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5 Vital Relationships That Agile Leaders Need

5 Vital Relationships That Agile Leaders Need

Anthony Mersino

January 31, 2018

1:12 PM

Most organizations today are using Scrum or Agile in some capacity. Learn how to leverage the key relationships that agile leaders need to be effective.

Success as an Agile Leader is not about Working Harder

If you find yourself working harder than ever but not getting the results you want, perhaps more hard work is not the answer. Leaders today – Agile Leaders or otherwise – need to do more than simply work hard; they need leverage. That leverage comes from building relationships.

And by the way, all of us are expected to be leaders today. Whether we are project managers working in a traditional environment, or a Scrum Master, IT Manager or CIO working with agile teams, we are considered leaders. Even team members in an Agile environment are expected to be “emergent leaders”. Everybody leads.

Leaders are expected to be “on”; to bring energy and positivity to situations and teams. To do that, leaders can work harder and give more time and life energy. Or they can work smarter, and they do that by investing in key relationships.

I contend that leaders need to build strong relationships in five key areas. These five relationships are not just important to working smarter, they are vital to your success and that of your project, product or initiative. Let’s walk through each of these relationships and explore how they relate to leadership effectiveness.

#1 – Relationship with Self

The single most important relationship for any leader is the relationship with themselves. Leaders need to be aware of their inner emotions and monitor their reactivity toward others.

Early in my career, my lack of self-awareness held me back and often got me in trouble. Everyone except me could see that I was angry and afraid. My lack of self-awareness limited my effectiveness and it hurt my relationships.

Fear shuts down thinking and inhibits creativity. You can’t be creative when you feel like you are running for your life. And anger is unattractive; it repels others rather than attracts them.

One way we deal with fear and anger is through trying to control everything. The best project managers are control freaks; the job seems to attract them like moths to a flame. Me included, for most of my early career.

Our controlling nature will react when we come up against others who are also trying to control. When we are reactive with others, it is usually an indication of something we don’t like about ourselves. “If you spot it, you got it” as the saying goes.

Control tends to backfire in an Agile context where empowered and self-organizing teams perform at their best. Being aware of our own controlling nature is critical to success with Agile teams.

There are many other opportunities for us to be upset during a normal work week. We can get our feelings hurt when we are ignored, we can feel resentful for taking on work others should have done, and we can get angry when people don’t do what they said they would do.

It is all part of the day. The important thing is how we take care of ourselves when we feel hurt or reactive. We need to move beyond awareness and actively take steps to address our inner state.

Most leaders have some sort of routine that helps them to maintain balance. Lyssa Adkins in her book Coaching Agile Teams refers to a daily practice that helps to clear the stuff in our heads and gather ourselves before meeting with others. In my own book, Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers, I provide many techniques for self-awareness including journaling and meditation.

Self-check: Do you have a daily ritual that helps you to grow in self-awareness and maintain emotional balance?

#2 – Relationships with Your Support Team

The second key relationship is your relationship with your support team. By support team, I mean the key people in your life who provide nurturing and balance.

It is those people who listen with empathy, confront us with truth, celebrate us enthusiastically, and give us much needed hugs. The support team could include your significant other, your family, trusted co-workers and friends.

Nobody survives by going it alone!

I have found it helpful to get additional support beyond family and friends, by joining affinity groups. When I was training to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I joined a running group.

Even today I meet every other week with a group of like-minded leaders to focus on leadership, personal growth, and improving our social and emotional intelligence. We have regular calls to check in with each other for support and feedback.

I also have a mentor, and he says that “big goals require big support”. The more I want to achieve and do, the more I need to reach out for help.

The first step for me was to overcome my reluctance to ask for help. Somewhere I must have learned that asking for help made me look weak or revealed my incompetence.

I wanted to appear that I could do it all on my own. Like many, I suffer from “imposter syndrome”. I discount my abilities and accomplishments and live in fear of being discovered as a fraud. This makes asking for help even harder.

Self-check: Do you ask for help, or do you tend to go it alone, figuring everything out by yourself?

#3 – Relationship with Your Team

The third important relationship is with your team. In this context, the team could be a project team, a management team, a department or an Agile team. Your relationship with the people that you are leading or supporting is essential.

Leaders provide the example for the team; they lead. Leaders will be the governor for truth-telling, vulnerability, and accountability of the team. If the leader doesn’t demonstrate these qualities, the rest of the team won’t either. As they say on the airlines, “put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you”.

Teams that aren’t led by vulnerable leaders will suffer from those dysfunctions noted by Patrick Lencioni: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment and accountability, and inattention to results. Leaders control the amount of psychological safety that team members feel which relates directly to the level of risk-taking, openness, and creativity.

Effective leaders demonstrate abundance, compassion, and gratitude when dealing with team members, rather than fear and blame. They are curious and demonstrate a growth mindset. They ask questions from a position of humility, rather than tell others from a position of superiority.

Self-check: Is your relationship with your team one of curiosity, openness, and trust? Do you lead with your own vulnerability?

#4 – Relationship with Your Stakeholders

The fourth important relationship is with your stakeholders. In a project context, stakeholders are those who are positively or negatively impacted by the solution. In an agile environment, it might be end users, business teams, and even other agile teams.

Identifying relevant stakeholders, understanding their wants and needs, and managing their expectations is important. Building relationships of mutual respect and trust is essential.

To understand stakeholders, we need to appreciate their goals, desires, and hot buttons. We need to engage and communicate with them in the style that they need. I once heard a project manager say that their most important deliverable to stakeholders was “communication”.

Building relationships with stakeholders can be challenging. Rank and hierarchy can play a part, as can physical distance, or the sheer number of stakeholder in your context. You may not feel like you have time to build relationships. You may be afraid because your goals collide with theirs.

I recently had a coaching client that I was helping to transition from waterfall-style development to Agile and Scrum. There was a set of key stakeholders who felt threatened by the change and they did what they could to undermine it. I realized too late that I had not invested enough in building the relationship with these stakeholders, understanding their fears, and aligning on common goals.

Self-check: Have you identified your stakeholders, sought to understand their needs, and built relationships with them?

#5 – Your Boss or Customer

Last but certainly not least is the relationship each of us has with our manager or customer. Everyone has a boss or manager, though some may not be as obvious as others. For example, when I work as an enterprise coach, the “boss” is usually the client champion for Agile that hired me. Whatever the context, there is always a boss, customer or client that has made the choice to work with us.

Boss relationships can be challenging. I know that early in my career I had difficulty with bosses because of my fear and anger and the baggage I carried from my childhood. My default was to see authority figures as dangerous. I have worked and continue to work to overcome this and to ensure that I don’t project my negative view of authority figures on my bosses today.

Another common dynamic that we can play out with our bosses is the Karpman drama triangle. In the drama triangle, each person takes on the role of victim, persecutor or rescuer. Those prone to being victims will gravitate to that role and make their boss the “persecutor”.

Like all the relationships, the relationship with your boss requires an investment of your time and energy. You can view this as unimportant or hope that your hard work speaks for itself. Or you can nurture this relationship and build a strong bond.

Self-check: How would you rate your relationship with your boss or customer? Have you invested in this key relationship? Do you have any baggage that could get in the way or a strong bond based on trust and mutual respect?

Agile Leaders Need Relationships!

Whether in an Agile context or a more traditional context, relationships are the key to success. They are even more important than hard work. Take a moment to evaluate yourself across these 5 key relationships. How would you rate yourself in each area? Where do you think you are strongest? Can you build on those strengths? Which relationships do you think you are the weakest? What could you do to mitigate or strengthen those relationships?

This article was originally posted on the ProjectManagement.com website.

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