Three Hard Questions for Agile Leaders


In my opinion, the hardest part of an agile transformation is the change management – and the hardest minds to change are usually those of the leaders. However, active leadership buy-in, support, understanding and active participation is the number one critical success factor in any transformation initiative.

Below are three questions to help leaders on their journey. Each question helps to reframe the leadership role and relevance thereof in an agile organisation.

1. Are you an athlete?

Using my definition in the previous article, ‘athletes’ are the team members on the field of play who do the work that enables new products and solutions to get into the hands of our customers. Leaders are not typically athletes and, in most cases, you certainly wouldn’t them running onto the playing field and interfering with the players. In the metaphor of going to the Olympic Games, the athletes are the only people who can earn us medals. If I am not an athlete, then my reason for being is quite simple – to create the structure and environment for the athletes to be successful.

The only people who can win medals are your athletes.

This reframes the role of leadership as ‘support staff’ whose job is to enable their athletes to realise their potential. The nature of leadership changes but the importance of the role does not (this will be covered in the third article). In sport, there is a high correlation between the quality of the support staff and the overall performance of the team. It makes sense that this relationship would carry over to the corporate world. A high-functioning support team, which includes titled leaders, managers, product owners and scrum masters, allows the team (or team of teams) to realise their potential.

2. Who is your customer?

When I ask this to leadership and management groups, the standard answers are quickly forthcoming – “customers”, “shareholders”, “the man* in the street”. It’s very rare that anyone says, “The people that report to me.”

* Usually said by a man who will be quickly corrected, usually by a women, to “Don’t you mean person in the street?”

The natural follow-up question is, “How would your behaviour change if you treated the people who report to you like customers?” The sad reality is that we often treat the people that are impacted by our decisions as an afterthought. Without consciously focussing on, “Am I creating the structure and environment for my teams to be successful?” it’s likely accidental or a happy coincidence when our teams perform well. How do we know whether we’re doing a good job in realising the potential of our athletes? That’s the third and final question…

3. Can you name two things that you did in the last six months to make your teams’ life better?

Sounds like an easy question to answer and, if we were are truly treating our athletes as customers, a list of responses would be quickly forthcoming. However, every time I’ve asked this question, I get blank stares and can see craniums cranking into overload as leaders frantically try to offer just one item.

When I ask teams of athletes the same question, I get a similarly subdued response. If we are not actively – and noticeably – making the environment better for our athletes, we are failing as agile leaders.

Unless leaders of agile organisations focus on their primary role of creating the structure and environment for their athletes to be successful, any successes our teams achieve is despite leadership rather than because of leadership.

This is the second in a trilogy of articles covering athletes and agile leadership. Look out for part one (Athletes or Developers? What’s the Optimal Ratio of Doers vs. Support Staff in an Agile Organisation?) and part three (Hard Work & Natural Talent Mean Nothing without Leadership Support)

Follow Running Mann:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *