When I first became a Product Manager, one of the concepts that was the hardest to explain to my friends and family was how one would lead a team without any direct reports. Product Managers and Product Owners manage or own the product, but do not manage any of the team members who are responsible for the execution and delivery of their product: not the developers, designers, scrum masters, business analysts, nor QA analysts.
Earlier in my career, I often associated “leadership” mostly with people in positions of power. Someone in charge of a group of people in an organization, or someone who is a boss in the traditional sense. The term “leader” was almost synonymous with managers, directors, executives etc., rather than individual contributors. I was also used to seeing more dominant styles of leadership in my previous careers, such as finance.
But in fact, leadership is not a characteristic reserved only for people managers. Leadership is an everyday choice, rather than a title - everyone and anyone can be a leader. That was in fact one of the biggest draws for me to work in an Agile environment at a workplace like TELUS Digital that has a relatively “flat” organizational structure compared to a lot of organizations. Individual contributors are given a lot of trust and autonomy to work on their own portfolios. Being a Product Manager here affords me the opportunity to hone my skills in a different kind of leadership style: servant leadership.
Servant leadership extends to everyone in the organization, not just Product Managers / Owners. Especially during such an unprecedented time, individual contributors have the opportunity to step up to the plate by practicing these modern leadership qualities.
Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek once said, “I know many people who are at the bottoms of organizations who have no authority and they are absolutely leaders, and this is because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them, and they have chosen to look after the person to the right of them. This is what a leader is.” Servant leaders serve to lead, and look for win-win or even win-win-win situations. The effect multiplies when we are able to enable each other to create more value for the organization.
The concept of servant leadership originated from a movement by Robert Greenleaf, a former business leader at AT&T, who was also described as “the conscience of AT&T”. He focused on developing a humanistic approach to management and leadership. John E. Barbuto, Jr. and Daniel W. Wheeler from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln further worked on the model, and came up with 11 dimensions. Here are a few of the key characteristics of servant leadership, selected from the 11:
Listening: Servant leaders practice proactive and intentional listening, so that they are able to identify, understand, and prioritize the needs of others. This increases the commitment from team members who work with them.
Example: At TELUS Digital, we’ve gotten into a good habit of completing monthly team feedback surveys to help our leadership team understand what we need as team members. Similarly, us doing team engagement checks with our individual squads is also important, especially in today’s environment where we don’t get to see them at the office. Prioritize joining daily standups, but also utilize retros plus other rituals and forums to listen to the needs of your squad members.
Empathy: Servant leaders show empathy by imagining themselves in someone else’s shoes, and trying to feel what they feel, as well as seeing themselves and the world from others’ perspectives.
Example 1: Giving recognition to your colleagues for their work - sending virtual cards, sharing team achievements (such as product launches) on Slack or other team communication channels, or doing peer recognition at one of the all team meetings are great ways to help others feel recognized, appreciated, and accepted.
Example 2: Attuning to your coworkers’ emotions by checking in with them, and conveying understanding and care through active listening and validation of their emotions.
Community building: Servant leaders participate in the communities, in both the wider communities as well as their Communities of Practice (CoP). They encourage safe space where people can express their own views, while connecting with others.
Example: Whether it is presenting at your Community of Practice meetings, or championing for Digital Accessibility, there are so many ways for one to get involved with their community at TELUS Digital, and we can all take advantage of similar opportunities at our workplace.
Growth: Servant leaders are interested in seeing the growth of everyone around them. While people managers have a big focus on coaching and helping team members grow, individual contributors can exemplify servant leadership by encouraging others to learn and grow together.
Example: Look for training opportunities for the groups and inviting others to take part. Organize a watch party with fellow developers on new programming practices. Or join the TELUS Digital mentorship program. A recent example is a number of us coming together to attend a Product Strategy training session. It was a ton of fun and lots of learning.
Persuasion: Servant leaders are able to convince and influence others on their actions and behaviours. This is not a trait reserved for Product Managers - being able to persuade effectively is an important skill in working with any stakeholders, both internally and externally.
Example: Clearly articulating the value of your products and explaining why your requests to other teams would create positive outcomes for customers (through data, research & user feedback, over opinion), rather than using a strong-arm approach and trying to make others follow your requests because “they have to”
Healing: Servant leaders care about the wellbeing of others, and prioritize their team members’ mental health. The pandemic situation is stressful for everyone in different ways, and if a team member you know is struggling, start with empathic listening, and help them express their feelings.
Example: Emphasize self-care to your fellow team members, starting with the basic needs in the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs - reminding them to have regular meals, stay hydrated, and take proper breaks. Encourage others to take care of their mental health needs, and to try to avoid overwork or burnout.
On top of practicing skills in the above dimensions, there are many more ways for one to exemplify the “serve to lead” mentality:
Do you see an important product or project that does not have an owner? Bring it up to your wider team’s attention.
See a gap in a key responsibility that no one else is taking on? If you have the capacity, consider stepping in to help the team out where it makes sense. Otherwise, bring it up to your team and your support person, and work together on a plan.
Become the leader you want others to be, walk the talk, and be the change you want to see. Make sure to set a good example. If you tell your colleagues to prioritize their health, you need to make sure to prioritize your own health as well.
With social distancing and work from home measures in place, a people-centric approach to leadership is not only still possible, but is in fact more important than ever. Compassion for our colleagues and our customers should be on the top of our minds, with people dealing with all sorts of challenges these days.
It is time to think about the leader who exists in each one of us. A leader that is capable of making difficult decisions, of implementing changes, of championing for the needs of others, and of charting new territories in today’s uncertain world. Tying back to a number of our core TELUS Digital values - “Focus on Customer First”, “Be an owner”, “Embrace inclusivity”, “Attract and develop leaders”, and “Strengthen communities around us”, let us all think about how we can exemplify servant leadership to better help our coworkers and customers.