Steffan Surdek is one of our key contributors on agileknowhow.com. He often talks about leadership and, for the first edition of our magazine, we took some time to sit down with him and talk about what he sees as leadership challenges in his coaching work with organizations.
Agile Know-how: Hello Steffan, can you tell us about yourself?
Steffan: I’ve been at Pyxis for over five years now. I am a senior consultant, a corporate trainer, an author as well as a keynote speaker. Every day, I work with our Pyxis clients and help them build better cultures and adopt Agile practices in their organizations. I have always been kind of a leadership junkie and in the last three or four years, a lot of my work has been helping to unleash leaders potential in organizations.
What is the biggest challenge you see from leaders in the organizations you work with?
I work with clients of different shapes and sizes, but one of the things that fascinates me is how much impatience I see from managers and people above them around the speed of change. What fascinates me even more is that many of them do not realize the impact of their impatience on their teams and their organizations.
Unfortunately though, many do not seem to realize that actions they take out of this space of impatience is actually feeding the problem more than it is helping it.
Why are organizations in such a rush?
I see many organizational cultures that demand speed results. These cultures drive people as hard as they possibly can for as long as they possibly can. Leaders in these organizations demand a lot from themselves and from their employees.
When organizations like this hear about Agile software development practices what they understand of it is sometimes rather scary. My favourite misconception of them all related to speed is: you are supposed to deliver faster when you are Agile, so what used to take 9 months to deliver should be completed in 3 now.
In organizations like these that are looking for some form of Holy Grail, they do not hear the people and mindset change of the Agile equation, they mainly lock into processes and the need to optimize them.
When you talk to leaders in these organizations about change, it never seems to be going fast enough, but I often find myself wondering: fast enough for what? Why do we want to go so fast? The curious thing is that when I ask them these questions, I often cannot get a clear answer from them, but one thing is for sure, it is not fast enough.
What do these leaders in a rush look like? How do they act?
Because of the varied nature of my work, I meet organizational leaders in many different contexts such as training courses, workshops, or consulting engagements. Each of these provides me a different perspective on their organizational cultures and how these cultures push the leaders to act. The place where I usually learn the most though is when I see these leaders interact with their teams in workshops or consulting engagements.
What I often see is leaders that show physical signs of impatience in the room. When there are conversations that seem to stall, they jump in and push people in the direction they would like to go. When there are conversations that are not going in the direction they would like, they jump in and bully (unwillingly or maybe even willingly) their employees into compliance.
What does this impatience create? How do you work with them?
The interesting thing is that when I speak with these leaders either before, during, or after the engagement, I will hear many of them verbally express their impatience to me. Some tell me about how they want their teams to “get their act together or else” while others express their frustrations over their employees just not getting it.
I listen to them as attentively and as judgment free as I can, but the pattern that I often see is that they do not take any
form of personal responsibility for what is going on inside their own teams.
They do not see how, when they bully their team members around or force their ideas upon, they are actually killing employee engagement. They do not see how, when in a brainstorming meeting, they speak more than their employees do, provide solutions, and ask closed questions; thus, not allowing anyone else to speak their minds.
When they tell me about how their employees are just not getting it, they rarely express the do not know how to build capacity inside their teams. The sad thing is they also rarely acknowledge this is part of their role as leaders in the
As a coach, how does it make you feel to see leaders behaving like this?
When I see leaders imposing their ideas, very often I also have a lot of empathy for them. Collaboration and communication are not skills we learn very well in school. In life and at work, we are often measured in terms of our performance as individuals, so why should we collaborate?
I also have a lot of empathy for these leaders because often, this is what they have seen in their respective organizational cultures and, to be bluntly honest, because of that, they do not know there is another way.
What else do you notice about them?
With many of my clients, I also notice a similar pattern where people have a very egocentric view of the world. It is about what they want to achieve and about what they need as individuals. When you try to raise the conversation to a different level such as an ethnocentric one where the discussion is about what is best for a group, many people get lost. In that same discussion, they keep speaking from an egocentric place.
What would you expect from leaders in an organization? What should they do differently?
The real work as a leader is elevating yourself to speak and work from this ethnocentric place. What is your vision for your tribe? How do you want your tribe to be known? What challenge is your tribe facing that should make everyone pull together to meet a common goal?
And when you begin truly embodying this space, how can you act differently? What does success look like now? What results are you looking for now?
To give a concrete example of something that I see very often, in a meeting that is stalled because people have trouble communicating together, how can you work in that space and help them build the capacity they need to be better moving forward? It is easy to push people around, but it takes much more skills and patience to build something that will have a life of its own and last.
How do you introduce your clients to Agility?
I rarely work with clients anymore with the intention of doing an Agile transformation. Do not misunderstand me, I will coach organizations around Lean and Agile practices, but that is part of a larger picture we are trying to paint together.
Simply saying “We are adopting Agility” really does not mean much. I see teams holding sprint planning meetings, daily scrums, sprint reviews and retrospectives, but where not many people understand what they are supposed to be accomplishing.
The challenge is that if you talk to these teams about it, they will tell you they are doing great because they can check the box next to each of these things. They simply do not know what they do not know, but they comply and hold the meetings they are asked to hold.
Teams like this are the result of going fast. Leaders want to take shortcuts, but you know what, it does not work! You can pay now or pay later, but there is a cost to doing change right.
How can leaders stimulate people in their organization?
Start by being clear on what is your vision for your tribe. How do you want your tribe to be known? How are you sharing this vision and better yet, how are you involving them actively in creating it and reaching it? What ugly default future is your tribe facing that makes it so everyone should pull together to meet a common goal?
What are some of the key takeaways you would like leaders to walk away with after reading our conversation?
This year, one of the key elements that I often share with clients is the distinction between compliance and engagement. In that race to get results, are you aware of the impact of your impatience on your personal leadership style? What is your personal leadership creating with your teams? Is it creating fear and compliance or is it creating excitement and engagement?
As leaders, the other trap is thinking that people cannot detect your impatience, but when you are fidgeting around in your chairs in meetings or shutting down people not saying what you want to hear, people know. When you do not take the time to truly listen and act on their concerns or when you do not want to hear their perspective on things… Trust me, they know…
So, if the change is important for you, that is fine, but how can you communicate that to your teams or inside your organization? How can you get people involved in the change and harness the power of everybody’s ideas? What is your part in developing the capacity of others to help the change be sustainable in your organization?
The most important question though is how are you raising your leadership game to create space and truly support the people around you?
Take part in the Management 3.0 training course with Steffan to improve your leadership style.