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Melting the Frozen Middle: Helping Middle Management Transition to an Agile Mindset

By Tom Wessel
Apr 26, 2018 12:02:08 PM


As an organization goes through an Agile Transformation, one of the roles that is most impacted by the transition is middle management. One day you are managing a team or large department, and the next you find yourself without anyone to “manage”. Instead, your department’s members are now members of Agile teams who self-organize and whose work is no longer under your direct control. This can be a very unnerving experience for middle managers and leave many wondering what their role is now in this brave new world.

Imagine yourself as a middle manager whose world has just turned upside down. This may not be too far of stretch since it has happened to many of us. You really only have two options. One is to resist the change in hopes that it will eventually fizzle and fade. This option sounds appealing, but it is not realistic in the long run. Organizations that truly embrace an Agile mindset will have little need for those that cling to the ways of the past, and eventually, you will no longer be a cultural fit and will need to move on, be it voluntarily or involuntarily.

The other option is to embrace your new role. You are no longer someone who ‘manages’ people but someone who ‘serves’ them. They no longer work for you. You work for them. Your job is no longer to direct their day-to-day activities. It is now to provide the support that they need to in order to embrace their new roles as members of cross functional, self-organizing teams and to grow in their careers. The skills that you will need to develop invoke the concept of servant leadership.

Servant Leadership

First and foremost, your new role requires you to grow your capacity as an effective servant leader. Servant Leadership is:

“…a set of behaviors and practices that turn the traditional "power leadership" model upside down; instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.

When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they unlock purpose and ingenuity in those around them, which results in higher performance and engaged, fulfilled employees.”1

In his 1970 essay “The Servant as a Leader,” Robert Greenleaf first coined the phrase “Servant Leadership.” As a servant leader, you focus on the needs of your team before the needs of yourself.

“You acknowledge other people's perspectives, give them the support they need to meet their work and personal goals, involve them in decisions where appropriate, and build a sense of community within your team. This leads to higher engagement, more trust, and stronger relationships with team members and other stakeholders.”2

Larry C. Spears3 identifies the key characteristics of a servant leader to be:

  • Listening - Listen receptively to what is being said.
  • Empathy - Strive to understand and empathize with others.
  • Healing - People have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Leaders recognize that they also have an opportunity to “help make whole.”
  • Awareness - General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader.
  • Persuasion - Rely on persuasion, rather than positional authority, in making decisions.
  • Conceptualization - Look at a problem (or an organization) from a conceptualizing perspective-  think beyond day-to-day realities.
  • Foresight - Understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequences of decisions in the future.
  • Stewardship - Hold employees' institutions in trust for the greater good of society.
  • Commitment to the growth of people - Believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers.
  • Building community - Build community among those who work within a given institution.

 A lot of your role as a functional manager doesn’t change. You still must partner with your team members to aide them in their career development, provide input on their performance (more on this in a moment), and provide subject matter expertise in your specific discipline, such as development, business analysis, quality assurance and control, etc.

Transitioning from a traditional functional manager working in a waterfall world to a servant leader working within an Agile organization is one that should be embraced and not feared as long as you are open to personal growth, learning new things, and overcoming challenges.

Eliassen Group can assist you on this journey by providing the tools and training needed to survive and thrive in this brave new world. Click below to learn more about our Agile training offerings and find the right class for you!

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  1. “What is Servant Leadership”, https://www.servantleadershipinstitute.com/what-is-servant-leadership-1/
  2. “Servant Leadership Putting Your Team First, and Yourself Second”,
    https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/servant-leadership.htm
  3. Richard Podsada, 10 Characteristics of a Servant Leader (nine10: Feb 18), https://www.nine10.ca/blog/10-characteristics-of-a-servant-leader/

Tom Wessel

Written by Tom Wessel LinkedIn

Tom Wessel is an Agile Coach and Client Delivery Lead, working with various sized organizations in financial services, healthcare, home improvement, utilities and cable and satellite to plan, implement and train teams on agile principles and evolve their agile discipline.

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