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7 ways to be a better servant leader in an agile delivery team

The term servant leadership was first coined in an essay back in 1970 by researcher Robert Greenleaf, who felt that authoritarian relationships between managers and employees weren’t effective. Today, many companies – including Made Tech – still look for servant leadership when recruiting for delivery and lead roles. The reason for that is simple: it’s as relevant an idea today as it’s ever been.

Servant leadership involves putting the needs of employees first, and helping teams to develop and perform as effectively as possible. The recipe to becoming a servant leader isn’t complicated, but can touch on many facets. Today I want to share 7 ways to be a great servant leader in a modern delivery team.

1. Clearly communicate and sell a vision

If you want your team to come along on a delivery journey with you, they need to know where they’re going and what they’re striving for. Being able to articulate a vision from the outset – and getting the team excited to start work on it – sets a team up for success.

2. Have empathy in bucketloads

The ability to put yourself in your team’s shoes and empathise with where they’re coming from is absolutely crucial. Ignoring other people’s feelings, or thorny issues, and carrying on regardless will – at best – build up resentment. At worst, it will severely impact the way the whole team operates. Team members can tell the difference between a leader who genuinely cares about what they’re saying, versus those with one eye on something else. 

3. Listen – really listen

This follows on from the last point. Most people have worked with managers in the past who arrive late to 1:1 meetings, seem distracted from the outset, and in extreme cases, try to have a conversation while finishing off an email or text. This is rude, and almost guaranteed to annoy. 

So when having 1:1 sessions with team members, really take the time to listen to what they have to say – not just the words, but in the person’s body language and tone of voice. Someone may say they are fine when their body language is crying out the opposite, but you won’t be aware of that unless you actively listen to them.

4. Take the responsibility (and sometimes the pain)

If a delivery is going wrong in some way, a servant leader will take the pain themselves. Rather than saying to the customer “the project is delayed because one of our developers isn’t pulling their weight”, a servant leader will instead say something like “the project is behind schedule and as a team we’re doing x, y and z to get the delivery back on track”. 

In a delivery role, taking the rough with the smooth is important, and how bad news is articulated is key. Don’t play the blame game. It’s up to you as a leader to take responsibility for what’s happening.

5. Roll those sleeves up

Whenever it’s possible, help a team member out and support them with activities when they need it. Though, in a delivery role, it’s important to stay out of the weeds to keep a holistic view, there may be circumstances where your help and support will go a long way, and it shows that you can walk the walk and get involved when it counts. 

6. Persuade, don’t dictate

Don’t use authority to force a decision on a team. This may work in the short term, but chances are you’ll end up with an unhappy and frustrated team who are no longer bought into the vision of what you’re all working to accomplish. Instead, use persuasion and gain team buy-in to take a particular course of action. But do also listen to your team and be open minded. There may be a better way of doing something which you hadn’t thought of yourself.

7. Fully commit to the development of your team

Be 100% committed to helping your team to grow both within their team roles, and within their capabilities. Sometimes supporting your team and helping them to grow inevitably means that some team members may move to bigger and better projects, teams or companies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and a true servant leader will always strive to make sure that people are supported in progressing as far as they can go within their careers.

Putting it all together

In sum, then, rather than adopting a more traditional command-and-control approach, a good servant leader sees their role as serving the needs of their team. When positive feedback is received on a job well done, a servant leader makes sure the whole team is recognised for their efforts. 

On the flip side, a servant leader will shield a team from distractions like curveball business demands or challenging stakeholders so that the team stays laser-focused on delivery. And take it from us, it really works. And that’s the reason employers still use this principle so many decades after it was first thought up.

If you’d like to see servant leadership in action – or practice it yourself – we’re now hiring delivery managersjunior delivery managers as well as a number of engineering and user-centred design roles. Check out our careers page to find out more about life at Made Tech.


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