managing a successful team.

It also means you need to be a better listener than a talker. This isn't to say that your advice and input isn't valuable, but it is often more valuable to let folks tell you, in their own words, what they see going on so you can understand how they think and what their perspectives are. In group settings, you'll get a lot of pressure to make decisions for the team, but this is also a case where asking questions and just listening to them talk among themselves is best. People who are privy to, discuss, and agree with a solution that they came up with are more inclined to support that solution moving forward. Would it be the solution you'd normally pick? Maybe not always. But remember: your job is to help solve a problem, not necessarily define what that solution will be.

So there you go. It is good to be the king, but as a manager, you'll never know, because your job isn't king. Your job is to help people be successful, and use that success to make the team and yourself successful. Your job is to listen. Your job is to protect. And, once you really get rolling in servant leadership, you won't miss being the king at all. Knights, after all, get the awesome horse and are the people you remember for saving the day.

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