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The Best Agile Manager I Ever Worked For

As we continue to explore Agile leadership, today I want to talk about the best Agile Manager that I ever worked for. It was several years ago, and I was working as part of a group that did custom software development projects for customers. I started work on a new project that I had helped to kick-off several months before. The project was for a US Government customer and the team manager was Jack (not his real name).

The team was made up of a business analyst, six or seven developers, and a development lead. The team had recently started to use Agile methods, and was definitely in the midst of transitioning. Jack was responsible for delivering the project for the US Government customer. I joined the team in a senior developer and architect role. The team needed to develop a service integration capability quickly in order to fulfil the US Government requirements for the project.

What I liked about Jack’s leadership style was that he empowered his team, he set vision for the team and looked to the members of the team to figure out how to get the job done. Jack certainly fit the mould of a servant leader consistent with Agile principles. This was a stark contrast, considering I had recently worked on a team with what I would consider to be the worst Agile Manager I had ever worked for (see archived blog post for that story), we will call him Bob.

To compare and contrast the other Manager that I had worked for previously was authoritarian. No opinion was tolerated but his own. His style of leadership was to create fear in the team. Jack by contrast set vision and inspired the team to achieve its goals. He did not use fear as a management tool, but rather he would seek to encourage the team, and to constantly find ways to remove roadblocks and impediments.

Jack was also trusted by the team. When Jack asked a question or inquired into something, there was little question in your mind that he had good intentions and was looking to benefit you and the team. By contrast when Bob (the fear based authoritarian manager) asked you a question, your heart would start to beat faster because you knew he was likely not asking for any good reason. Rather he was generally seeking a way to accuse or belittle the team members, and most of his questions followed that pattern.

There was a prevailing good morale on Jack’s team. Even when we were up against a deadline or a challenge the team still worked together well and was positive. Whenever we faced a challenge, the team was always engaged, focused and would “Fight On!” (the slogan selected by one of the team’s developers). By contrast on Bob’s team everyone was just waiting for an opportunity to get off his team, and hoped they didn’t make any mistakes that would get them in trouble.

Now notice that I did not focus here on how Jack did stand-ups, or how the team did retrospectives. The team was learning, and did a decent job of putting these Agile rituals in place. What made Jack a great Agile leader was not that he was able to follow Agile rituals. What made Jack a great Agile leader was that he followed Agile principles in his leadership and the way that he treated his team. This included respect for the team, openness, focus, simplicity, and trust.

Looking at the picture of Jack and contrasting with Bob who I described several blog posts ago, who would you rather work with as your manager? When you think about who you would prefer, also think of the reasons why, is it based on following Agile practices, or is it based on the underlying Agile principles? Food for thought…

Until next time, stay Agile,

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