Top 4 qualities for a leader/manager #agile #pmot

I’ve seen quite a few articles recently on the qualities to be a good leader, manager, and Project Manager. Most recently, I read an excellent article by Liza Wood on “Should you become a Manager?”. Highly recommended.

I thought I’d add my opinions to those already out there on what I feel are the top four qualities to be a leader or manager.

1) You are a competent team member already

I’m big fan of leaders and managers needing to be competent members of the team prior to expecting to lead or manage. If you are going to lead and manage people, I think you need to understand the issues your team is dealing with at a detailed level. I know not everyone agrees that this competency is required. I frequently see groups proposing that Software Development Project Managers don’t need to be technical. Let’s just say I must agree to disagree with those groups.

Although I think I’m an OK Project Manager for Software Development teams, I would never think I could be equally efficient managing a team of doctors or truck drivers. What do I know about those areas? How could I possibly help them in the issues they encounter.

2) You don’t want to make decisions for other team members and you don’t want to “manage” people

It is a red flag for me immediately when I hear someone say they want to manage. I wonder what their drivers are and whether they want to “manage” people due to the perceived status and traditional career path. Sometimes people will even confess that they want to be managers so they can make decisions.

I find the best managers are those team members that don’t want to manage. They also don’t want to make decisions for their team mates.

They grudgingly accept being a manager because:

  1. They are good at it
  2. They have the respect of their teammates
  3. They recognize it is probably the best way they can help the team and client

3) You enjoy working with clients and team members and helping to facilitate decisions

This point is connected to the previous item. Great leaders and managers love working with people and helping to facilitate decisions.

They love building relationships and helping people to grow in their careers.

Most importantly they love helping the team to solve problems by facilitating. They realize that the team must solve the problem and their role is to help the team build consensus as a group. Great managers always are careful to not offer solutions for the team. This would be the easy thing to do as the team is looking to the manager to make these decisions. But the really great leaders and managers will always defer to the team. (even though they have the preferred solution already decided in their head)

This deference to team decision-making can sometimes be perceived negatively by team members. I remember thinking this about one Project Manager I worked with. I thought that he wasn’t doing his job because he never decided anything, he always just deferred to us. Only in retrospect did I appreciate his masterful skill to facilitating team decisions.

4) You are always perceived as calm and professional and never blame anyone

Probably one of the most overlooked characteristics.

I feel that the job of a leader is to always build confidence in the team.

Great managers and leaders are always calm, never blame anyone, and just work the problem. Doesn’t matter how the problem arose – lets just resolve it.

And it never hurts to have a great sense of humour…

Leadership and Kern Hill Furniture

Those of you familiar with Winnipeg would know of Kern Hill Furniture and Nick Hill’s “C’mon down” catch phrase. Sadly Nick Hill is no longer with us, but his son Andy is carrying on the tradition. Nick Hill was a man larger than life and anybody that met him remembered the meeting. I was lucky enough to meet him once as my father was from the North End and they shared common friends.

Here is one of Nick Hill’s famous commercials.

Leadership and Growth

Late in Nick Hill’s life, his oldest son Andy started doing Kern Hill Furniture commercials. The first commercials seemed quite forced and I’m sure even Andy would say that these commercials were not his best. I remember wondering if Andy would be able to step in the rather large shoes of his father. I even remember wondering if Kern Hill Furniture would be around in the future. Did Andy have the same passion and charisma that his father had?

Today Kern Hill Furniture is doing well by all accounts and Andy is doing his father proud. His style is very reminiscent of his father and if you closed your eyes you might just imagine a young Nick Hill.

So what does this have to do with Leadership and Growth?

Well it appears that all Andy needed was an opportunity to grow and lead. I can imagine that it would be difficult to have the opportunity to try new things and lead when Nick was around and he could still light up a room. But once Nick was gone, Andy had to carry on. There was no choice. Andy was now the leader.

I wondered about how many teams have people who could do so much more but are not given the opportunity. I thought about my teams and how often I like to offer my opinions that make decisions. Sometimes that is required,  but other times that may prevent others from also leading and making decisions. (and growing) It is an interesting situation. How can we best find the middle ground that allows for successful projects and for the growth of our team mates and friends. I know I am going to be more committed to allowing for the maximum growth of my teams mates. Andy Hill reminded me of the potential we all have inside of us. It just takes the right opportunity to bring it out.

I think it is hard to have the patience to allow other to lead when we think we have the capability to make the decision ourselves. We may think it will add risk as people new to leading and making decisions will make mistakes.  And you are correct. But by minimizing project risk, we are accumulating corporate/company risk. Eventually we need to grow leaders so the company can grow and prosper.

You never know who the next great leader will be unless you give them a chance to shine.

Clever Teams and Clever Team Members

Every once and awhile I’ll actually read a ‘management’ book when it looks compelling enough from that back quotes. Usually I end up disappointed or struggle through the last chapters just to get it done. I’m thankful to say that neither of these is the case with the book ‘Clever’. (Written by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones)

Clever is a well written book that mixes stories about clever people, clever bosses and clever companies into a read that is quite enjoyable.

I usually read these books to try to glean a couple of ideas on how to improve as a team member on Agile teams. Now I’m not foolish enough to believe that I actually lead Clever people as a Project Manager. But I’m hopeful I can gain some insight as to how I can best support a clever team and move obstacles for other team members. That usually is my number #1 pet peeves with books of this type, that the poor ones actually try to sell you a bill of goods on how you can lead professionals and professional teams better. Usually the book ends up trying to tell you how you can better engage your team members to get more out of them. (i.e. efficiency)

I was relieved to see very early on in ‘Clever’ the opinion that one of the biggest mistake a company can make is thinking it can engage employees more by maintaining the same culture and changing other aspects. The level of engagement is really a function of the value proposition the company has for employees. If your employees are not being engaged, it is because of the company, not the employees or communication channels. You need to fix the company culture.

All companies state they want innovation, but can you really have material innovation without engaged employees? Can you really have engaged employees without the employees being able to lead company initiatives and speak their mind? So many companies are interested in innovation, but very few are committed to it. Through multiple stories, ‘Clever’, drives the point home that if you want high-performing teams you need create the right environment and company where they feel safe and can excel. Too often the blame is laid at the feet of the team members when we have a under-performing team instead of at the feet of the company.

The book defines characteristics of the following types of clever teams:

  • Techie Teams
  • Creative Teams
  • Professional Teams
  • Problem Solving Teams
  • Strategy Teams

The separate characteristics are very interesting, but early on they state some common clever team characteristics, such as:

  1. Clevers take genuine pleasure in breaking rules
  2. Clevers tend to trivialize the importance of non-technical people
  3. Clevers are sensitive to the projects they work on and will rarely agree to cancel their project
  4. Clevers dislike any review/evaluation process but are not interested in improving them

Interesting? Certainly I saw myself and some team members in this list.

The book also makes the point that leading clever teams is also different that leading other teams. After reading the book these are the points I took away on what may be different in leading cleaver teams.

  • The leader is really only the steward of the team. There is really no formal authority the leader has.  He or she must only influence.
  • The leader must have looser control on the team to allow them to be innovative and make mistakes.
  • The leader must be honest and be able to have honest discussions if a team member has made a mistake. It is very important to not ignore the mistake though.
  • The leader MUST have either business domain or technical knowledge to lead clever people. Without those skills, they will lack credibility with clever team members.

If these topics look interesting, I’d highly recommend picking the book up.