10 Traits of an Effective Scrum Master

Woman listening to two other women

One of the misconceptions about being a Scrum Master is that you can just go through the ceremonies on a daily and weekly basis and expect everything to run smoothly. Being an effective Scrum Master requires many important traits in order to help lead your team(s) to success. From my experience, here are a few traits that are necessary for elevating your role as a Scrum Master.

Leadership:

One of my favorite quotes regarding leadership comes from two amazing American heroes, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. During their time serving as Navy Seals, they trained others around them about how “there are no bad teams, only bad leaders”. When working with your Scrum teams, you may not always have everyone on the same page, or have the same strengths as others. It is imperative that as a great leader, you take charge and find ways to motivate and inspire your teams to work hard and effectively, despite the shortcomings they may have. Great leaders find a way to win even in the toughest situations. If your team fails, it is because those above them did not lead effectively.

Good Listener:

This is often one of the most overlooked traits that is necessary to not only be a great Scrum Master, but to be a great leader in general. All too often, people assume that those who know the most or have the most intelligent things to say are the ones to admire. Instead, focus on being a good listener and really understanding what people are saying to you that you can help them with. At the core of every human interaction, people want to feel appreciated and listened to. If you can show others that you are truly interested in what they have to say, you will gain their trust and they will be more likely to go out of the way to work hard for you and return the favor.

Emotional intelligence:

Emotional intelligence is a buzzword that you have probably often read about in business books and heard about in self-development seminars. The reason why it is mentioned so frequently is because of its importance with being successful. Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage your own feelings and recognize and react to other people’s emotions in an appropriate manner. It is not uncommon for people to completely misread situations with others and then feel confounded when there are conflicts and a lack of communication. As a leader, it is imperative that you have the ability to work with people of all backgrounds, skill levels, education and age. Having strong emotional intelligence will give you the opportunity to succeed in tough environments and maximize the teams you work with. You can improve your emotional intelligence by taking the time to truly listen to your co-workers, find out what they do well, what they struggle with, and what motivates them. Be a good listener and show interest in what they have to say.  When issues or problems arise, take the necessary time to Stop, Think, Observe and Plan. By reflecting on problems in this manner, it will increase your chances in responding effectively and allow you to avoid making any rash decisions. As a Scrum Master, it is essential that you build a strong bond with members of your team and learn what makes him or her tick so that you can help maximize their value to the team and to your organization.

Conflict Resolution:

No matter what industry you work in, there will always be conflicts that occur between co-workers. As a Scrum Master, you are the first line of defense when there is in-fighting on your team(s). It is not uncommon for teammates to have disagreements with how to approach certain projects or how long a certain task may take to be completed. Sometimes, team members will feel inferior or annoyed by another member because of their work ethic or personality. An experienced Scrum Master will recognize these problems before the conflicts get out of hand and find a way to mitigate the situation. This may require individual conversations with the members in question and even a private meeting between the parties in order to find the best way to come to a resolution. It is often suggested that these sensitive subjects should be handled out of the visibility of the rest of the team in order to allow for trust and privacy to remain intact. If the problem affects the whole team, it is then best to include the team, but still in a private and responsible manner.

Stand up for their team:

Every team wants to know that their Scrum Master has their back. When management comes down with new deadlines or unrealistic expectations, the Scrum Master has to know when to step in and voice the team’s concerns.  After all, one of the Scrum Master’s main responsibilities is to shield the team from outside factors. The Scrum Master should know his team better than any other person in the organization and therefore know what they are capable of, when they need assistance, and what is not feasible. When a team knows that they have the support of their Scrum Master, they will trust him/her more, which creates a stronger more unified team.

Know when to say “No”:

One of the hardest things to say to your superiors or teammates is “No”.  We all want to please others and be a good team player, but there comes a time when it is imperative that you are able to say “No” when issues arise that could adversely hurt your team.  Similar to the idea of standing up for your team, an effective Scrum Master has the foresight to tell product management “No” when they try to slide more work on the team, or when management wants to make an important decision regarding deadlines without consulting the rest of the department.  Sometimes you may have to give tough love to a team member and strike down a request that could affect the rest of the team.  It may cause temporary pain but in the long run, being able to make the tough calls will ultimately improve your team’s performance.

Organized:

Companies employ the use of scrum because they most likely have complex projects that need to be completed. With the incredible amount of moving parts and rapidly changing environments, a Scrum Master must be organized in order to keep up with the constant changes and tasks that need to be taken care of. This starts with properly taking notes at your meetings, responding to emails in a timely fashion, keeping a list of tasks that need to be taken care of and keeping your daily calendar up to date. If you don’t have to worry about losing track of important notes, dates and tasks, you can more effectively focus on helping your team.

Good Communicator:

As a Scrum Master, you will be in charge of facilitating many ceremonies, which will require you to lead discussions and direct conversations in the right direction. You will also most likely work with some developers who may not have the best communication skills. It is crucial that you feel comfortable speaking in front of people and that you can get your point across in a way that is understandable to the audience and effective with its message. It is not uncommon to have to break down a very complex topic into a simple and to-the-point statement.  This is not always an easy task to do, but the best Scrum Masters recognize the necessity to always be improving their communication skills and continually learning in order to be more aware of their subject matter so that they can feel confident when they need to speak about the projects their teams are working on.

Confidence:

One of the most challenging parts of being a Scrum Master is being able to have meaningful and serious conversations with others about topics that you may not have much knowledge about.  For example, in the software industry, you may be assigned to lead a team of well-established software architects that have 20+ years of experience. You will need confidence to be able to question them when you feel they are going off track or propose ideas that are not in line with the goals of the project. It is imperative that you feel comfortable in challenging those who have many more years experience than you. By always striving to learn more and asking the right questions, you will gain the trust of your teams and improve your confidence so that the tough conversations will be a lot easier to handle.

Flexibility:

         Every work environment will have its own challenges and dynamics. Team members will have their own unique issues as well. Despite all the planning and preparation you account for, there will ultimately be changes, setbacks, and unforeseen circumstances. As an effective Scrum Master, you must remain flexible and be able to go with the flow on a daily basis. Working in an agile environment means that you will have constant unforeseen changes. Flexibility will be a necessary trait to have in order to thrive in a complex business environment.

What else am I missing from this list? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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