Dear Scrum Masters: Why Aren’t We All Servant Leaders?

By Erik Cane
Senior Program Manager
projekt202

As a consultant, I am focused on delivering features that our clients love and that, in turn, their customers love.

As a Program Manager and Scrum Master, I am rooted in supporting the team and client in ways that enable the delivery of those features that delight customers.

To put it more bluntly, I am a self-admitted servant leader. So my question to my fellow Scrum Masters is: Why aren’t we all servant leaders?

Robert Greenleaf, the founder of the modern servant leadership movement, explained servant leadership as a philosophy and set of practices enriching the lives of individuals, building better organizations, and ultimately creating a more just and caring world.

The themes of servant leadership are the sharing of power, being a servant first, humility, authenticity, stewardship, empathy and clarity.

Let’s unpack these in more detail as they relate to consulting and program management.

Sharing of Power

Power can be described as the ability to make important decisions – to make things happen. Servant leaders understand this. They believe this can be accomplished outside of themselves by influencing and collaborating with others. 

Here are best practices to help in this type of thinking:

  • Promote information flow
    Promotes visibility and transparency of information. 

  • Share knowledge
    This seeds information throughout your team, organization and client. Communities of Practice (CoP) are a great way to accomplish this. Share your past experiences, best practices and lessons learned. Yes, sharing is caring.

  • Foster a collaborative decision-making process
    Share in this process. Resist dumping. Come with options to collaboratively discuss as a group. This helps foster trust and shows you value the other authorities in making important decisions. Be cautious of dictating solutions. Arrive at the destination together.

Being a Servant First

The needs and priorities of the team are served first. With that sentence, we have just defined the role of a Scrum Master.

Shield the team from distractions. Clear the path of roadblocks. How can your craftspeople effectively and efficiently deliver awesomeness when they are constantly bombarded with questions or do not have critical tools to do their job?

Put down your TPS report for five minutes and go serve your team.

It has never been -- nor will it ever be -- all about you. It’s about your team, your organization and your client.

Serving first must also apply with your customers. Too often, I see clients blinded by micro conversions, so their decisions revolve around the 2% uptick in conversion instead of improving the customer experience.

This goes back to product metric basics, such as customer satisfaction, customer retention, percentage of new customers, customer support calls and production issues reported.

Build it and they will come. Build features to improve your customer experience, increase customer satisfaction, foster brand loyalty and boost Net Promoter Score, then conversion will follow.

Humility

Here is a common misconception: in business, being humble is a sign of weakness. Those rooted in humility have self-awareness knowing their own limitations and weak spots.

But, as a consultant, shouldn’t I know all the things? No. Scrum Masters are jacks of all trades, masters of none. Unless we’re talking Agile/Scrum, we typically are not the authority figures on everything, but that doesn’t mean we are unable to facilitate or enable conversations with the right people.

Pull in your Creative Director to talk UX design or call over your Solution Architect to geek out over some React JS. Long story short, pull in that authority figure who can answer your questions. Your clients will appreciate your honesty, integrity and problem-solving skills for being a solution broker.

In the elusive quest for becoming a trusted advisor, humility will serve you well.

Authenticity

Being authentic – what does that mean? With regards to servant leadership, authenticity boils down to consistency and transparency.

Communicate intent by saying what you’re going to do, and then demonstrate visibility and transparency in that task. For consultants, this is absolutely critical. Nothing erodes trust faster than falling short on promises.

Issues will inevitably arise, so communicate proactively. Milestones may get missed – communicate. Plans change – communicate.

Stewardship

Stewardship requires the willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service – rather than in control – to those around us. Easier said than done, right?

Foster an environment where the team is not afraid to fail and, in doing so, takes calculated risks. Having this “safe” environment breeds collaboration, creativity and high-performing teams.

Empower your teams instead of smothering them by dictating a command-and-control mentality. Keep your eye on the prize when it comes to feature/project delivery, delivering business value enabled through rapid-release cycles.

Empathy

Promote empathy throughout the organization. Respect others and always assume good intentions.

Empathy must also extend to users, whether employees leveraging an application under development or customers shopping on your website.

Understanding the users of your system is critical to the success of an organization. Talk with them, elicit feedback and test features with them, but don’t assume you know what they want. Be sure you are hearing it directly from them.

Clarity

Clarity can be simply boiled down to effective communication. Ensure you communicate frequently and effectively.

Key communication attributes include:

  • Be crisp and concise in your message

  • Be direct, yet empathetic

  • Limit the use of absolute language, as it typically can be easily refuted

  • Avoid repeating information

  • Be transparent and honest

  • Know your audience and speak to it

Project success should be

  1. clearly defined, and

  2. communicated out to your team and all product stakeholders. Understanding of key milestones and deliverables must be aligned with client stakeholders.

In channeling my speech-class professor, start by saying what you are going to do, do it and then finish by reflecting on what you just did.

Software development projects are challenging and complex – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Additionally, ensure that roles and responsibilities are crystal-clear within the team and with all product stakeholders. Setting expectations will enable accountability.

Closing Thoughts on Servant Leadership

As I said before, software development projects are difficult, complex and, at times, stressful. But remember, these projects are just as difficult, complex and stressful for your clients, so be empathetic and enjoy the journey.

We work with craftspeople every day, but don’t fool yourself: you are a craftsperson as well. Scrum Masters facilitate and support the greatness within your team, your organization and your client through servant leadership. We accomplish this by putting the priority needs of others ahead of our own.

We share power. We serve first. We are humble. We are authentic. We are empathetic. We seek and promote clarity. We are stewards.

So, Scrum Masters, why aren’t we all servant leaders?


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