Agile Leadership for Mid-Managers

Len Whitmore explores how the growth of agile changes the roles, responsibilities, and titles of mid-managers more so than any other management group, because agile practices require more leadership and less of what is considered traditional management techniques.

This theme of "agile in the mainstream" is interesting. If you search for it on the internet, you find articles by Forrester and CIO with statistics that show X percentage of organizations do agile software development. While impressive, a more pertinent indicator that agile is in the mainstream is the revolutionary changes going on in organizations’ management practices, with the agile movement being a major factor in causing these changes.

Recently, I read about the “Management 2.0 Challenge” quest by McKinsey & Company, in conjunction with the Harvard Business Review, which invited management innovators from around the world to share their most progressive ideas. Tony Salvaggio, president and CEO at Computer Aid, Inc. and the founder and sponsor of the IT Metrics & Productivity Institute, submitted the response, “Mass Wisdom with a Smart Management System.” “This submission defines “mass wisdom” as a new approach to managing a business in a web-centric world.  Our goal is to ensure that institutional wisdom is shared, pervasive, and effective in action.” Tony said.

Maybe a more telling example of the revolutionary changes going on in organization management practices is the article “Are Managers Needed in Agile Development, or Do They Get in the Way?”by Yvette Francino, the site editor for In this article, Yvette comments on Skip Angel’s presentation at the Agile Development Practices West conference where he answered the question, “Where do managers fit?” As part of her closing statement, Yvette wrote “As organizations transition to Agile, many of the roles change, including that of the manager. However, Angel reminds us, ‘We need leaders. We need people who are catalysts to make these changes stick.’”

As both business and public sector organizations become increasingly dependent on IT, there is growing recognition that IT leadership is an essential part of broader corporate structure in this new age of adaptive complexity. This is even truer for mid-managers, as more and more organizations transition to agile. The changes to mid-managers’ roles, responsibilities, and titles will be of greater impact than any other management group because agile practices require more leadership and less of what is considered traditional management techniques.

For example, many managers have the idea if they do not drive their people constantly, they won’t get their work done. This attitude will not work with self-organizing teams of professionals, especially where there is “protection” (such as a ScrumMaster) from management or others who might assign tasks that would take team members away from their commitments to the team.    

Having spent many years teaching leadership, I can absolutely say there is no such thing as a “born leader,” rather, leadership is learned! These leadership skills are not just theory or something you can achieve by reading a reference book like you can for many programming languages, these skills need to be practiced by the individual to become proficient.

Fortunately, some leaders of the kind that are needed on agile projects do exist. Having worked for and with this kind of leader, I have gained insight into leadership skills that mid-managers can learn.

While interacting with these “agile” leaders, one of the first things I have observed is that they posses an open, collaborative style that enables them to have transparent and consistent communication, which is fundamental to organizing successful teams.

These leaders possess strong interpersonal, relationship-building skills, which, in turn, help create trust and respect amongst disciplines. Not only are they masters in creating trusted client relationships but they also encourage positive development in technology team members through empowerment and mentorship. Instead of the old-style traditional management idea of leaders making all key decisions themselves, agile leaders seek opinions from team members and others on an issue, and try to incorporate those ideas. This enables the leader to have a much larger pool of knowledge for decision making while fostering respect for their authority by other folks.

This reminds me of a simple exercise we did in leadership training about the “Big Boss” making all the decisions. First, the leadership facilitator chose a member of the team to be the leader (Big Boss). The rest of the team would grab ahold of a rope and form a circle. Big Boss would then be blindfolded to represent the idea that you can’t see or know everything all the time. Then Big Boss was instructed to tell team members where to move to in order to form the rope into a square. The other team members were not allowed to speak.

Some sharp folks would remember where people were standing, order them to move in certain directions to form the corners of the square, and then have the other team members line up on these “corner” members. However, just after Big Boss was blindfolded, the leadership facilitator whispered to a few team members to move forward or back in the circle to stimulate the changes happening whenever a project is underway. In more than ten years I saw many strange shapes but never a square.

The next part of the exercise had the team again form a circle while holding a rope. Then, Big Boss was instructed to have the team form the rope in the shape of a triangle, but this time, team members were allowed to speak and help Big Boss when he asked for their input in forming a triangle.  The results were always at least a decent triangle.

For agile leaders, collaboration is very important. Another skill you will see is their providing hands-on support to encourage team members to take the time to collaborate with each other and to feel like they can make and learn from their mistakes. This reinforces the concept of continuous improvement, not only in software development, but for the whole organization. Agile leaders realize that with a little encouragement anyone can be creative and innovative, which are qualities needed to tackle the complexities in this new age.

You will see these leaders as accountable for establishing and enforcing best practices and standards leading to better IT governance. IT governance is about making sure that resources are used the right way to create value while managing IT risks within the organization. Additionally, IT governance ensures that IT efforts are aligned with the organization’s vision and strategy or, to put it more simply, provides a common language of facts and rules by which the organizationis managed and governed.

The best of these leaders I have worked with have certain qualities or, as Harvard lecturer Paul Stoltz puts it, a certain mindset—regardless of skill set. He and co-author James Reed wrote a book called Put Your Mindset to Work: The One Asset You Really Need to Win and Keep the Job You Love. In this book, these attributes are called the three Gs: grit, global, and good. Of these, grit stands out above the others. It is that uncommon tenacity, intensity, and resilience in everything that you do. An example of this kind of intestinal fortitude is a leader who fought through several layers of bureaucracy for two years to get a new wellness program implemented in his company. Global is about a big picture perspective, the ability to look at the world and understand the ripple effect of your actions. Good is the sensitivity to people and awareness to do good for others around. An example of good and global is an individual taking the lead for their company’s team for a charity event like the Multiple Sclerosis Walk, in which they make sure that the contributions, logistics, and any other requirements are met for the event.

As the agile movement continues to become more mainstream, there will be a call for more of these kinds of leaders. As mentioned previously, there is no such thing as a “born leader.” Leadership is learned, and here is a good way to start:

  • Keep your knowledge current in what ever domain you are in
  • Learn from recognized industry experts
  • Gain and utilize the best, most current techniques available
  • Stay certified in your area with approved courses
  • Accelerate the leadership of your organization

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