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Project managers' evolving role in software development

As software development changes, project managers roles must also evolve. Project managers need to adapt to a process that values coaching over "command and control" leadership.

LAS VEGAS -- Project managers take note: Coaching is the new leadership paradigm in software development.

You have to engage your team. Don't own the results; own the assessments and provide feedback.
Bob Galen
Principal consultantRGalen Consulting Group

That's the point Bob Galen, principal consultant of RGalen Consulting Group, L.L.C. and newly minted Agile Architect at ChannelAdvisor, stressed during his session, "Coaching: The New Leadership Imperative," at last week's Better Software conference. During the session, Galen instructed an attentive audience in using "soft skills" such as listening to get the most from their teams.

A former "command and control" leader, Galen now preaches the gentler methods of "Coach as Sounding Board," as "Role Model" and as "Cheerleader," among others. "When I was a software engineering manager in 1985, I would go in and tell [the team] what to do," he said. But those management methods are no longer effective, if they ever were, he contended. Today's software development environment demands a new managerial skill set, he said.

The Agile manifesto is one driver, Galen said. The Agile development notion of self-directed teams, he explained, is incompatible with an autocratic managerial stance. In addition, the increased complexity of software makes it impossible for one manager to know everything. If leaders want to generate mindshare, Galen contended, they need to do more than just give orders.

Successful coaches
Galen pointed to several high-profile sports coaches as exemplars of the new paradigm. Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, builds teams by melding the strengths and weaknesses of the members, Galen said. Belichick is not wedded to his game plan, but rather to the goal of winning. That flexibility and ability to adjust are important for today's managers, Galen said. "Have you ever seen a team follow a plan over a cliff?" he asked the audience, which laughed in response.

Duke basketball's Mike Krzyzewski, Galen noted, has an excellent graduation rate among his players. The audience responded warmly to the idea of a coach who doesn't put winning above all. "You can win goals and destroy your team in the process," Galen said. But a pyrrhic victory such as that isn't beneficial and serves well only in the short term. A work-life balance is needed. "Work is work, and life is life," he said.

The New York Yankees' Joe Torre, Galen said, manages demanding stakeholders (George Steinbrenner) and maintains a calm, laid-back demeanor in front of his team. Another notable coaching skill, he added, is Torre's taking the blame and sharing the glory. "The glory goes to the team," he emphasized.

The anti-coach
As an anti-coach, Galen chose Donald Rumsfeld, stressing his admiration for the man and assuring that this example is apolitical. Rumsfeld is "laser-focused, almost pitbull-ian," he said. And while that attitude certainly has its advantages, he added, it doesn't make for a good coach. Coaches, he stressed, need to be team players who listen to their team members.

"You have to engage your team," Galen said. "Don't own the results; own the assessments and provide feedback."

Good coaches must learn to wear many hats, according to Galen. Coaches are role models, leading by example and injecting a bit of humor when necessary. Coaches must earn a team's trust. "Trust is won slowly, and lost instantaneously," Galen noted.

Facilitating constructive interaction and having a passion for the right solution are essential skills for a good coach, because a coach is a teacher as well, Galen said. He is someone who employs scenario problem solving. "Context matters," he said. And providing examples, rather than just flat answers, gives context to feedback.

As a cheerleader, a coach exhibits a can-do attitude and remembers to thank team members for their work. Galen suggests actually scheduling "thank yous" in a calendar, so as not to forget. The cheerleader knows how to give positive feedback. "All managers think they're good at giving positive feedback, but they're not," he said.

A coach may be a Solomon for his team, emphasizing "fair play and leadership," and "cherishing all team members," Galen said. Work "as a change agent, pushing the team towards change but not overpowering [them]."

Taking on the role of sounding board for the team requires one of the most difficult abilities of a manager: the ability to listen. "Listening is one of the greatest skills you can have as a coach," Galen said.

A good listener is one who not only can hear what's said, but can also hear what's unsaid, Galen said. Body language should be taken into account. A coach should be able to elicit an honest answer from a team member when asking an open-ended question, such as "How am I doing?" Listen intently to the response, he said. If trust isn't really established yet, "ask more open-ended questions," Galen advised. And keep listening for what's said and what's unsaid.

When building a team, a good manager looks for complementary skills, not homogeneity. Don't be afraid to "be disruptive." Galen told a story of a team he had put together that consisted of the same type of person. Upon noticing this, Galen hired Doug, a theater major with an extroverted personality and an outlook vastly different from the other team members. "Doug was energizing," Galen recalled.

Would you want a team full of Dougs? No, but mixing up personalities and skills can make your team better.

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