Agile experiences of an L&D manager

Yulia Rak
9 min readJun 10, 2020

So, I am called up for a feedback session with HR. As far as I understand, someone in my team has reported on me. This conversation is supposedly going to ‘help’ me get the way, in which things are done here. It is my second week at a new job.

As I am sitting at the old leather couch in the corner in this huge open space, I feel the irritation boiling up inside of me. I get deeper into the softness of the couch, trying to find the angle to shade my face from the daylight. I know that I look angry, and frustrated. I hear the heart beat in my ears…

Finally, my HR comes. My team complains that they lack the big picture on where I would like our function to develop, she says. And they need more autonomy to choose the things that they do day-to-day, she says. Big picture?! Are you kidding me, it’s my 10th day in this company! What are you talking about? I need longer, real longer to create any kind of vision and a big picture, guys. Autonomy? From the last 10 days I have spent here, I have been observing people signing up for all kinds of funky stuff, like doing meetups, and arranging photo sessions… but no one was half as fast to finish the by-standing ‘boring’ stuff, like calculating the effect of event, gathering analytics or checking up how the participants’ time was reflected in time reporting sheets. I was just softly indicating to my team that besides the fun things there is a necessary bureaucracy, and I was asking to take care of it… And I was confident that I was doing a right thing… But instead I am called up for a conversation with HR. Gosh I am not getting it!

This is probably the brightest memory from my first days in a new role, as an Academy Head with one of the mid-size IT companies in Lviv, Ukraine — a tech hotbed city of Western Ukraine.

Symphony Academy is an umbrella organization that manages employee learning and development in spheres of Language Training, Technical Upskilling, Professional Certifications, Soft Skills and Agile Teams development. We consult, design and deliver solutions to employees in line with their professional development plans. For that we use such tools as face-to-face, virtual training, team and individual coaching, communities of practice, tech hubs, as well as a wide variety of self-development offerings to our communities.

Now, after the 8 months that I have spent here, I may say that that has been the most memorable, yet not the hardest moment to challenge my assumptions as a leader, and as a professional.

The company I work in, has gone through Agile transformation 3 years ago. I have joined the company in August 2019 for the role of Academy Head. I have joined an Agile team of 9 people. It has been my first experience of working with Agile, and in Agile team.

Here I would like to share 3 insights in my journey to Agile. These have been important ideas that helped me to understand, to cope with and to love Agile. By no means I count these to be major cornerstones of Agile philosophy and culture of my new company. Neither these observations of mine are the well-rounded explanations on how Agile philosophy gets implemented in business environment. My insights are not instructions for making Agile work for you. They are rather the brightest impressions (and struggles) that ran through my brain and heart, while I was learning Agile by practicing it.

Insight 1. I am not the leader that I used to be.

From the very first day at my new job, my team challenged my decisions. They still do. When I came in, I thought that I am expected to bring in the list of things to be done. Not at all. What I ended up doing — was collecting the ideas, projects and initiatives that were already out there in the air, and prioritizing them. My people did have ideas before my arrival. Majority of the ideas on what the Academy should be focusing on — were much greater than the ideas of mine. I understood quickly that these guys already knew what they wanted to do, and were ready to fight hard for their point of view. I also understood that their request for a big picture, was a request to participate in creating the one. They did not want to be told what the Academy strategy was. They wanted to be asked on their thinking.

My team wants to take part in defining the strategy. They have a point of view, and they think their ideas are as good, and even better than mine. They want me to bring in the business problems, they want to find their own way, and their own pace to get the problems solved. They detest when I tell them to do things, or a sequence of activities on how to get things done. They want me to back off and listen. They want me to incorporate their intellect, their initiative — into the solution maps for the business problems. They want me to create the means for getting their ideas implemented. It took me a painful bit of time to get that shift happening in my mind. This shift of becoming a servant leader, rather than a boss. The shift of managing not people, rather processes that empower people to be the best version of themselves. The painful and gratifying transformation, which I am still going through.

This said, of course there are processes, and problems, where I am sure I know better how to do things right. And for those problems, I have to fight for the right to be heard, as well as they do. I am earning my right to be heard, and to be counted with. I don’t get that right automatically, ‘because I am a boss’.

There is a tool that helps us to find a common understanding in where I may leave my team to do things by themselves, and where they want me to get into helping them by teaching them, coaching them, or simply being consulted with in the journey of getting things done. The tool is Delegation Board. The tool works as follows. We list down all the critical ongoing processes. Than my team indicates, for which of these processes they need me to oversee them closely, jump in and do things together with them; where they need my advice yet not close micromanagement; and where they want to be delegated things, so they may do them by their own. The tool is Delegation Board — more info and tools can be found on Management 3.0 web-site, which promotes the philosophy of the systems thinking: the idea that 95 percent of the performance of an organization is the result of the whole system, not the individual. Management 3.0 examines how to analyze that system to come up with the right solutions for better and effective leadership across organizations.

To sum up, I believe that the most important evolution that happens to me as a leader in the recent months, is an evolution to being more quiet leader. I learn to listen, to hear and to appreciate the incredible intellect of others. I learn to become the means of implementing my team’s initiatives, the facilitator that finds the resources and clears up the way. Not a driver, but companion.

Insight 2. The old classical leadership challenges are still there.

Agile has not gotten me free from the challenges that I have had as a leader in a ‘traditional’ organization. Even more so, the necessity to align people around a common goal is even greater in Agile. The need to empower, motivate people is a cornerstone for this way of working. The feedback has never been more important factor for success. So the years of trying things out in an old good corporation are actually a good luggage to carry to Agile.

Let me give you an example with the alignment around a common big picture. You know, when you work in Learning function, the new funky ideas and initiatives are coming from the entire organization. Colleagues, team leads from other teams come up with numerous ideas on what Academy team can take to do, for making a learning environment better, to solve the skill gap or team issue. It is so easy to get lost in the crowd of requests, and ideas. Especially if these ideas are novel, interesting, we have never done them before and my team wants to try these initiatives out. Do you smell the chaos as I do?… As a leader of the self-managed team, my greatest challenge so far is to keep my team on track of the committed strategy.

For that we use a transparent Backlog tool. Backlog is essentially a list of items we need to get done, in order to satisfy the stakeholder and customer needs. Everyone in my team can add items to Backlog. But I am the one to prioritize the items. The higher the item in the Backlog list, the more important it is for implementation. What I do on a weekly basis, I refine the backlog priorities. I take priorities from the leadership meetings, I listen up from internal clients and from my team on urgent and important things happening in projects all over organization, I refine the commitments that Academy has taken to deliver in PI (Program Increment planning, a strategic meeting of stakeholders, happens once in a quarter). Based on the above, I decide which items to go first for implementation. This helps my team in their Scrum process, when they decide which pieces of work to take for implementation. This also helps us to do the right things, in the right order.

To sum up, things are constantly changing in my organizations. New urgencies pop up, colleagues come with initiatives, stakeholders get their teams shuffled and learning priorities shifted all the time. My key challenge and the most crucial part of the work that enables my team to do the right job — is keeping up with the changes and properly setting the priorities for the team. Alignment around a common goal has never been more crucial for me as a leader. And I have to do it daily.

Insight 3. A new meaning to term ‘empathy’.

Just a year ago I was having an entirely different, much shallower understanding, and application of empathy to my work. Seeing the world from the others’ standpoint, understanding how they feel and why they do things they do — is something that I am learning a lot in an Agile environment.

The difference with my ‘traditional’ experience is especially drastic, when it comes to how we work with our customers. Perceiving the world by their eyes is a tremendously difficult, and exciting thing to try. How do people encounter their learning and development needs? What do they do, when they understand that they need to learn a certain thing? How do they feel about searching through, and signing up for our learning opportunities?

We spend a bit of time to step in the shoes of our customers, and to feel their pains. So we can do a better job satisfying their needs. The best source for finding an inspiration and a very rich toolkit for empathizing with one’s customers can be found with Service Design methodology. Service Design methodology — more info can be found on the site of Service Design Network the leading non-profit institution for expertise in service design and a driver of global growth, development and innovation within the practice.

To give you few examples. My colleagues attend client calls and observe our project teams presenting to their own stakeholders. So that Academy can improve our business communication, negotiation, public speaking trainings and other. My team observes colleagues interacting with foreign stakeholders, to upgrade the contents of our English classes and adjust vocabulary that we train in classes. Like the ethnographers exploring the uniqueness of ancient peoples, we go to explore the unique struggles, pain points and aspirations of our own customers. The insights we bring back — we turn into experiments. We try out different solutions and stick to the ones that show best result for our clients.

For example, one of the recent experiments that we did, was on announcing the learning events. We took 2 pretty similar learning events, for which we wanted to gather internal participants. One of the events was announced via corporate news. Another was posted in general chat. We wanted to see, which event gathers more people. It turned out, that particularly for tech oriented events, chat works better than news on corporate site. So that’s how we communicate tech events now.

To sum up, emphasizing with the customers for whom we do our job day to day, brings an entirely new level of service that our team can deliver. And frankly talking, an entirely new sense of meaning to us as a team.

I do believe that elements of Agile philosophy can be applied in the work environment of any leader, any team. Co-creating together as a team, no matter what your specialization or role is; collaborating to solve problems; making small iterations to experiment with new ways of doing things; and learn by doing — these are the activities necessary in any environment. Agile may be a good source of inspiration for making a new development step for you as a team.