By David Bierman
From the Scandinavian shores of Stockholm hails the agile term ‘Chapter Lead’. Originally, the Swedish media company Spotify was one of the greats, amongst Netflix and Google, to first transform its work floors by introducing the Agile way of working. One of the designations within this system is that of Chapter Lead, the overseer of a particular expertise within a project. But hey, isn’t that just a fancy word for manager?
With the embrace of the Agile philosophy in The Valley, words like poker, retro, spike and scrum master entered the dictionary of office lingo. The project style and office culture that agility involves, invited The Valley and its employees to embrace the Agile way of working and move on from the old waterfall style. The change went swiftly: little time passed before the first scrum teams reaped the benefits of their new sprint-oriented approach. But, in order to keep all members in perfect sync in this modern, fast-paced environment, there still need to be hubs which connect all activity. Here, you need some sort of leaders.
On page one of the Agile dictionary you can find the word ‘Chapter Lead’ being described as one of these ‘leaders’. In The Valley, Natasha is an example of this definition: she makes sure the UX designers and visual designers of the AkzoNobel project, which can be found under The Valley’s roof, have everything they need to do their job perfectly.
Like a mother guiding her children, she watches over the team members and makes sure that they encounter no obstacles whatsoever in their line of work. Or, if they do, that they are out of the way as soon as possible. She arranges tickets according to priority, keeps everyone constantly up to date about the state of the project and takes the lead in improving the working approach and team conditions.
If you think a Chapter Lead is just like any manager who rises above the team, you’re quite mistaken. It’s all about involvement: Natasha has to be an integral part of the sailing crew on deck, but also make sure the ship is clean. She has to set an example in her field of expertise and inspire her team members to perform well. That means being a leader, a coach, a mentor and an equal part of the team, all at the same time.
With the coming of agility, hierarchy goes. The Chapter Lead functions as a regular member of the team who also happens to review and refine the work being done. His or her job is characterized by ‘servant leadership’: the main goal of a Chapter Lead is to make sure every squad member is happy. This sounds simple, but actually involves raising people up to realize their full potential. Only when all individual people are able and willing to deliver their best work, the project as a whole can become of the best possible quality.
Development of personal skills, both job- and individual-related, is important in getting team members to maximize their strengths and improve on their weaknesses. This is where the coaching/mentoring comes into play: a Chapter Lead needs to equip everyone so that they are able to perform their job in the best way possible. One-on-one learning sessions with team members are hugely important in this.
Leading a chapter also requires you to have a natural knack for design thinking: this means being able to quickly identify problems or pain points of the project and then devising a solution. This in turn causes you to have to take a step further than normal managing would regarding your duties in communication. “Convincing people, initiating improvement, presenting progress to the client: those are all communication-related tasks”, Natasha says. “To AkzoNobel, I need to be the face of the Valley. So, I can’t just sit back and watch the team go at it. I need to constantly be in the middle of the action.”
The kind of leadership being a Chapter Lead demands, can only be learned through experience. Almost no-one is one hundred percent Chapter Lead by nature. So, when you first assume the position, things can be a bit challenging. You must immediately give your squad the sense of being a confident and firm presence, but also appear vulnerable: that way, you show that you have authority and knowledge, but are at the same time very open for talking about strong and less strong points of themselves or the project.
So, by using an open, family-style approach, a Chapter Lead needs to construct a relaxed team environment based on trust. Natasha was able to do just that. “It took time. I had to make sure every member of the team respected me, but didn’t fear me. When people have to work so closely together, not only having but also constantly feeling the freedom to speak your mind is of essential importance.”
For a Chapter Lead, this freedom also requires you to have the guts to face facts when the project isn’t running as smoothly as it should. Natasha: “Giving compliments is easy, but confronting a team member about their work is hard. Critique can easily cause tears between a Chapter Lead and the team if you’re not careful in how you present it. You need to take your time to learn how every person responds to you and how you can best approach them.”
Here, a strong bond between all parts of the team is the only way to preserve the atmosphere of trust and openness. The Chapter Lead is the personification of that bond, the part that connects all spokes of the wheel. Next to connecting people on an emotional level, the Chapter Lead uses his or her own deep expertise to connect individual performances of team members and so raise the entire project to be of the highest quality possible.
The responsibility that comes with being a Chapter Lead therefore goes beyond the scope of normal management. Aside from growing the quality of the project, stimulating personal development in the form of coaching, guidance and reflection is part of the job: you aid people with their self-development, whether that is in connection with the project or not. By making use of your knowledge, they can arrive at new insights which help them grow professionally ánd as a person.
Besides, who knows, you might even learn a thing or two from them in the process which might help you grow as well.