Meet Brian Rabon

For Brian Rabon, becoming a Scrum Alliance® approved Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) Educator is a continuation of a journey he’s been on for many years. Working with aspiring Agile leaders is exciting, he says, because they share a willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things and share that knowledge. “Those interested in Agile are the people who see a gap and want to bridge it.”

Rabon founded The Braintrust Consulting Group in 2009 and served as President until this year when he became Chief Executive Officer. As the author of Scrum for the Rest of Us, Rabon helps clients understand Agile concepts and processes such as Scrum and Kanban, then helps integrate them to transform their approach to project management.

Proud to call himself an Agile evangelist, Rabon is a regular speaker at conferences and events presented by the Project Management Institute (PMI), and at Scrum Gatherings around the world.

As a CAL Educator, as in his client work, Rabon takes a tactical, action-oriented approach to Agile training with the goal of providing students with knowledge and tools they can apply right away.

“Almost everybody who comes to us is looking for practical, hands-on advice,” he says. “They’re not interested in theory; they want to know what do I need to be doing right now, how can I be effective in this new environment? What is some real world stuff we can start doing now?”

Launched in 2016, the Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) program from Scrum Alliance is an advanced education and practice-based program. It introduces participants to the concepts and experiences of Agile leadership, then offers interactive experiences and opportunities to explore advanced learning in peer-based settings. Participants will come away from CAL I and CAL II modules with a grounded understanding of how to become better leaders using the best practices of Agile.

Describing himself as a “recovering software developer,” Rabon moved into team coaching when he realized it was a better fit for his abilities. “I started out writing code, but I realized I was never going to be the best coder in the world,” he says. Thankfully, an early mentor recognized his other strengths, including an ability to organize and facilitate teams and an instinct for leadership. “He told me, `That’s not what we need you to be, we need you to be Brian,’ and I started gravitating to the people side and became a team leader.”

Looking for ways to help his team succeed, Rabon began to investigate new methodologies. “I realized that there are three paths. On one extreme is code-and-fix, which can become a kind of chaos with everyone flying by the seat of their pants. The other extreme is the PMI approach, which can be very rigid, coming up with a detailed project plan and micromanaging everybody. That didn’t fit either, so I found a middle ground, which was extreme programming.” The team’s first projects were immediate successes, and he was hooked.

At his next position as a project management office leader for a financial services software development company, Rabon continued his Agile journey. In that position, overseeing 30 direct reports and another 10 contractors, he implemented Scrum throughout the entire IT department.

“I didn’t want to have to run around with the clipboard saying, 'Are you done with this, are you done with that?’” he says. “I wanted to spend my time and energy moving things out of their way rather than being in their way.” As a result, he embraced the role of an Agile leader as the remover of roadblocks.

“My interest in Agile leadership really did emerge from our clients,” he says. “I was out there teaching literally hundreds of CSM® classes and what I heard was, `This is great, but the company’s policies and procedures won’t allow it’ or `This is great but the boss doesn’t understand it, he’s still asking for artifacts all the time.’” Realizing the need for Agile leadership training, Rabon founded a new venture called the Center for Agile Leadership.

“The missing ingredient in other classes is the question of how do you create an Agile culture, and especially how do you support teams doing Scrum? The people on the help desk, even HR, want to understand from a tactical and more managerial aspect how to support them,” he says.

The growing demand for Agile leadership skills is fueled, Rabon says, by the desire to extend the success of Agile and Scrum beyond IT and software. And by frustration with what happens — or fails to happen — when one department or team tries to go Agile is surrounded by colleagues who continue to do things the old way.

“I’ve been teaching and coaching Agile leadership for a long time, and I’ve seen different demographics come through,” Rabon says. “One is the Agile coach who wants to have more influence with those he interacts with. The bulk are managers and directors, often in IT departments and business units, who want to start leading in an Agile way and take the principles and practices of Agile and apply them to their own environment.”

In some cases, Rabon says, interest in Agile goes all the way up to the top of the company, with the occasional C-level executive coming through the class.

But all too often leaders struggle with anxiety over the change. “A lot of leaders have trust issues, they’re afraid of losing control. And a lot of companies have policies and procedures in place to make sure there are certain outcomes, and leaders are afraid of relaxing that system,” he says.

Then there’s the more personal fear of obsolescence. “There is definitely a certain amount of concern that if I’m not running around telling people what to do, then what value am I giving the organization? People worry that they won’t have a place anymore, that they won’t be needed.”

This is where leadership training can really make a difference, guiding leaders to a new perception of their value. “I show them that of course they’re needed, but maybe they need to shift away from command and control to servant leadership,” Rabon says.

Rabon incorporates best practices that he has evolved at Braintrust, such as tools and components derived from the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS). “We show them the things we do on a day-to-day basis to run our company in an Agile fashion, and they start doing some pretty amazing things with them right away.”

Having taught 20+ CAL classes to date, Rabon has a great deal of past experience and student feedback to draw on.

Rabon’s CAL modules are made up of two days of class time, followed by 90 days of coaching, including implementing a 30-day mini project. He builds a community in which participants check in with and support each other on the phone and online.

“An important part of our process is facilitating connections. We create a family environment in the class so people can check in with each other, and some even become accountability partners,” he says. “People feel a sense of loss when the teaching is over, and they want to keep the momentum going. And so do we.”