Technology Leadership

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I have always been intrigued by leadership styles. Back in 80’s, I grew up reading Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives (MBO) work. The MBO framework elaborated a five-step program- determine company objectives, transfer them to employees, employee participation in determining these objectives, monitoring progress and rewarding achievements. Over the years as I have practiced leadership, I have found third and fourth steps most challenging and significant in harnessing the organization’s throughput. That’s the critical mass and where the rubber meets the road.

There are several leadership models. In this day and age, it’s easy to rule out the autocratic command and control model with the leader and follower hierarchy. My way or the highway doesn’t quite work for today’s fluid amorphous global organizational structure. Not only have I to manage people who directly report into me but also several internal/external resources that work in a matrixed environment and have a dotted line into me. Hans Monderman said “if you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots”. The new leaders of today like Jeff Bezos are analytical, task oriented, transactional and transformational.

The transformational/ transactional leadership models are people oriented and are more suited for today’s business models. Our job as a leader is to be the catalyst and create stimuli that empowers people to make decisions. Specifically, within the technology industry, servant leadership is one interesting model that has piqued everyone’s interest. It has its own merits and demerits. Before we get into it, I will take a detour and talk about leading children and young adults. This is a very difficult audience to work with. If you can lead them, organizational leadership skills may come naturally.

Leading children and young adults

Kids these days are very creative, have mind of their own and don’t like to be told what to do. This is not to say that they know everything and have all the experiences. They are oblivious to their blind sides. The question is how to open their eyes and make the discovery a repeatable process that can be optimized over time? Personally, I have found “Not being a sage on the stage but a guide on the side” leadership style works best for these situations. If you have participated in national competitions like Science Olympiad, Odyssey of the Mind, Lego League etc, you can relate to that. All of these are time bound problem-solving exercises. There are rules that define eventual rewards and describe protocols of expected behavior. The coach’s primary responsibility is to understand the rules and see the big picture. Some of my first experiences with these young kids have been chaotic as they worked through the storming, norming and performing phases of group dynamics. Although the group is expected to perform themselves, you can facilitate a dialogue that brainstorms a structure and allows them to define team roles. They decide on their shared responsibilities, set their schedules, understand timeboxes, evaluate progress made and spur creativity. You become a servant leader and help resolve impediments that are permissible within the context of the rule book. Many a times, the team will fail. And they will fail again. Those failures are a part of the structure that allow experimentation by iterating and adopting. Over time as you compete for the same thing year after year, the structure is ready out of the box, the content needs to change. If you have taught in some finer colleges as I have, you would have also seen this permeate as the “flipped classroom” model. The flipped classroom model inverts the hierarchy. The students are empowered to take control and the professor takes a back seat. They ask the questions, you provide the answers and ask them more questions creating an insatiable appetite of knowledge for learning, owned and executed by them. The end result is a fantastic user experience and one that leads to stimulated minds and higher grades.

Servant leadership

A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind ~ Nelson Mandela

Servant leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader”, an essay that he first published in 1970. “Servant leadership is characterized by leaders who put the needs of a group over their own. These leaders foster trust among employees by holding themselves accountable, helping others develop, showing appreciation, sharing power and listening without judging. While serving and leading seem like conflicting activities, these leaders are effective initiators of action.” This kind of leadership has been finding it’s way into Agile and particularly Scrum. The Scrum Master role exemplifies the philosophy. As a Scrum Master, you are not at the top of the pyramid working the traditional command and control model. You are at the bottom of the totem pole working with internal / external folks who have dotted line responsibility to you. Your role is to facilitate. They define the user stories, points for each of those stories, the complexity of the sprint plan, the cadence and the MVP. The Scrum Master resolves all the impediments that come in the way by understanding all the organizational integration pathways, process and system architectural runaways and coaching for best practices. Traits needed to be a great servant leader include- knowledgeable subject matter expert, empathy, process guru, genuine concern for team members, awareness of organizational issues and bottlenecks. There is ongoing debate whether the Scrum Master role has all the authority that is needed to bring the team home. Many folks struggle in this role as their legacy has brought them in from a command and control organization and the larger question is – who has the accountability if the team does not deliver? This leadership model might be R&D work within the process asset portfolio of the company.

The Carnegie Mellon’s Capability Maturity Model (CMMI) defines five levels to achieve maturity.

For many companies, the servant leadership model as a process would sit either at managed or defined levels. In my opinion, the problem presents itself as we move to the quantitatively managed level. The “master” wants to goes one way and the “servant” goes another way. As a Scrum Master, I am tasked to ensure rigorous adoption of Scrum theory and its principles but if someone doesn’t show up at the standup and doesn’t play his/her part in the team, how am I to remediate? As a technology leader that runs large shops, I must be cognizant of these challenges and pivot to something that might yield higher returns.

Host leadership

Recently, there has been much talk about host leadership paradigm. In the book, “Host: Six New New Roles of Engagement”. Mark McKergow says: “Hosts sometimes have to act heroically – stepping forward, planning, inviting, introducing, providing. They also act in service: stepping back, encouraging, giving space, joining in. The good host can be seen moving effortlessly between them.”. The host is not a command and control leader nor a servant. He/she plays the role of the host much like how we would do when we host an event. We decide who to invite, where to stage the event, how to stage it, set some rules for expected behavior and take action against unexpected behavior. With all that done, the guests can actively participate and do their bit. The host can take on one of the following six roles-

• Initiator- Start up the idea or activity. Initial push, mostly with no definitions

• Inviter- Inviting people to join this activity

• Connector- Get the team together and connect the dots for them to start working together

• Space Creator- Create the environment, probably some rules for physical and emotional well-being.

• Gatekeeper- Protecting the space

• Co-participator- Participating as necessary

There are four vantage positions from where these roles can be played.

• On the stage- Similar to the sage on the stage, where the focus and attention is on the host.

• Among the people- We don’t have a front row seat and away from the masses. We are with them in the center of it all.

• On the balcony- Observing the event from a distance but intervene as needed.

• In the kitchen- Doing the preparation work for setting the infrastructure and environment up.

Tying it all together

Let’s go back to the example of “teaching” kids. Was I a servant or a host? It seems I am a servant but as a parent I have some inherent command and control authority over the group. As a host, I slip into that authority and morph into the various roles. I may or may not be an initiator and an inviter. Some in the group could have possibly assumed this role. I am definitely a connector, space creator and gatekeeper, assuming those roles as needed. The two places from where I would slip into these roles would be the balcony and the kitchen. Within the context of teaching at the college, I could assume even more roles like the one of initiator and would likely be on the stage and among the people.

In a technology shop, one could build several use cases for this model. I have created a matrix with examples for you. If you are interested in those, please email me.

The technology industry is fast paced and the product life cycle is shrinking. As a CIO/VP/Director of the organization, understand the various styles, tools and techniques that can be deployed to deliver high quality products. Some of these tools and techniques may not be in the kitchen and we would need to assume the role of the initiator and work in the kitchen to make it happen. I have intentionally left some grids on the matrix blank. Customize it for your situation(s). Good luck and I would love to hear your thoughts and how this applies to your environment.



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