By nature, agile teams need to be empowered, self-organizing start-ups with the power to make their own decisions. But when an organization shifts to this new way of working, there’s bound to be a change in roles; in particular, managers must move from a traditional ‘command and control’ approach to that of an enabler, or ‘servant-leader’.
We spoke to Shaun Betts, Associate Partner at Infosys Consulting, to discuss some of the challenges that come with this shift, and how organizations – particularly those in financial services and other mature industries – can overcome them.
Q: First of all, what do we actually mean by ‘servant-leader’?
A: Servant-leaders are managers that enable their team to become successful. They act as coaches, harnessing the collective power of a team to achieve a set of agreed outcomes. A servant-leader follows a philosophy of not telling their team what to do, but by agreeing their objectives and intended outcomes and removing impediments that get in their way. It can be thought of as a type of stewardship, one that focuses on collaboration, trust and empathy to build better organizations.
Q: Why is this philosophy so important?
A: Organizations are becoming increasingly flattened, particularly those that embrace the agile way of working. And for good reason – the new wave of graduates no longer view employment as jobs for life; rather, they might stay in a company for two to three years to build up their experience before moving on. Companies need to empower and enable these employees in a way that satisfies the need that was previously filled by climbing the ranks.
A key part of this is the servant-leader role. By offering this participatory environment, managers can build a stronger and more cohesive culture, improve employee experience, and nurture innovation in the organization from the grass roots upwards.
Q: Why are there often objections to this way of working?
A: While the servant-leader philosophy is typically embraced by start-ups and industries like fintech, a lot of mature organizations remain very hierarchal. We see this a lot in financial services, where decision making is still driven upwards rather than at lower levels.
Typically, in these companies, managers are used to a command and control style, and a shift to servant-leadership is a huge cultural change. The name in itself can be problematic; understandably, we see a lot of objections to the term ‘servant’.
Q: How can organizations overcome these objections?
A: Establishing the right governance model is key to embedding this philosophy within an organization, and the C-suite needs to lead by example. This ensures that the vision and mission are communicated through all tiers of the structure, and teams are steered in the right direction.
It is equally important to coach employees on what the term servant-leader means in practice. Servant leadership is about focusing on the needs of the team first and foremost. The ‘servant’ tag doesn’t mean they simply act on the will of the people who report into them; they still need to provide the boundaries and framework for the team to deliver a set of expected outcomes.
We find that mapping out personas for this role is a useful way to help the transition. This might include answering questions like: what does good look like for the person I’m reporting to, and the people reporting to me? What do I expect from my team and my manager? Who do I interact with, and what sort of behaviors do I need to be successful?
Q: How does compliance fit into this?
A: A key challenge that we hear about agile practices, particularly in financial services, is that it enables people to do things fast but maybe compromises quality. This concern is probably even more apparent in the shift from a command and control approach to servant-leadership – how can you guarantee that you are complying if your team are working with relative autonomy?
To tackle this, we always bring in internal compliance and design authority teams at the very beginning of a change management project, particularly if we are introducing new ways of working. Carrying out mock audits and assessments to adherence of standards and principles is an excellent way to find out if a team is assuring compliance, embedding quality from the onset, where they might need bolstering, and where there are failings in a process.
To read more about how Infosys Consulting approaches agile transformation at scale, you can read our whitepaper here.
Shaun has been at Infosys Consulting since 2012, heading up our Agile European Center of Enablement and our Agile Transformation horizontal practice. Over his 30 years of experience in financial services, he has led large-scale organizational agility and change management projects for prominent businesses – most notably a global cards and payments provider and a leading UK retail bank.