What soft skills does a Scrum Master need?
Soft skills are an interesting one. I remember going through high school and University and soft skills was this weird stuff that non-engineers and scientists did.
I’ll be honest, soft skills are a lot harder to master than the so-called hard skills.
The people skills are much harder to master than engineering, mathematics, and sciences.
So, what are the people skills that we need? We need all of them. The Scrum Master and Agile Coach role is a people role. You work with both individuals as well as teams and you need to master the soft skills necessary to interact, engage and succeed in your environment.
Empathy is a vital skill for a scrum master. Not sympathy, empathy.
To clarify the difference between sympathy and empathy, it’s useful to think of someone walking down the road and encountering another person sat in a hole.
Empathy is recognising that the other person is in a hole, and hopefully if you’re a good person, you will start to think of ways to help them get out of that hole.
Sympathy is getting into the hole with that other person and feeling miserable about both of you being in the hole with no way out.
Empathy is about understanding other people. Understanding where they are, how they might feel, and what factors are impacting their lives. Sympathy is about feeling bad for other people.
Empathy is about recognising that people show up in different ways; explore opportunities and go about their business in completely different ways. No one person is the same and you need to accept people as they are and work with them as they are.
As a scrum master, you need to be articulate.
You are likely translating between different departments who speak entirely different languages.
Your product owner is thinking about the product, product stakeholders, markets, customers and how best to serve those groups whilst the engineers are deeply immersed in writing code and building products and services with technical excellence.
You are the glue that binds the team together and it is on you to find ways to learn all the ‘languages’ in your environment and learn to communicate effectively within and outside of the scrum team.
You need to take the time to understand their respective jargon and ways of articulating the challenges they face as well as the opportunities they are trying to take advantage of.
That takes time.
It also takes a great deal of effort, so you need to commit to learning how to communicate effectively within the team environment and how to translate what is happening in that team to individuals within the organisation that come from completely different backgrounds, like finance and marketing teams.
You need to discover the metaphors or stories that resonate with people and inspire them to deliver their best performances. You need to craft a message in a way that others understand and find actionable.
On the flip side of effective communication lies effective listening skills.
In my opinion, this is one of the strongest skills you can develop, and it goes a long way to creating success in your team environment.
Most people listen with the intention of responding. Your job is to listen with the intention of understanding.
It is a vital skill, regardless of whether you are an empathetic friend or a coach within the organisation that is looking to help others deliver their best performance. Simply allowing people to talk to you, and actively listening to them, goes a long way to building strong relationships and empowering you to act in the right way, at the right time, in alignment with the right intention.
All of these elements blend together into frameworks and techniques that coaches use.
Active listening, powerful questioning, and deep empathy are incredibly powerful tools for coaches.
They empower coaches to help people clarify their thinking, articulate their goals and objectives, and discover a pathway to success that leverages their strengths whilst mitigating their weaknesses.
You need to develop your coaching skills as a scrum master as early as you can, and you need to actively practice coaching at every opportunity you get.
That may mean creating a small group of like-minded individuals and practicing coaching together or it may mean taking leadership in opportunities that present themselves within the team environment.
You need to develop your ability to build rapport with people. Being likeable and trustworthy is incredibly important when getting people to open up to you and make themselves available for coaching.
If you aren’t the world’s most likeable person, don’t fret, you can ‘fake’ it until you make it. I don’t mean be devious or underhanded, I simply mean that you can put your best foot forward and present yourself as an open, honest, and well-intentioned person and the rest will take care of itself.
Have a solid grasp of what trust means and what being trustworthy means.
I understand that I am bouncing around a lot in this answer, but it is because the answer is so complex. There is a myriad of people skills that are required to be an effective scrum master and agile coach and we are touching the tip of the iceberg with these recommendations.
Be open to learning
As you progress in your journey as a scrum master, you are going to begin to identify for yourself which people skills and soft skills you require to make a success of your career.
Situations will present themselves and you must be open to continuous learning to progress and become as effective as you can be. You can master pretty much any people skill with time and effort, you simply need to be willing to learn and actively practice.
I used to come from a hardcore engineering background and software development focus but as I have become more experienced as a scrum master and agile coach, I have learned a great deal of people skills and actively practiced becoming better at those skills.
This includes coaching, group coaching, mentoring, etc.
Stay open to learning what is required from you in any given situation and work at developing the skills that will best serve you in those circumstances as well as future circumstances.
I actively believe that the one thing you need above all else is an active interest in other people.
Be guided by that. If you are genuinely interested in what other people have to say and helping them achieve their goals and objectives, everything else will fall into place.
You’ll be able to have a conversation with them, listen to what they have to say, and act appropriately. Maybe that’s offering advice or insight, and maybe that’s simply being a sounding board for them.
As you learn and practice, you’ll become better at identifying what appropriate action looks like and execute that flawlessly.
So, those are my recommendations for soft skills worth developing for a Scrum Master.
If you like the idea of mentored and coach-driven skills development, visit our Agile Coach Academy.
If you have identified coaching as a valuable skill to develop, visit our on-demand Introduction to Coaching course page.