Meet Michael Sahota

The way Michael Sahota sees it, the biggest barrier companies face when undergoing an Agile transformation is effecting deep change in organizational culture. The author of numerous articles and of An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide: Working with Organizational Culture, published by InfoQ, Sahota believes that the majority of Agile transformations fail at least partly because they fall short of accomplishing this fundamental change. And his specialty as a coach, trainer, and teacher is helping students make sure this doesn't happen.

As a Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) Approved Educator, Sahota's approach is "straightforward, amusing, and thought-provoking," according to one of his students, an Agile program manager. In each class, Sahota works with students to develop their understanding of what goes into creating the culture of leadership in the workplace, starting with themselves.

"My wake-up moment was when I realized I have this passion around creating places where people want to come to work," he says. "Agile is a way of getting there, but it often doesn't work because of how leaders are showing up. The only way of creating that consciousness is if leaders grow, and that can only happen if someone orients them on this journey."

Sahota has been involved in Agile leadership since 2001, and since 2010 has focused his coaching on helping companies evolve their organizational culture and leadership to create places where Agile can flourish. He is a Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC) in addition to being a CAL Approved Educator.

Sahota starts by helping leadership students think about the "why" of what they're doing by putting Agile in the context of broader organizational goals. "Agile itself is not the goal; that's a huge trap," he says. "If you're an Agile evangelist, you're actually hurting your organization." In fact, he says, while this may sound odd coming from an Agile Leadership coach, "You don't even need Agile in there."

Shying away from prescriptive instruction, Sahota prefers to communicate in terms of what he calls "patterns" rather than "best practices." That said, he has developed a loose playbook of what he calls the ten secrets of navigation, a series of steps designed to help leaders reenvision Agile as change at the cultural rather than tactical level.

In his CAL I classes, Sahota's approach to teaching is flexible, guided by the needs of the individual students in the class. "No two trainings have been the same, probably because the people are different, and they bring those backgrounds, perspectives, and questions into class."

And he advises a similarly open approach to Agile transformation. "You don't want to be coming in with a one-size-fits-all agenda. We get very attached to our plans, and that can get in the way of real change," Sahota says. "That's something I see a lot in students — they are so attached to making Agile work, they don't see that they're not listening to people. When we're evangelizing we're telling, not listening. Or, to quote Steven Covey, ‘First seek to understand, then to be understood.'"

One of Sahota's lessons, termed "The Leader Is the Limit," focuses on helping leaders look at their own beliefs, approach to management, and role in Agile adoption. "This is where things get very sticky and the rubber hits the road," Sahota says. "The behavior of the organization is a direct result of the leadership behavior, but leaders get into the trap of wanting people to be fixed by Agile training and coaching, and they're not looking at themselves first."

To this end, Sahota guides students through exercises and discussions designed to increase their awareness of the need to create an environment of safety in which everyone in the team or workplace can participate freely. Discussions focus on learning to be more open, honest, and aware, thus setting the stage for "equal voices," by which he means investigating power dynamics to make sure everyone feels comfortable speaking up and comes away feeling heard.

"We discuss a bunch of best practices around listening, and we do a scalable listening exercise designed to help leaders understand where they're taking power and how to give power, and help them work through the decision-making process."

While some of this may be challenging at first, Sahota says, he also aims to be practical, offering tools students can use to go forward and continue to grow as leaders after the training is done.

"My background and training is as an engineer, so I'm in the world of getting results. If we're talking about that in a technical realm that means one thing, but in the context of leadership and personal growth, it means what are the most powerful ways of getting results," he says. "I came to everything I've learned and now teach from a scientific mindset — how can I get useful stuff to use on myself, then how can I use it to teach others?"

Much of Sahota's training focuses on helping leaders let go of biases, assumptions, and the tendency toward resistance, whether that's saying no or feeling that something won't or can't be done. "I want to help leaders show up in ways that invite others to show up," he says. "That's the beginning of the path to evolving structures and practices that create an adaptable, resilient organization." Student feedback shows the approach to be effective. "I learned about the importance and value of starting with myself and the importance of consciousness about structures," said one student, a senior project manager.

Sahota also invites students to ask for help with specific problems they want to solve in class and to ask for input from their classmates as well as from him. "A good one we got into recently was how do we have performance conversations, and what if we need to leverage people out of the system? It turned out to be a shared interest of many students, so we spent some time on it, talking about how we have these conversations in a loving, caring way."

Launched in April 2016, the Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) program from Scrum Alliance aims to develop Agile leadership competency, maturity, and effectiveness through an education- and practice-based program. Its two modules build knowledge successively, first introducing participants to the concepts and experiences of Agile leadership, then introducing advanced learning and practices, including peer-based sharing and feedback.

Sahota, who is based in Toronto, has taught nine classes so far. One of the first CAL Approved Educators, he is among those blazing the trail in this leadership training.  You can get more of a sense of his teaching style from his recent webinar, Top 10 Secrets of Agile Transformation. But to actually internalize the concepts and put them into practice for yourself, CAL leadership trainings are the way to go.