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Leading Through Vulnerability

Em Campbell-Pretty
Jul 24, 2013

When Jean Tabaka ran her Scaling Collaboration workshop with my team in June, she commented on how open the team was to the experience and asked us how we went about creating an environment where traditionally introverted software engineers from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds, were so willing to participate in team activities. From my perspective, there were lots of contributing factors, e.g. the HakasBubble Ups, lean coffee management meetings, etc., but it all began with the weekly practice of "walking the walls". 

"Walking the walls" came about after I got sick of listening to my coach carry on about what a waste of time my program status meetings were. At this time, I worked in "the business", and as program sponsor, I felt it was my duty to sit down with the program manager once a week to receive an update on the status of the program. On the other hand, my coach was convinced that a deeply embedded culture of fear was preventing the delivery teams from telling the real story. He was adamant if I spent more time with the teams I would be able to see this for myself.

I remember being mildly insulted by the insinuation that my relationships with the teams weren't strong enough for them to feel comfortable enough to tell me about their challenges, but eventually, I got over myself and blocked out some time in my calendar to visit them. Even though I was not bombarded with new information on my first visit, after a gentle nudge from my coach, I made "walking the walls" a recurring appointment in my calendar.

Eventually, I built rapport with the teams. They started to give me problems to solve for them, and it was my role to earn their trust by actioning blockers. Later, I learnt my coach's motivation in getting me to walk the walls was to help the team see I was “human.” He said, "I want them to see the Em I see when we are hanging out debating the issues in your office."

While "walking the walls" marked the beginning of our cultural change journey, the tipping point was about 6 months later when we launched the EDW Agile Release Train.  In our first Lite PI Planning/iteration kick-off event (aka Unity Day), my new team was introduced to The Ball Point Game. Armed with about 100 tennis balls, our coach split us all up into groups and ran the activity. Much to everyone's delight, hand-eye coordination is not one of my strengths, so I spent most of the game dropping tennis balls, laughing nervously and turning very red. I think it would be fair to say I was most embarrassed.

In the next sprint, we also started with a team activity.  This time, everyone with "manager" in their title went to one corner of the room and paired up and appointed one person as the manager and the other as the worker.  Everyone else was to stand between the managers and the opposite corner of the room, creating a maze we would need to navigate our way through.

I paired with one of the scrum masters, and we agreed he would play manager. I don't think I will ever forget the painful process of being directed through the maze by my manager/scrum master - forward, backward, stop, left, right. It was not long before all the other pairs had completed the task, and there were just shy of 100 people laughing at me trying to complete the maze. Yet another horribly embarrassing morning for me.

As uncomfortable as those events were for me, with 20/20 hindsight, I can see how these moments helped me build such an open and trusting team. You see, vulnerability is the foundation of trust, and trust is the foundation of great teams. 

These days, vulnerability is something I am trying to foster right across my team. Just last week, some of my team were on facilitation training, and the question of what good facilitation looks like was tabled. One of the working groups suggested a good facilitator creates safety, which led to a discussion on how to go about creating safety.

In response to this question, I found myself talking to the team about the power of vulnerability. I reminded them of how the Hakas and other Unity Day antics have brought the team closer together and explained that part of my motivation in inviting our stakeholders to participate in Unity Day was to begin the process of building trust through transparency and vulnerability.

While I know our culture isn't perfect, I am immensely proud of my team and their willingness to be vulnerable in front of each other and our colleagues from across the organisation. No matter where it started – “walking the walls” or “agile learning activities” - the openness of all members of the EDW Release Train makes it a truly special place to work. 

As agile leaders, we ask our teams to be transparent and consequentially vulnerable every day. We expect this of them, but what do we expect from ourselves?  As I contemplate this, I am reminded of a Brené Brown quote I saw recently:

Our teams want to trust us, they are looking for vulnerability, proof we are human. It is incumbent on us as leaders to take the first step, show our vulnerability to our teams and give them the safety to reciprocate.  I may not have recognised it as what I was doing at the time, but looking back, I can certainly see the power of it and the need for us to challenge ourselves as leaders to inspire vulnerability by example. 

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