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Where did you get that hat?

In my previous blog post “Where are all the managers in Agile?”, I discussed why agile doesn’t need the kinds of management that is often present in organisations and suggested some alternatives that you can consider.

This blog focuses on things from the manager or leader’s perspective. We discuss why the skills and behaviours that mangers need now are different from those of the past, and different from how many managers naturally behave. We don’t want to forget all the good practices, but it requires a conscious effort to focus on new leadership styles and not slip back into comfortable old habits.

The Many Hats of A Manager

We ask a lot of managers, and being a manager requires a broad range of skills, styles and approaches. We can think of these different approaches as being like hats. Sometimes we need to wear an ‘Emotional Support’ hat; other times it is an ‘Advice and Mentoring’ hat or a ‘Formal Process hat’. We swap these hats frequently, sometimes wearing more than one, and we often do this sub-consciously. 

When we are managing agile teams, or are in organisations keen to work in a digital, agile or distributed way, there are certain hats that are critical to getting the best from our teams: the hats that help empower them, connect them with the organisational purpose and provide inspiring leadership. Unfortunately, there are other hats that can undermine team performance and clash with the needs of our teams. The ‘Be Accountable’ hat, the ‘Define and Task Work’ hat, the ‘Monitor and Control’ hat or the ‘Report Progress’ hat.

Get the balance right

The answer is to think about which hats enable and empower our teams, and consciously wear those more often; and to think about which hats disempower or inhibit our teams, and wear those less. In most real life organisations, it probably isn’t about avoiding the traditional management hats completely – they may still need to be worn sometimes: for instance there may be mandatory legal training to be completed, or a formal process may need to be followed for sickness absence. But there are better hats to wear most of the time.

The problem is that those better hats – those that help us lead teams, align them with the strategic direction and coach our people to make themselves better – are not the default behaviours that have served many managers well in the past. Put simply, they feel uncomfortable and it’s easy to neglect them in favour of more our favourite, more comfortable, more familiar hats.

Let’s do less of this

So, which hats I am talking about? Let’s start with those we should wear less often. We know from Dan Pink that highly motivated people have autonomy, mastery and purpose. And we know from Google’s Aristotle research that high performing teams have psychological safety, dependability and structure & clarity. So, we should be careful about doing things that inhibit these behaviours or characteristics. Sadly, many classic management hats fall in that category: 

  • breaking down work and allocating it to team members; 
  • setting local vision and strategy without connecting it to higher, organisational strategy; 
  • reviewing and correcting work;
  • requiring the team to seek approval before doing something; 
  • placing value on input metrics like headcount, budget spend, days worked; 
  • telling the team what to do or how to do it; 
  • mandating anything.

Let’s do more of this

Instead, we should try to wear hats that instil trust, purpose and empowerment in our teams. This means much more collaboration and conversation. We want the team to be able to come up with the right path themselves, without being told. We want them to know why they are doing the work, and be able to suggest better ways that they could meet the organisational goal. We want them to know how they can improve and suggest ways to do that. We want them to make decisions and have the right information they need to make the best decisions.

To do this requires wearing our leading, inspiring and coaching hats much more often. 

Lead and Inspire (then get out of the way)

Our leading and inspiring hats help connect the team with the high level purpose of their work, and help them contextualise it to their own domain of expertise. We can use these hats to share the work of the team more widely, introduce them to senior stakeholders and let the team explain how the team is delivering against their strategy and why. We can allow the team to suggest work that would be useful and identify development learning paths that will help them build mastery. We can connect teams with related teams or people so they can share experiences and help each other. We can help them build communities to share practices and improve how they work. 

Most importantly, once we have connected the team with a compelling strategic intent that they understand and know how that can deliver against it, we can get out of the way; let the team get on with it. We can be there for support, guidance and to help them ensure they remain aligned with it, but day to day, the team can be in control. This gives us more time to work at a more strategic level – ensuring the strategy is still right, evolving and iterating it, and sharing with the teams what impact their work is having.

Coach our people and teams

With our coaching hat on, we stop telling the team what to do. We stop defining work, allocating tasks or specifying how they work. Instead, we ask questions. We ask the team what they intend to do. We ask them how they will work towards their goals and we ask them whether they have everything they need to succeed. 

To do this, we may need to help them. It isn’t easy to jump from waiting to be told what to do to being able to analyse where you are and understand how to move forward. That’s where the manager can step in and help. Not by telling them the answer, but by helping them get to it themselves. Some of the questions we can ask include:

  • Ask them to describe what we are aiming for. 
  • Check they understand the goal, and help them put the goal into their own words. 
  • Ask them where they are now? 
  • What are the current conditions, and are they a good place to start from? 
  • What would they recommend? 
  • What do they think the options are? 
  • Where should they start from?

Help them discover the solution

There will be a strong temptation to shortcut to the right answer. You should try hard to resist it. You may see the team heading in a direction you feel is the wrong one, and you may be tempted to correct them. You could let them go. You could let them choose that path and see how they get on. They may turn out to be right, but if not, as long as the impact of the wrong direction is acceptable, they will learn far more from discovering for themselves that they are on the wrong path than being told by a manager. 

But sometimes you will need to provide direction or encourage them to be more bold. Ask probing questions – “What else could you do?”, “What other options are there?”, “What possible negative outcomes could this lead to?”.

Or if they are really struggling you may need to make some suggestions: Have you considered XX?”, “What would happen if you did YY?”, “Are there others you could consult with who may have other ideas?”

And, of course there are some situations where it is best just to give your opinion or tell them your thoughts, but since we are already used to doing that, it shouldn’t be our first response.

Expect it to be hard

Leading in this way is hard and it will feel uncomfortable. Managers aren’t used to it and teams aren’t used to it either. Things will go wrong and we will make mistakes. But if we persevere, we will have teams that are empowered and high performing; teams that are confident making decisions when they have the right information, and confident in asking for support or guidance when they need it. 

We will empower people to come to work to do their best job without being checked up on, and we will have a culture where our teams are aligned to the corporate strategy and inspired to help deliver it.

If that’s what we want, how can we start? Firstly, this isn’t all brand new. Many of us will already be doing some of this some of the time. We will also need to wear other hats occasionally. But almost everyone should see benefits if they can consciously wear these hats more often and the other hats less often.

Some ideas to help you get started

To kick start this way of leading, why not pick the next time you are meeting with your staff members or team? Once the updates and pleasantries are over, concentrate the rest of the time on a coaching style conversations where you predominantly ask questions and listen to their answers. Focus the conversation on a particular goal, and explore it. 

Here are some things you could choose to talk about (but don’t try them all at once!)

  • Ask about what high level strategic outcomes they (or their team) are working against. Ask how their work connects with it. Talk about whether the work they are doing right now is the best contribution they could be making.
  • What big challenges are they facing over the next 3 months? What worries them? Ask them what they can do about it, and what would make them less worried. Focus on what they themselves can do. If there are blockers from other sources, ask them what they can do to help mitigate or remove them.
  • Ask about their next big milestone; the piece of work that will start next, once the current work is complete. Ask how they intend to approach it. Ask what they will learn from their current work and how they will do this next task differently. Talk about what choices they have, or what options there are, and help them explore them, perhaps by stretching their horizons a bit wider. If there are two options, ask what options 3, 4 or 7 would be. If the work will take 6 months, ask what could they achieve if they only had 6 weeks, or 6 days. 
  • Ask about other people or teams they depend on for their success. How do they manage those relationships? Talk about how they could be improved. Do they feel like partners working together in pursuit of the same aim, or transactional relationships where we task one another and don’t really know why?
  • Ask how much they feel in control of their work. What decisions are theirs to make and does that feel right? How would having more (or less) control affect them? Would it open up more options? What would they like to have control over that they don’t today? 

Learn more about coaching 

There are lots of online resources on coaching that you can study. There are really good models like GROW, OSKAR or KIPPER TIE that you can help you structure the conversation. Sometimes it can be helpful to share these with your team so they know about them, but like all models they are ideas not rules, so use them if they are helpful to you and don’t if they aren’t.

There are good videos on leadership from Dan Pink, David Marquet and Karim Harbott, A great model is David Marquet’s Ladders of Leadership that explains how people and teams go through several stages between being told what to do and being able to demonstrate intent based leadership. Sometimes we need to take things one step at a time.

Sharing

I hope you have found this article useful and perhaps thought provoking. I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences and what advice you have to help us lead our people and teams better.