4 Expectations from Agile Leadership
“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.” — Peter Senge.
Over the years, working in corporates and startups, I’ve come to realize one thing: great leaders let you lead the way. They convey a vision, and ensure nothing comes in your way. By fostering a learning environment that celebrates failure, they encourage you to be creative and lead the business to success.
Most directives on Leadership or on Organizations are top down — they direct the leadership. However, a few extol the expectations from lower management and the front-lines. In this article, we’ll explore the expectations from the front-lines with examples where possible and see how fulfilling those helps us deliver the value the organization desires.
1. Provide Vision, Strategy and Direction
We do not expect you to get down to the nitty-gritty of the core process of development or running the business. All we want is the direction, the vision, the strategy. We’ll use that as the litmus test for us to decide and prioritize our work.
How does it help you?
By providing the just the direction/vision, you allow us to find innovative solutions to business problems. You open us up to the creative possibilities of achieving the vision. You get a vast array of ideas and implementations that not only fulfill the current objective, but also others that may come up in the future.
My current organization, though midst of a operating overhaul, has a clear directive from our head of business — ‘Deliver great customer experience & increase revenue’. Everytime we build a feature, we ask ourselves— does this further the customer experience or increase revenue? If yes, we go full steam ahead!
2. Remove impediments
While we’re hard at work trying to achieve the objectives set by you, we often come across roadblocks which cannot be solved through normal negotiations. We expect you to resolve those on priority — keeping aside everything else. We expect you to champion our cause in the boardroom, bring up the blocker in the closed door meetings and fight for us. We expect you to tell us that you’re fighting, showing us that our cause, our initiative, has a voice in the highest echelons of business.
How does it help you?
You get a team that is reliable, predictable and delivers results. You get a team you can lean on, in a pinch, to deliver solutions faster and take on bigger challenges and risks — all because we trust you. We trust you because you became our leader when you fought for us. We’ll follow you to hell and back.
In a previous organization, my head of business would frequently bring up ‘lesser challenges’ in CIO meetings to highlight the fact that his team were being impeded from doing their jobs. These lesser challenges would be considered minor by your average executive, but over time, the fear of being called out ensured that, before every meeting, all our blockers were resolved.
3. Hiring Right
None of the great vision you have can be achieved with B’s. You need A‘s to get things done. The weakest of the team, slows down the team. We expect you hire right — around us and above us. We expect you to ensure that regular reviews are done to identify, motivate or (worst case) remove & replace those that slow us down. More than that, surround yourself with those who are humble enough to admit they don’t know, and are capable of providing voice to our concerns. Surround yourself with A’s.
How does it help you?
Firstly, you get an efficient team. There won’t be any in-fighting and glory seeking since A’s don’t fight for that. There will be great ideas within the team, not for the sake of great ideas (as B’s are wont of doing), but for achieving the goals.
Secondly, if you have the right sort of people around you (right by our definitions), you get great advice. You get strategic greatness and execution prowess all bundled in one advisory team. If you hire B’s around you, we lose faith in you, you get a divided team on political grounds and in-fighting.
4. Autonomy & Self-organization
You are the pilot of our plane. You do not need to take over the entire functioning of the plane, you only need to observe and course correct. You need to know the next destination we’re going to… let us manage the wind conditions, the fuel levels and the weather conditions. We know you’re fully capable of going manual and taking control, but that will occupy you from figuring out the next destination.
Provide us and our superior levels the ability to self-organize. Delegate authority so that we don’t have to wait on 10 different signatures from your line of authority to complete a simple task. Focus on the exceptions when presented, not on the things that are working smoothly.
Don’t ask us for a list of tasks — ask us about the objectives we’re achieving. Trust us to do the right thing (assuming you’ve hired right).
How does that help you?
You get to focus on bigger things. Like a captain of the ship, you’re looking for the whirlwind, the unforeseen that can capsize us, or the competition that is sailing on a better wind. You can be alert to the change of wind, the change of the market/customer preferences. There is a reason why the guy in the crows nest (the one that is on the top of the mast) directly relays the information to the captain. In corporates, you are free to fight the battles while you vision is being executed. In startups, you are free to canvas about your product.
In one of the startups I worked at, our CEO would never bother with the daily workings of the product. We were to only alert him if there was catastrophic failure — at which point he would gather those closest to the problem (including developers and operations folks) and ask for the best course of action. His immediate line, closest to the problem would compare all the options and recommend the best action. He would then ask the executing team if the solution was fine by them. When he heard a unanimous yes, he would go — leaving us to inform him on the outcome.
There are a few more expectations that need not be elaborated on:
- Get to the information — instead of the information coming to you, which helps you know the ground realities. Attending agile ceremonies time to time shows us that you are connected.
- Being data oriented — Keep a set of KPIs for each objective you set and track them heavily. Drive the culture of data. Data is the ultimate equalizer.
- Create a culture of self-learning — if we’re continually improving, your risk is much lesser.
- Reward success, motivate failures — both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are important for delivering your vision.
Remember, your product/your business is a mirror to your team. A stellar team, guided right, will deliver a stellar product/business.
As always, caveats hold:
- Agile in corporate organization is hard. Traditional management takes away the freedom that agile demands. Here is a quick look at what you could be doing better:
2. This is for all managers. You can do this even if your top line isn’t agile. In fact, these expectations are framework agnostic.
Thank you for reading. I would love to hear your feedback and thoughts on this. Big shout out to all those who’ve led me in the past to help me write this, directly or indirectly.
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