True Agile Managers make one feel good

By Brian Lucas

This one is for JPD!

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  – Maya Angelou

Those of us in business for over a decade, I am sure have all experienced a variety of management types.  Everything ranging from strong to weak, caring to downright sociopathic and gurus to imbeciles make up the pandemonium of business management.  I would like to focus here on three types of managers that are thought to be highly productive.  The only ones that have strategic value to the enterprise are highly adaptive.  They always provide good memories for executives and the workforce alike over the long term.

First let’s talk about the mean, hard driving manager.  I like the term, “Darth Vaders”, for these managers.  The kind of person who wants to pay a dime and get a dollar’s worth of work.  The kind of person who always thinks everything can be done in an hour or less.  The kind of person who reminds you that the economy is lousy, the job market is awful, and if you do not work extra hard your job is in jeopardy.  Oh well you get the picture.  Historically, we have seen this type of tyrant become more excessive[1] when tough economic times and high unemployment enable their despotic behavior.  At least one survey[2] revealed that more than one-third of American workers feel they have to keep working for a bad boss because of a poor economy.  These are managers that I qualify as toxic.  They can never keep highly qualified and capable employees for any strategic length of time.  Amazingly they are often excellent at self-protection and can survive an entire career at a single corporation.

The second type I like to call the “Over-Reactors”.  Over-reactors live in the moment.  They feel what concerns them should be the most vital aspect of everyone’s job.  These can actually be a more dangerous manager than the Darth Vaders.  Since they are not necessarily universally hated, there can be at times little resistance from those around them that they influence.  This can lead to a serious absence of thinking on the part of those under this influence as they simply move their efforts from one crisis to the next.  It is even worse when over-reactors are in actual positions of high level authority.  They can thoroughly derail the agile track of an enterprise by endangering committed resources and destroying the continuity of teamwork[3].

The third type is the only one of the three that provides a strategic value.  I call them “Agile Managers”.  The other evening I was having dinner at The Leaf[4], one of my favorite restaurants with a friend.  We were having an stimulating conversation about the state of business.  Jim reads my blog and is someone I regularly talk to about the state of business.  He has an incredibly impressive resume as a CEO and CFO for a number of top companies.  He is also a rarely successful family man, something that I admire immensely.  He has adapted to some seriously challenging circumstances and garnered a history of success without sacrificing his morals or affability[5].

We were discussing a point on which we disagreed.  While Jim was professing his belief that I landed a left jab and a right cross[6] on him during a recent email exchange, I stopped to think about how I felt in Jim’s company.  I realized I felt good.  It did not matter even if we were having an extremely serious discussion and disagreed.  I knew Jim was adapting his thinking to new knowledge and constantly challenging himself to expand his horizon of understanding.  Jim challenged me to be a better thinker, but never in a threatening way.  That led me to a new revelation about agile managers; they challenge us to constantly improve by tapping into our desire to be better.  They do not drive us with a whip and chair.

Because truly agile managers never get into a rut with their thinking or actions, they do not allow us to become stagnant.  While everyone makes mistakes, agile managers seldom repeat theirs.  Furthermore, they make fewer and smaller mistakes because they are always open to new ways to be better[7].  They tend to think out loud and ask questions.  This simple act keeps your actions cognitive and often leads to discoveries.  They consciously or otherwise guide us along a path where good gradually becomes better and better becomes best.  In other words, rather than leading us, they are enabling us by promoting our best thinking and work.  There is so much postulation about leadership, some helpful, some hurtful and much of it unrealistic.  This concept is at odds with the traditional lead from the front mentality.  In reality, the concept of employee enablement is central to agile as seen in scrum where a scrum master’s main role is to be a facilitator.

We are left with an interesting conclusion.  Agile managers even though they are often accused of only being tactical thinkers are the most strategic positive management factor in the enterprise. They make enterprise agility possible.  They encourage employees to become their best and promote retention of topflight professionals.  They keep your products and services relevant by constantly interrogating both the providers and the consumer.  Without agile managers, you cannot honestly consider yourself to be an agile enterprise.  They also have a fabulous bonus, they not only enable us to be good at what we do, they make us feel good. Remember till next time, keep agile!


[2] See 2008 Lake Research Survey.

[4] The Leaf is a wondrously high end cigar friendly restaurant in the Lehigh Valley.  Jeff Brown is the savvy COO who makes the magic happen with a flair for the exquisite.  If you’re up for a fine cigar stop in and see Chad my favorite tobacconist in the attached cigar retail lounge.  It’s quite an experience.  It is located at 90 Mort Drive, Easton, PA 18040.  Check out their website at http://www.leafcigarbar.com/.  Also join their Leaf Loyalty program and enjoy some great promotions.

[5] Jim has a phenomenal reputation and is well liked by all of his former executive colleagues and rank and file employees.  He is marvelously unflappable in even very difficult situations.

[6] Both Jim and I were boxers.  I admit that he was probably far more proficient and elegant than I was.  I was rather more of the Raging Bull category.

About Brian Lucas

In his life, Brian Lucas has been a coach, farm worker, forester, health care advocate, life guard, general contractor, mechanic, mixologist, musician/singer (in a rock group), salesman and teacher. Brian has worked as a project manager, technical marketer, methodologist, manager, software architect, systems designer, data modeler, business analyst, systems programmer, software developer and creative writer. These efforts include over a hundred hi-tech initiatives in almost every business and industrial sector as well as government and military projects. Among them, he designed and developed a quality assurance system for the first transatlantic fiber optic communications network, a manufacturing system for a large computer manufacture’s seven manufacturing centers, a data mining system for steel production, an instrumentation system for cable systems, defined requirements for government’s information systems and designed and developed human performance management systems. Brian has educated and mentored many over the years, designing programs to discover and develop talent. He has also lectured extensively to a variety of audiences. Brian is currently devoting as much time as possible to the innovation of business agility and human capital management along with the next generation of agile software development. As an amateur theoretical physicist he is working on joining general relativity and quantum mechanics through a multidimensional time corollary on string theory and negating the uncertainty principle with Louis de Broglie’s wave/particle hypothesis. He is also an avid blue-water sailor and wilderness backpacker. He enjoys billiards, boxing, chess, cooking, famous battle reenactments and war gaming, fencing, flying, gardening, horseback riding, martial arts (particularly Ninjutsu), philosophy and psychology, playing musical instruments (7 so far), poker, rapid-fire target shooting, reading (he tries to read a new book every night), painting with oils, scuba diving, skiing and recently writing novels.
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30 Responses to True Agile Managers make one feel good

  1. Charles Collier says:

    I am very glad I ran across this post. We are in the third year of a major agile initiative at our company. It has definitely been a struggle. Some aspects of our software development have by all measures improved considerably. Though even that success was not without pain. We lost some very talented people including some new agile proficient hires. It turned out some of our project managers were in reality working against the initiative while pretending to be supportive and we found out too late. We have been struggling even more with issues revolving around flattening our organization structure and implementing what we call rapid response teams. Some of our managers who have been very successful in the past are having a great deal of difficulty with these concepts. We have invested over the last 27 months in very expensive leadership training. It has been of mixed success at best. Fortunately our executive team is committed to this change because it is important to our future. As VP of H/R I have been in the middle of this effort from the beginning. Many of the personnel issues have become a part of my daily routine of fighting fires. The concept that the manager is not a leader makes sense to me. Only the technology professionals who are working with all the new technologies on a daily basis really seem to understand them. Instead of empowering our rapid response teams to devise a new solution our managers are having them put out fires caused by decisions we made at too high level. I can’t really say if what Mr. Lucas is saying here is a new ideal, but the way he has made his point has been an eyeopener for me. I am forwarding this post to others on our executive team.

    • Jack says:

      Charles- I have been reading Brian’s blog from the beginning. I can tell you straight out he is original and the real deal. I am convinced he is a true genius. He has an amazing ability to look at something we all think we know and explain it in a fresh way that makes it more meaningful. He also can take very complex subjects and make them understandable for the layman. He has a mind like a laser that cuts through all the fog of trivia, misinformation and worthless opinion to get at the basic truth. He turned my head around about agile. Lastly I have to say he is the most entertaining writer I have come across. My only complaint is he doesn’t write enough.

      • Brian Lucas says:

        Aw gee Jack! I am eternally indebted to you as one of my earliest and outspoken supporters. Without people like you Jack, I probably would not have continued to write. I hope I am getting better all the time I try to in the limited time I have. Thanks for reading, supporting, passing the word and just being there. -Brian

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Charles – Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful and honest picture of your agile experiences with us. It will help us all grow. I have in the past investigated claims of companies that declared their agile initiatives 100% successful and perfectly smooth sailing due to their superior detailed planning and personnel. To say the least they were exaggerated. That doesn’t mean their efforts were not worthwhile they just didn’t have the courage to admit their mistakes and indulged in as the British might say “a bit of puffery”.

      It is a bit more common than most would like to admit that agile efforts fail because entrenched project managers that are politically well connected and savvy, feel their authority is threatened by employee empowerment. So your situation there is not a surprise. Executive managers are always the last to know when they have bad managers who tell them what they want to hear and every success is because of their efforts and every failure despite their efforts and because of their people.

      Organizational flattening is difficult to accomplish. Middle management will fight it tooth and nail. Anyone who is really not a part of actually producing or servicing some level of the customer chain will fight it with their dying breaths. This is one of the reasons there are so many exoduses of talented people leaving Fortune 500s to freelance or start their own business.

      As a VP of Human Resources you are in a hot seat and a difficult one. Many times executives make decisions that cause disasters and tell you to clean of the mess. I have always felt that more training and understanding about what agile thinking was really about, how to do it and practicing it in real life is a lot more effective than leadership training if you are trying to become a more agile enterprise. Let me know how you make out! -Brian

  2. Sally-R says:

    Hi Brian: Its great to see posting more on the subject of agile organization. I could tell you wrote this one a bit more quickly than usual, but it is still a great post. I am all for seeing you post more often even if it means less polish. I totally agree that management’s job has become one of enablement rather than directing. Bye the way I think I know Jim I met him years ago at a conference. Since you haven’t referred to him by his full name I won’t either. You are right though he was a really cool, easy going guy with a perennial smile and an almost southern quiet charm. He was darn sharp though. Excellent post, I guess your Keeping Agile! lol

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Sally you are describing Jim to a “T” so I suspect it is the same person. We haven’t spoken in a while so tell me how is the scenario training that you were working on going? Let me know the next time you are in town. We can dine at the Leaf! lol

  3. Darryl Jackson says:

    Cool article Brian. The best manager I ever worked for always asked a few questions of me up front then asked me what I needed to get it done or make it happen as he used to say. Things are tighter where I’m at now and I spend a third of my time writing reports and justifying everything I do. Its a real downer. I checked out the Leaf’s site. It sounds like a fantastic place – too bad I’m in LA right now. Wish I worked for Jim!!

    • Tameron says:

      I got stuck with a manager like that man oh man. She started of small with her reporting requirements and in the end we were spending 2 hours out of the day writing about what we did. That’s when I quite even though I didn’t have another job. I got lucky and found one in less than two weeks. Lucky for me I live in Jersey so I heading to the Leaf and check it out.

      • Hank says:

        Same here. It took the jerk blowing up in front of the H/R Manager to get him fired. Its nice to see someone with smarts like Brian being a voice for employees.

  4. Edgar Walter Holmes says:

    I am not in information sciences. I appreciate your article though because every business needs agility and must fully utilize and retain high valued employees. I enjoy your relaxed writing style. It sounds like the Leaf is a refined establishment where you can enjoy an elegant meal and have a quiet business conversation over a fine cigar. I never knew it existed. I live in New Jersey, but am close enough to make the trip especially for an important business meeting. I will have to patronize it soon and if I run into Mr. Brown or Chad I will tell them that you recommended them.

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Thanks for commenting Edgar. Often enterprises have high valued employees that they never find out about because they fail to listen or invite suggestions. I don’t mean fluffy Ra, Ra its a great company suggestions, but meaningful dialog about real problems.

  5. Harlan Brown says:

    I am glad you posted this article Brian. More light needs to be shed on the people factor in all the business realignment going on right now. Even though I support this change in concept, many organizations are going about it in a ham-handed fashion. They hand a new set of responsibilities to people especially managers that they are ill equipped to handle. Some of these people have capabilities that executives driving the change don’t realize. If these companies were being agile in the truest sense as you refer to it, they would be tapping the employees information and intelligence. They should be asking the employees how they see themselves fitting into the initiative. This empowers them and should be building structures around them.
    On another matter, I am astounded that I never heard of the Leaf! How could I possibly have missed that one. Its deplorable that there are so few cigar friendly restaurants and you say the Leaf is high-end! That’s just incredible! I’ll have to stop in soon and say hello to Jeff. It is a shame he is not a relative.

    • George says:

      Me neither, I am definitely headed for the Leaf. I knew there was a reason I read Brian’s blog… Hey just kidding another great post from my favorite blogger.

    • Brian Lucas says:

      That’s it in a nutshell you can ALWAYS tell a very NON-AGILE company by how they reorganize. They announce it after the fact to employees and wonder why moral plummets.

  6. Michael Learner says:

    Brian your manager types 1 and 2 are something to be avoided. That almost goes without saying. I am a little confused as to what point you are making here with the third manager type. It is generally accepted that good managers are leaders. How can you control where you are going if they are not leading?

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Dear Michael – you miss the point of an agile enterprise entirely. Management doesn’t control or manage; in fact it shouldn’t be called management. They enable the workforce to be successful. It is basic psychology really. If you feel your job is the manage, control, lead; then when someone else comes up with a better idea it is threatening to you. If it is the team’s job collectively to drive success and agree upon a goal than all ideas regardless of the source benefit the whole. You will have to break the shackles of your management centric thinking if you want to be agile.

  7. Mr. Gorgonchuk says:

    Spot on, especially about type 2 and his effect on the agile process. I like to call ’em “baby birds”, too. They demand all the attention and resources, that should be employed and deployed elsewhere. Meanwhile, everyone else goes without, in order to feed them.

    • Paully says:

      Oh this is getting too rich!!! Darth Vaders, Baby Birds, etc someone should draw charactures of these loser managers so we can put them on their desks.

    • Brian Lucas says:

      I don’t know if I can agree with this I like baby birds! lol

  8. Bob Simmons says:

    Brian I will have to admit that the transition you made on the third type of manager to how they are agile and strategic threw me. I had to reread it to get your meaning. This is one of those tremendously profound simple truths about management that I guess we keep forgetting. Work in an enterprise is done by workers. Managers are overhead. Today when there is so much technology driving our business the manager can seldom claim to be the smartest person in the room. They certainly can’t hope to direct the activities of highly technical efforts successfully without heavily involving their expert employees. More and more we are moving away from a military hierarchy to team approach. It is just too hard for some managers particularly old school CEOs brought up in Fortune 500 companies to envision.
    PS I have been to the Leaf and it is a great place regardless of whether you are smoking or not. The ventilation system they have is unbelievable. Food is great and the servers are very attentive. My only criticism is the bar seems a little weak to me. But it is an overall winner in my book.

  9. Bill Becker says:

    I think the problem is that we are all looking for canned solutions to management problems today. With all the radical changes going on now there are none. Still I like the perspective Mr. Lucas brings to this subject. He always gives the impression that he has thought through what he is writing about and not just spewing out something off the top of his head. I for one would like to me him… and his friend Jim for that matter. Maybe we will run into each other at the Leaf. It sounds like an interesting place.

    • Tony says:

      I’m in on that! I have wanted to run into someone with Brian’s brains for awhile. I work with too many idiots. I’ll even buy the first round. Tony

  10. Mariette Neilson says:

    Hi Brian: This was an intriguing post! The title caught my eye and the quote cemented my interest. We do remember how people make us feel. I have been following your blog since I came across it about a month ago. It is by far the best on agile in the enterprise I have ever read. You are an original thinker and an impressive writer. This article touches on something that we are all struggling with management’s role in an agile enterprise. I believe that it would be a very welcome post if you could address the characteristics of an agile manager more fully in your next post. Thank you so much for sharing with us all!!! :Mariette

    • Guilliam Bartel says:

      I would be interested in a post of that nature as well.

    • Brian Lucas says:

      I will consider it thanks for the suggestion Mariette!

    • Ralph Becker says:

      This is something that would interest me as a CIO as well. I feel a solid definition as to characteristics and basic activities, goals and even thought patterns (if I am reading your article’s intent correctly) would prove invaluable in moving this forward.

      • Heather Kowalski says:

        This is something that I would really like to see as well Brian. Your views on this since you are so progressive would prove invaluable. I would also appreciate it if you could address the subject of transitioning from a hierarchy to a flat organization structure and how you transition managers from one role to another.

  11. Harry says:

    Hey Brian what about the snakes that are nice to your face take credit for your ideas and then stab you in the back as another type of manager like 1 or 2? I have known two of these in my life. I stopped in at the Leaf for their buffet the other day and it was fantastic! Thanks for the tip!

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