Reduce pressures. Your staff likely has a full plate of deliverables to help move the company forward. When a crisis hits, they will be more stressed and more distracted. It may feel like the wrong thing to do, but removing the pressure to deliver and allowing staff to focus on a smaller number of things can help prevent staff burnout and deliver a higher quality product.
As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Howard Sublett.
Howard Sublett is the chief product owner at Scrum Alliance. Howard brings a wealth of experience in a variety of agile practices to this role, including serving as an agile coach and leader at several agile consultancies. As chief product owner, his primary responsibilities are to forge coalitions, to decide which products and services best deliver value to and serve customers, and to promote agile and Scrum principles and values in the greater community. He shares the C-suite with Chief ScrumMaster Melissa Boggs.
Before joining Scrum Alliance in 2018, Howard championed the SolutionsIQ culture as director of community development. As the face of SolutionsIQ, Howard could regularly be found building relationships at industry events and hosting the popular Agile Amped podcast series. Internally, Howard advocated for the individual and nurtured the company’s teams.
Howard is focused on people, who they are and what they need, and lives according to the mantra that strangers are only friends he hasn’t met. He is passionate about making workplaces joyful, sustainable, and prosperous with agile principles, practices, and values — and about sharing this message with the world.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Ididn’t come from the world of software development or project management and so I had never even heard of Scrum or agile. Then, one day, at the urging of a friend I visited a company that was using Scrum to see how it worked. Once I saw the happiness of the people working there, I was hooked. I wanted to be a part of that magic. I still feel that way.
I’ve worked for Scrum Alliance before, back when we created the first agile coaching certification. I knew how valuable coaching was but had never done it in any official capacity, so I left for a position where I got to work as a junior agile coach in Eastern Europe. After that, I helped build an agile consulting firm called Big Visible, stayed with them through two acquisitions — SolutionsIQ & Accenture — then came back full circle to Scrum Alliance.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Once back when I was coaching in Europe I was in a meeting with some senior executives. The group was struggling to reach an agreement and I was brought in to assist. Typically more senior coaches would manage this, but they happened to be traveling at the time, so I was going to have to figure this out alone.
I realized that everyone in the room had a deep understanding of software development — much deeper than my own. This of course included a ton of jargon, and another complexity was that English wasn’t everyone’s primary language. I took some notes like I was following, but really, I didn’t understand a single word that had been said.
Then, I asked if the executives would try an experiment. I asked them to pretend like I didn’t understand the topic at all and to explain it to me like I was a third grader. Ten words into their attempt I stopped them again and said, “Actually, pretend like I am a kindergartener.
Finally, they were speaking a language that everyone could understand. It turns out that all this time the two executives were trying to solve two completely different problems. Once they could narrow in on and agree on the actual problem that needed to be solved, we were able to move forward.
This taught me that most problems when you boil it down really are communication problems. Once you get to the heart of the matter and communicate clearly, people are amazing and can solve really complex problems — they just need to be on the same page.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s so difficult to pick just one person, because so many people have made a profound impact on my life. If I had to point to just one in recent years, it would be Jim Cundiff. As I considered taking on this new role for Scrum Alliance several years ago, Jim’s encouragement and advice was invaluable. His counsel and mentorship continues to this day.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Scrum Alliance is a mission-driven organization: we want to create a world of work that is joyful, prosperous and sustainable. It’s this mission that got me hooked on Scrum, and that keeps me passionate to this day.
In fact, now more than ever, companies need to be aware of how their employees are feeling and doing, particularly when they aren’t physically seeing them every day. Businesses need people who are joyful in their work and can adapt in response to change. Scrum’s mission has never been more relevant.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The world — including the business world — is unpredictable and was so long before any of us heard of COVID-19. I realized this early on in my career, and understood that sometimes the only thing you can do is the next right thing. I’ll ask myself, “what’s the next, smallest increment that I can make towards the goal?”
And then I do that. Why?
As some people learned for this first time this year, we can’t always plan for years into the future, because we don’t know what’s coming. We can, however, always choose the next right thing. This is how I lead because I know it means I’m making the best decisions I can every day.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I believe every leader has moments where they consider giving up, and I’m not immune. The pressures of leadership combined with uncertain times take a toll on your health, your energy, and your sleep. For me, focusing on our customers’ needs and how our mission can make a difference in the world of work keeps me going, even through the difficult days.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It’s critical for a leader to be deeply empathetic. If you are under stress, so are the employees. Seeing the organization and its mission through their eyes can help you give clarity and grace. And sadly, most leaders behave just the opposite when things get hectic and uncertain. They bark out orders and overwork themselves, without pausing and realizing the damage they may be causing. People need empathetic leadership to perform to their best potential in a time of crisis.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think this is one reason that nurturing an agile culture is so important — it empowers teams and leads to more engagement. It’s critical that leaders not only trust their teams, but also admit that they don’t have all the answers.
In an agile organization, leaders describe a shared vision and then ask their team members to experiment, innovate and discover ways to achieve this vision. By removing obstacles and supporting their teams throughout the process, but not requiring their teams to check in for every little decision, an agile leader creates an environment where everyone can contribute and is motivated to do so.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way is face to face, and as soon as you can. In this environment, we’ve set up regular virtual coffee hours with key customer groups and weekly virtual fireside chats with our internal teams. We keep them informed of all the news, good and bad, and invite them into the discussion.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
This is another reason why adopting an agile mindset is so helpful — it helps businesses pivot quickly. An agile mindset allows companies to make shifts, adjusting to current priorities, approaches or strategies based on the new circumstances we’re waking up to almost daily during the pandemic.
The reason an agile mindset helps companies pivot is because it means teams are always completing small chunks of the highest priority work, every two to four weeks. So, if something comes along and disrupts priorities, you’re able to rapidly reevaluate and reset so that you’re ready to tackle what’s necessary now, not what you thought you’d be working on six months ago.
This can work for any aspect of a business — whether it’s shifting a marketing campaign, product feature or even an entire business model. The first step I recommend is revisiting the business plan regularly to determine where best to pivot the strategy based on current conditions and to meet the demands of the market. And then, approach the work with continuous check-ins and reevaluations. I encourage businesses to plan and execute in incremental phases versus the traditional annual or half-year plan or strategy framework. This way, no matter what changes in the world, you’re able to reevaluate, replan and release new solutions in a short time frame.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Expect the unexpected. We live in a volatile, uncertain world. What worked yesterday might not work today. If you set out with the idea that you’re going to have to pivot at some point, then when change comes, it’ll be part of the plan, not a deviation from it.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Change is hard. No business, no matter how agile, has the perfect response to difficult times. The ones that I’ve seen weather storms the best are the ones who make people the number one priority.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Reduce pressures. Your staff likely has a full plate of deliverables to help move the company forward. When a crisis hits, they will be more stressed and more distracted. It may feel like the wrong thing to do, but removing the pressure to deliver and allowing staff to focus on a smaller number of things can help prevent staff burnout and deliver a higher quality product.
2. Invest in your team. Internally, we’ve a team focused only on the health and happiness of the staff. And when the crisis hit, we really ramped up our experiments in bringing people together. Since we all had to be remote, there was zoom yoga at lunch time, pub trivia after work, new Slack channels designed for people to share their stories, and more. Finding new and inventive ways for the team to get to know each other more as humans helped us as we worked together to solve new emergent challenges.
3. Be a voice for the future. Even though it’s true that hope isn’t a strategy, people need to be reassured that there are better days ahead. We all need constant encouragement to forge a path towards something brighter and something better. It may be dark and turbulent at the moment, but it’s a leader’s role to help people see a future of joyful, prosperous and sustainable ways of working.
4. Challenge your assumptions. The rules have all changed, and the way you’ve always done it might not work the way it did before. Leaders should seek out others that can help them think outside their built in biases, and look for the opportunities hidden behind the crisis. Turbulent times are opportunities to forge new efforts and new strategies.
5. Take care of yourself. Recently I’ve been getting up early and walking 4–8 miles each day and focusing on eating better. This “me time” each morning has given me a chance to prioritize myself at the start of each day so that I can be my best for an organization that needs me at my best.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This comes from my dad. When I was a teenager and didn’t know what I “wanted to be when I grow up,” he told me, “It doesn’t matter what you want to be, as long as what you are is a man of integrity, a man of honor.”
I’ve never forgotten that. It’s who I am — it’s in my DNA.
How can our readers further follow your work?