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Dirk's journey to authentic leadership: daring to lead with nothing to hide to transform everything

Published in Agile, People, Sweden

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June 8, 2022 · 4 min read time

Creating an atmosphere at work that supports high-performing teams and personal growth is essential in building successful organisations where people feel happy in the long run. One vital attribute is making people feel seen and heard. Nitor’s Enterprise Agile Coach Dirk Holste has delved deep into this subject since he started as a software engineer 30 years ago.

Dirk was born in Germany and moved to Sweden over 20 years ago to start his work at Ericsson. During his 16 years at the Swedish network company, he worked in software design, line management, product management, and as an internal change agent creating and leading agile teams. Agile methods soon became the most essential tool for him as he saw how people felt good at work and productivity increased.

Trust and openness come when people feel heard

Long careers contain many pivotal moments, but some are more memorable than others. These moments shape or strengthen the direction one wants to take in the future and offer essential learning experiences. 

One such moment for Dirk was when he was working as a line manager at Ericsson. He saw how communication is essential when working together as a group, but you need more. The key was to want to understand people and where they are. When you genuinely want to know when something is holding people back and how you can remove obstacles, it builds trust and creates a mental space where people are allowed to share what is really going on. 

I wanted to understand people's needs better and how I could make them more comfortable with their work.

Taking a servant leadership approach helps to see things that might stay hidden otherwise. For example, someone might be afraid to try something new and needs more encouragement. And then, when you give it, you end up with something very fulfilling and rewarding: more trust and openness in the organisation.

"Just because I’m a change nerd, not everybody likes change. The focus has to be on making people comfortable with the change. When you listen to people, they relax, open up, and get curious."

When a product goes wrong

Agile ways of working make work environments more gratifying to be in and make sure the customer is included in product development from the early stages. Dirk learned this the hard way when being a product manager. He was in charge of a product and realised how the voice of the customer was missing. During interactions with the customer, it became clear that the technically advanced product did not serve the customer’s need. Eventually, he decided to stop the development. 

"There has to be bravery to stop the development if it does not create value and serve the customer."

Naturally, the team involved was not happy about this. The most important thing was to go through the learnings with the team so that it could be left behind with valuable learnings: how do we make sure that the customer is always at the center.

The primary focus for me was how I, as a product manager, can serve the team and support them even when we have to bury a product we put so much effort into.

Build on strengths and challenge yourself to grow

To serve a team successfully, an organisation, or anything, it comes down to how authentic you can be as a leader and how much you are willing to challenge and grow yourself. During the last years, Dirk has worked with large organisations to help them with their agile transformations. When you want to create more flow with different departments with different needs, the only way is to work from a place of authenticity. As agile removes bottlenecks that disrupt the flow, authenticity removes mental and emotional blocks. 

Being authentic calls for transparency, genuineness, and honesty, making you vulnerable. However, the prize is far more rewarding: increased trust and commitment, leading to more value being delivered. Being authentic leads to increased understanding of our own reactions and behaviors, which, in turn, makes it easier to accept different perspectives. Self-responsibility creates a self-directing culture where everyone can utilise their strengths and increase motivation at work at the same time. 

"Productivity results from an agile and self-directed organisation, but it should not be the sole aim."

To create a thriving work atmosphere, we have to know how to support the organisation's growth without controlling or steering it. However, even though we know that a command and control -approach seldom works, it might be challenging to step back from it. This is where agile methodologies come into play. Agile embraces the systems-thinking view where organisations are seen as living organisms that you can’t control but rather give a purpose and a direction to enable growth. 

The cornerstones of authenticity and agile, openness, honesty, trust, and continuous learning, have proven valuable for Dirk also outside of work.Parenting becomes even more rewarding when one can maintain open communication, trust, and tolerance for making mistakes. Authentic parenting, in other words, can be hard at first but so worth it in the end.  

My 17-year-old daughter appreciates when I tell her honestly not only what I appreciate or don’t like, but also that I am a parent to a teenager for the first time in my life. We learn and grow as we go, together.

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