Agile Culture Part 1 - Supportive Leadership

Hi Folks. Back after the new year (and a major unplanned upgrade to the blog that knocked me off air for a few months…so much for keeping up to date with maintenance) I’ll be kicking off with something I talked about at the end of last year - an in-depth look at my views on what an agile culture looks like. If you can cast your minds all the way back to 2018, I posted an overview of 5 things that I feel are the foundations of a good agile culture. To refresh everyone's memories (including mine) after the holiday season, here they are again -

  • Supportive leadership

  • Strive for quality

  • Learning organisation

  • Enable people 

  • Enhance safety

Today I'll be looking at the first one - supportive leadership. Agile folks talk about this all the time by different names. Servant leadership, supportive leadership, people-focused leadership, and a host of others. We all mean the same thing. The trouble is, when we are asked "well, what exactly does that mean, we generally aren't very good at defining it, and are even worse at giving leaders real, practical guidance on what to do to become a supportive/servant/people focused leader. So here is my attempt.

Supportive leadership flips the leadership hierarchy. People do not work for their leaders, the leaders support their people.Traditional management can often be summed up as "what can my people do to make me look amazing?" A supportive leader instead asks "what can I do to make my people amazing?"

So what can a leader do to become a supportive leader? Try the world's most powerful leadership question - go around to your people and ask them "How can I help?" "What can I do to enable you to work more effectively?"

Your job as leader is to support your people to do the best they can possibly do. Do they need resources? Get them. Do they need decisions made? Use your greater influence to get them made. Do they need processes changed? Make sure they get changed. Whatever they need to be more effective - that's your job.

This does not mean that you need to go do everything yourself. That's a recipe for madness. If you try to fix everything yourself you will end up the team's slave rather than their supporter and that's not what we want. Some things you will need to do but some (or most), are an opportunity for people to learn and grow. The absolute best way you can help people is to give them the skills and knowledge to help themselves. If they need help influencing, use your position to introduce the to the right people. To help them make the right connections. Mentor them in influencing. Do they need decisions made? Introduce them to the decision makers. Introduce them as the key people involved from your area. Help them facilitate workshops. Mentor them on decision making techniques.

You get the picture. The best way you can support the team is by helping them grow to the point where they no longer need support. Supportive leadership isn't a kind of selfless slavery. It's a process of guidance, support and growth. The ultimate aim of supportive leadership is empowerment. Empowerment is a massively overused word these days and we almost always use it incorrectly. We talk about giving empowerment. Or empowering people. Empowerment is not something that can be given. Well, technically you can. You can give empowerment all you like but it will only work if the people you are empowering accept it. Empowerment needs to be given and then accepted to be effective. So often we hear "I have empowered my people but they still come to me for everything". That's empowerment given but not accepted. People will not accept empowerment unless they feel supported. Would you accept the ability to make important decisions if you felt that your job was on the line for any mistake? People need support to accept empowerment.

You can force people to make decisions - many organisations do that and call it empowerment - but it's not empowerment. That's something else entirely. At best it's ineffective and at worst it's unethical. Empowerment isn't forced. it's willingly accepted.

I like to think about support as two things - competence and clarity. This model comes from David Marquet's "Turn The Ship Around", which is one of the best books on supportive leadership out there.

Competence is pretty obvious. Are my people competent to make the decisions I am asking them to make? It's your job as leader to make sure that they are competent. That they have the right skills, access to the right training, the right certifications, the right tools. If they don't, they won't accept empowerment because they just won't feel able to make the right choices. Particularly if they fear punishment for wrong choices. Would you feel comfortable making a choice that you will be punished for getting wrong when you don't have the right skills to make the decision properly? Now think about how your people feel when you ask them to do the same.

Clarity is talking about organisational context - what are the implications of the decision? What are the long term goals we are trying to hit? Who are the key people to get involved? Are there any political considerations? In short, it's all that stuff that's in your head that informs your decision making. You need to make sure that it's not just in your head. It needs to be in everyone's heads. Think about what it would be like to make decisions without all that context. Without knowing what business outcome is expected? Without knowing the key players? Without knowing what the organisation's long term goals and strategy are? Do your people know these things? By know I mean really know, not just be able to recite the 4 bullet point summary that the CEO mentioned in his last video to all staff. I mean really understand the way the organisation works, where it is going and what its future plans are. If they don't, how can you ask them to make well-considered decisions? And how can you help them get that clarity? That's your job as a leader. 

So that's supportive leadership. But even the most supportive leader in the world won't get things happening unless they (and their teams) deliver real value. That's what we will look at next time when we strive for quality.