Scrum Masters CEOs of the Future

Podcast Ep. 127: Are Scrum Masters the CEOs of the Future? With Vasco Duarte

Scrum Masters CEOs of the Future
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Episode Description:

This week, Dan Neumann is joined by a very special guest, Vasco Duarte, the host of the Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast — a daily podcast for Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches. Vasco interviews guests from all over the world to give his listeners actionable advice and daily doses of inspiring conversations to help improve their craft! Vasco himself is a Certified Scrum Master, an Agile Coach, and a Business Consultant. He was also one of the leaders and catalysts of Agile methods and Agile culture adoption at Avira, Nolia, and F-Secure.

Together, they’re exploring the concept of Scrum Masters as the CEOs of the future. As Vasco highlights in this episode, there are a number of facets that well position Scrum Masters to be the CEOs of our future. He speaks about why this is, his vision for Scrum Masters in general, how you can position yourself as a Scrum Master to take on leadership positions, and some of the challenges you might face as a Scrum Master in a leadership position and how to overcome them.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Key Takeaways

  • Why might Scrum Masters be the next CEOs?
    • As a Scrum Master, you learn to lead without pushing people or being a command-and-control leader
    • The traits that are necessary of a Scrum Master would make for a well-rounded CEO (such as servant leadership)
  • Vasco’s vision for Scrum Masters:
    • Servant leadership (or, the leader that serves)
    • Transforming the world of work rather than making sure that events are on the calendar
    • Coaching the organization to actually transform to better use the scrum framework as opposed to simply surviving in the organization they are a part of
    • As a Scrum Master, you define your role in practice every single day
    • “A Scrum Master that can make a leadership team work cohesively and harmoniously toward the good of the company, the good of the customers, and the workers, is a Scrum Master that is at the top of their career.” — Vasco Duarte
    • “I’m asking all … Scrum Masters to take ownership of the role, continue to develop the role, and maybe even develop a full-fledged career path, first starting as a team member … mov[ing] on toward helping teams, helping other Scrum members, and even helping leadership teams to grow.” — Vasco Duarte
  • What makes Scrum Masters better aligned to be successful CEOs:
    • Scrum Masters are already suited to work in domains where they are not specialists in, to help the team succeed
    • The core of the Scrum Master’s role is collaboration (AKA trying to get the team to work better together for the success of the company, the customers, and the workers themselves) which embodies one of the key aspects of the CEO
    • The lack of technical knowledge in a particular area of the organization that a CEO needs to lead will never be an impediment to become a CEO (there is no CEO that knows everything)
    • Scrum Masters should excel in helping the team deliver value
  • A challenge that Scrum Masters should be aware of as their companies move forward in their agile journey:
    • Very often, companies tend to do “big bang agile transformations” by bringing in a bunch of agile coaches that do great work but are then let go (leaving Scrum Masters to pick up the pieces)
      • Solution: Rob encourages that, as a Scrum Master, you should collaborate with these agile coaches that are temporarily brought on and get involved with the transformation early on
      • Solution: Make sure that the teams are not left hanging by preparing the teams from a supported place

Mentioned in this Episode:

Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and may not be completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar.]

Intro: [00:03] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought. The podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach, and agile expert, Dan Neumann.

Dan Neumann: [00:17] Welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner. I’m your host, Dan Neumann, and I’m really excited today to have a special guest Vasco Duarte who is the host of the podcast called the Scrum Master toolbox, which is a daily podcast episode.

Vasco Duarte: [00:31] Thank you very much Dan. Yeah, I mean it, it did take some tries to get it to work well daily. Uh, but I got the process down and luckily there’s a lot of Scrum Masters out there who are willing and, uh, want to come on the show and share their stories. And that’s, I think a great asset for our community as well. So I’m, I’m happy I can, I can be of service to the community by bringing great stories from real life, Scrum Masters about what they need to deal with every day.

Dan Neumann: [01:00] And you’ve got some different sizes. You’ve got a bigger once a week version of, then you have more bite-sized versions if you will, uh, with the Scrum Master sharing their story. So that’s awesome. Thank you for sharing. And I love that you inspected and adapt that you said it took awhile to go out and get the process down. So our topic today is going to be, um, one you reached out and wanted to explore, and I got excited about it cause it seemed very different, which is, Hey, who, who are the, who might be the future CEOs in our world, right? Things are shifting. Companies are becoming more nimble, but your hypothesis that Scrum Masters could be future CEOs. I thought that’s interesting. So let’s spend some time and explore that. What, uh, what was the kernel of that notion?

Vasco Duarte: [01:49] Well, so it all started when I was listening to a podcast, of course, as a podcast host, I love to listen to podcasts and I follow a lot of agilists and lean people. And this was a lean podcast from the lean enterprise Institute. If I remember correctly where they were interviewing Alan Malali. So Alan Malala is the CEO or ex-CEO of Boeing, and then later Ford. And he was describing how he did his work. So he was saying, you know, I was in this meeting with all my direct reports and, uh, I was being shown reports that everything was green, all traffic lights were green. And I knew that the company was losing 17 billion that year something was definitely not green, but nobody was willing to talk about it. Right. And he was talking about how he went about, you know, kind of pitching the idea and trying to get people along and, and trying to get them to, to share their struggles. And eventually one person shared a red light, the first in all of his leadership meetings, which he had weekly, again, another aspect that links to Scrum Master. And when that person shared that red light, Alan started clapping and I’m thinking, okay, so that’s creating safe space. That’s rewarding the right kind of behavior that’s modeling behavior, right? So, you know, be happy when somebody shares a problem because then we can tackle it. And I thought that’s exactly what a Scrum Master does and then it hit me. And I wrote the article, I got an article out on the blog and I’ll, I guess we’ll put it on the show notes of this episode. And, uh, uh, I, I started relating this experience that we have a Scrum Masters and agile coaches, which is working with teams without necessarily having any authority over them and still trying to get them to perform. But of course, while the ownership stays on their side, right, we are there to help. But the team owns that process, which was, I think, one of the most insightful lessons of that episode with, uh, uh, with Alan Malali. And, and that led me to write an article. I think the future of the CEO role is today, Scrum Masters are in other words, another way to put it this great. The great CEOs might want to start their career as Scrum Masters, because that’s how you learn to lead without pushing people without, uh, you know, being command and control leaders.

Dan Neumann: [04:11] It’s really interesting to think of the number of times I’ve been in an agile journey of some kind and seen at some point, sometimes they start grassroots. Sometimes somebody in the middle start, some, sometimes the big boss starts them, but there’s that reality distortion field that happens between people doing the work, knowing that they’re screwed. And the project has no chance of succeeding up to eventually somebody at a very high level being told things are fine. There are risks, but they’re managed we’re behind, but we’re going to catch up all the other lies. We tell ourselves to convince ourselves that projects are green and as super important to have that safety like you were talking about, Malali creating to say, no, this is not in a good state right now. We need to talk about the warts and figure out how we’re going to move forward. And it isn’t hopefully just beating the worker, the line workers so that they quote get things back onto green. It’s about having real hard conversations and that art, that Scrum Masters then hopefully have, would be wonderful to see even farther up those, those food chains.

Vasco Duarte: [05:23]
Yeah, absolutely. And that leads me to what is my vision for the role of the Scrum Master, which is that we actually are here to literally transform the world of work and we do it every day. So we don’t do it with large transformation projects. We, we do it with working with the teams every day and we bring to the world of work, that exact perspective of that servant leadership, which is one of the key words in, in, or was one of the key words in the Scrum guide that these days it’s the leader that serves, which is fine. I’m okay with that too. But, but that, that ability to help the team take ownership and then move on with their process, their ways of working, uh, their collaboration, solving conflicts, bringing up problems like we were just talking about in, in, uh, in that story by Alan Malali. So I think that we are here, Scrum Masters. We are here to actually literally transform the world of work through our practice. And I think that creating that vision for me at least is important for the Scrum Master role, because I see a lot of Scrum Masters out there kind of ashamed of being a Scrum Master, right? There’s a lot of people have this idea that, you know, Scrum Master is just a stepping stone towards becoming an agile coach. And I’m like agile coaches focus on different things. Scrum Masters need to focus on the day-to-day work with the teams. And by the way, we don’t ship status reports. We don’t ship a large transformation, PowerPoint plans, we ship software, right? And it’s the Scrum Masters and the teams that work day in day out on that software.

Dan Neumann: [07:00] There’s a couple things that I think are really insightful there for me. And I wanted to kind of touch on to amplify and indeed that vision of Scrum Masters transforming the world of work. It is so different than a Scrum Master who is there to make sure that we have events on the calendar called sprint planning, daily Scrum sprint review, sprint retrospective. And we survive in the organization that we happened to be in as opposed to one who is coaching the team and coaching the product owner and coaching the organization to actually transform to better use the Scrum framework. That’s a, that’s a night and day difference in how the Scrum Master is seen. I would think.

Vasco Duarte: [07:45] I hope so. It’s also a call to arms, uh, figuratively speaking for our Scrum Master community to actually wake up and start owning that role. Uh, I mean, uh, Jeff Sutherland and, uh, um, uh, Ken Schwaber have done a great work in publicising and promoting the Scrum Guide that talks about the Scrum Master role and other roles, but really who owns the definition of the role is us, the Scrum Master, just like we argue that the team owns the work that they do. We Scrum Masters own what being a Scrum Master is in practice. And we’re thankful for the contributions of all thought leaders, but we define it in practice every day, right? Like, uh, as I go through every day in the Scrum Master toolbox podcast, every Scrum Master has a slightly different approach to the same exact five problems we discuss. We talk about five problems every week with the different Scrum Master. And we come up with a different answer every single week. So obviously we are owning the role and being aware, being, being conscious that we own the role leads us to take ownership and to start to define that role in very ways. And one way in which I hope we start to define that role is contributing to the community and sharing what we think Scrum Master should be doing. A Scrum Master can be a full career like a lifetime career, because let me just share this because I think it’s quite illustrative of where the Scrum Master role can be, can go. Uh, as we were prepping for this, we talked about how very often it’s the leadership teams that are the most dysfunctional teams in an organization, and that, you know, they are the worst at keeping time boxes, their meetings just run on endless, uh, there’s uh, maybe a list of topics, an agenda for the meeting, but there’s no facilitation is very often is, you know, who, uh, the person who shouts the loudest gets the most attention, uh, and we need facilitation there. And I would say that a Scrum Master that can make a leadership team work cohesively and harmoniously towards the, you know, the good of the company, the customers, and the workers is a Scrum Master that is at the top of their career. Right? And by the way, you and I know there are people who get paid quite a hefty amount for doing exactly that to work with leadership teams almost as a Scrum Master, they’re called business coaches or leadership coaches, but that’s what they do, right? So I’m asking all of us Scrum Masters to take ownership of the role, continue to develop the role and maybe even develop a, you know, a full fledged career path that leads from, uh, first starting as a team member maybe learning the ropes in practice, you know, wherever we are, HR sales, marketing, development, testing, whatever that might be. And then from then on, move on towards, you know, helping teams, helping other Scrum Masters and potentially even helping leadership teams to grow.

Dan Neumann: [10:53] The, the factor that you get. So many high powered folks in. And they, the challenge of deciding that the challenge of creating an increment to use the Scrum term, like it it’s really challenging at that higher level, not to, I think, just check status and, you know, declare that this is the future we’re going to have, whether it matches the reality down at, down at the crown or not. Hmm. What other, what other facets of the Scrum Master role are you seeing that would make them better aligned to be future CEOs and maybe are there some limitations you see that would make it more difficult for them?

Vasco Duarte: [11:35] Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things, when I pitched this idea to the community, one of the feedbacks that I got said, you know, I think that the CEO role is more like a product owner role and less like a Scrum Master because, you know, the CEO owns the strategy of the company where it’s going and so on. I think that’s a great point. I think that definitely in reality, CEOs might have a lot of other skills. Uh, I was basing my, my call to arms, uh, figuratively speaking on that interview with Alan Malali, but I, you know, I’m, it’s easy for me to agree that the CEO with financial, uh, finances background could be a great CEO. A CEO with HR background could be a great CEO, a CEO of engineering or technical or sales background could be a great CEO. So I don’t think that we need to restrict the CEO role only to that perspective that the Scrum Master can become a CEO. Uh, what I’m trying to say with that statement is that Scrum Masters are already suited to work in domains where they are not specialists and still help the team succeed. And all of these examples I just gave you will have CEOs that are not specialists in some of the areas that they need to lead. Right? A CEO with HR background is not going to be a specialist in engineering. A CEO with engineering background is not going to be a specialist in HR yet they still need to lead an organization that has all of those facets and Scrum Masters are ready to do that because that’s how we start. Like that’s the beginning of our journey is to start from the perspective that we don’t own the technical content of the work being done. We help the teams own the process and excel at the technical content of the work that they need to get done. So I think it’s very important for us to develop that set of skills, right? So how do we do that? And you know, like, as an example, today, we live in a remote world. It’s, it’s, uh, early 2021, everybody’s still at home working remote. Uh, we need to learn to facilitate teams to work remotely. The teams are so busy with the day-to-day work. They’re not going to think about remote facilitation. So as an example, we’re putting together an event, the Scrum Master summit, where we talk about remote facilitation for Scrum Masters, we’re helping to develop that role as a community, setting up those, those opportunities for others to share what they’ve learned. And this is just one example of how Scrum Masters are constantly trying to get better at what is the core of their role, which is collaboration, getting others to work well together for the success of the company, the customers, and of course, the workers in the organization. And I think that embodies one of the key aspects of the CEO, no matter where they come from the lack of technical knowledge in a particular area of the organization, they need to lead will never be an impediment for them to become CEOs. In fact, there’s no CEO that knows everything in a company.

Dan Neumann: [14:42] Alan Malali going from Boeing to Ford. I mean, they’re, yeah, they’re both making a transportation vehicle, but there’s so much difference those two. And yeah, there’s no way for a CEO to be expert in all those things. And you tied that back to the Scrum Master and them not being the expert on the engineering side, which is, I think a, an often brought up topic should a Scrum Master be technical or not. And I’ve seen good Scrum Masters who have technical backgrounds and I’ve seen good Scrum Masters who don’t and exactly the opposite. I’ve seen terrible Scrum Masters with technical backgrounds and terrible, you know, non-technical people because they don’t understand what’s happening in front of them when the technical team does start talking. So it’s definitely not, Oh, if you have this background, then your you’re destined for you’re capable of, of filling this type of role somebody’s going forward in their career. And I’m not sure even forwards the right term because I think it helps reinforce the Scrum Master is, is behind to wherever they’re going. But if somebody’s journey in their career is, is developing or changing. Um, are there things you think they might do in addition to traditional Scrum Master roles that would make them better suited for being, uh, a leader at a higher level, whether it’s the actual C suite cause there’s so few of those spots, but maybe other leadership positions higher up.

Vasco Duarte: [16:11] Yeah, absolutely. So I I’ll tell you a concrete example. I was working with, uh, with a fairly large client some time ago, and they started with an agile transformation at that time a few months before I, I worked with them and they had developed a team of agile coaches and Scrum Masters who were, you know, in each of the departments working with the teams, they had structured the department so that they were more or less aligned to business areas. And, and I was, uh, talking to my colleague who was heading that, uh, um, that effort at that large organization. And we came to the conclusion that actually the leaders of the different departments were very likely or would very likely need to be the current Scrum Masters and agile coaches at that time. Because the issue is that if you wanted a transformation to take hold, if you want something to transform in an organization, very often as people leave, you need to put people in those leadership positions that can help that transformation take hold and what we shared in terms of, uh, uh, of an insight and a conclusion is that we should, in that particular transformation program, we should work diligently to make sure that we prepare agile coaches and Scrum Masters to take leadership positions in those organizations, whether it be department or leadership for that organization, or even just team leaders, because those churn, right. Those they move on, they, they change positions. And who are you going to pick? Right. And my pitch for Scrum Masters out there is, is exactly this is who would be best fit to lead a team, a department, or an organization, then someone who excels at making other succeed, because let’s not forget that organizations don’t work through the leader. They work through the teams, it’s the teams that deliver value. The leader is hopefully helping the teams deliver value. And that’s exactly the perspective that the Scrum Masters have.

Dan Neumann: [18:12] I reflect back on one of the transitions. I was going through it involved interviewing for a position that would have been a functional manager. And a lot of my experience going into that was Scrum Master roles. And at some point the interviewer is like, wait a minute, like nobody reported to you. I’m like, well, no, like that’s not how our organization was set up. That’s not required for the Scrum Master role. And I think that was the end of the interview. Like I look back and I kind of like was replaying that in my mind. I’m like, Oh, they were really hung up on. Yeah. But you didn’t have any direct reports. And I tried, I, I smelled like that was something that was happening. I’m like, but look at what we did as a team, without positional authority. Like we did all kinds of really cool stuff, but, you know, not, I guess not approving a time sheet and not doing the annual review was a major hangup and probably something I couldn’t possibly have understood in this, in this new role. Do you get any sense that organizations are struggling similarly to what I perceived that, that one was that, Oh, wait, we need, we need people that are used to doing annual reviews are you’re used to in the manager thing and not the Scrum Master, enabling a team without direct authority.

Vasco Duarte: [19:29] Yeah. I see that unfortunately also in other areas. So I see that there were Scrum Masters are not selected or groomed to become leaders because they haven’t had other direct reports, which is kind of ironic kind of ironic because what they do is make sure that the direct reports can do things on their own, so succeed. Right. Uh, but I also see, they seen another unfortunate trend right now in let’s call it the second wave of agile adoption, which is the fact that many companies have gone through the first agile adoption. And then at some point rehired the back project managers and fired all of the Scrum Masters. And the reason for that is probably the same mindset, right? If Scrum Masters, aren’t making sure that the teams deliver then who is right. We need to have someone, some body to hang. Uh, I think it’s implicit in their phrase, uh, the single ringable

Dan Neumann: [20:24] Single ringable neck. Yeah. That’s the phrase I’m familiar with

Vasco Duarte: [20:27] So it must, we must have a project manager. And of course that’s unfortunate, um, because it destroys a natural adoption in a particular organization, but it also shows the mindset that many organizations still have, that somebody must order others to do things. And, uh, that’s also one of the reasons why pitched this idea that Scrum Masters are here to transform the world of work because in practice, in knowledge work, there is no project manager of any fair, fair, a fairly sized project that knows everything about the project. There is none, there’s zero. We work in the domain of knowledge work. And what that means in practice is that the people doing the work know more about the work than the people managing the work. And we’re perfectly okay with that, the Scrum Masters. In fact, we start from that perspective, we start from the perspective that the teams own the content of the work we are there to help, right? So who is the best suit, that type of background, or what is the best suited type of background for a leadership position in those organizations that do knowledge work? And the answer for me is pretty clear, just like Alan Malali was at Ford without knowing anything about building cars still was a successful CEO. I believe that Scrum Masters can be excellent and successful leaders, even though they haven’t led in the sense of direct reports, you know, approving time sheets and vacations, as you said before.

Dan Neumann: [21:53]
So we’ve, we’ve touched on quite a number of facets of the Scrum Master and how they might be well positioned to be CEOs of the future. What other challenges do you see that Scrum Masters should be aware of as their companies are moving forward in their agile journeys?

Vasco Duarte: [22:12] So, one thing that I think is, uh, bears highlighting and, uh, kind of leaving a, a red light there out for everybody who’s in the Scrum Master and also in an agile coach role is that very often companies tend to do this, uh, what I would call big bang, agile transformations, right? Bring a bunch of agile coaches, uh, which do great work, uh, and, and really help the organizations move forward, but then leave, right? And who’s left to pick up the pieces typically Scrum Master. So one of the things that I would, uh, encourage Scrum Masters to do is to effectively collaborate with those at all, coaches and start getting involved with the transformation early on. Uh, some of those might, you know, some of those Scrum Masters might want to move on to an agile coach position. That’s fine too, but make sure that the teams are not left hanging. So prepare the transition from a supported, maybe externally supported, uh, agile transformation and, uh, uh, to a internally supported, uh, agile transformation and Scrum Masters there are key because who’s going to do the work every day. Once the agile coaches leave, it’s the Scrum Masters, right? So we need to start to learn, you know, who decides what, which leaders should we be talking to? Uh, how do we transition, uh, what threads do we need to continue once our agile coach, external agile coaches, uh, move on and move on to other projects? I think that’s a very important aspect of the Scrum Masters role as well is to actually prepare that handover and prepare that supporting structure that will make sure that transformation sticks and continues to evolve rather than drops. And kind of sometimes even is forgotten, uh, by organizations that, you know, once the, the, a big investment on the agile transformation is over then that’s it. Everybody knows. Let’s forget about it. It’s business as usual. And we all know it isn’t and requires deliberate effort to keep that transformation moving forward.

Dan Neumann: [24:10]
Absolutely. It’s almost elastic if you will, where you stretch it out. And if you don’t keep kind of pulling on it a little bit, it’s going to snap it back to its default state, which was probably not agile, or you wouldn’t have, have had the bus of agile coaches come in and dropped off and then picked up later on the, on the next trip around so wonderful. Thank you very much for coming on the agile coaches corner and talking about this, this vision of Scrum Masters as potential CEOs for the future. You mentioned a little bit earlier in the podcast, the Scrum Master summit. Can you share a little bit about what that is and where people might learn more?

Vasco Duarte: [24:52] Yeah, so the Scrum Master summit is an event we’re putting together for Scrum Masters out there it’s completely free, and it hopefully will help to, to, um, make this vision that we need an identity as a Scrum Master community. And we need to continue to develop the role that, you know, make that vision stick and help us get together as a community to start to develop that role even further. Uh, it is specifically a Scrum Master focused event, uh, which to build, of course, uh, on the back of the work we’ve done with the Scrum Master toolbox podcast. And it, it really is there to help Scrum Masters, uh, not, not only get better at what they do. That’s of course a core aspect of what it is, but also to coalesce this community to make sure we meet other people, especially in this year 2021, where many of us will probably stay home the whole year again, right. Like last year, I think it’s, uh, it’s an important contribution to the community that I wanted to make sure that, uh, that we did on the podcast. So, it’s freely available during the week of the event, that’s May 17th, 2021. And for those of you interested in keeping the videos forever, there’s also an opportunity to purchase the, the video library of the event.

Dan Neumann: [26:06] Cool. And you said the week of May 17th, is it going to be multiple days then, or?

Vasco Duarte: [26:12] Yeah, we’re putting together a bunch of talks, but also live events during the whole week, Monday to Friday and also an open space. So we will have an open space round the clock facilitated from people from all over the globe to make sure that people have a, an open space to interact, to learn, to share their, their stories.

Dan Neumann: [26:32]
That’s wonderful. And for folks who maybe aren’t familiar with open space, it is where the attendees are creating the topics, they’re identifying the topics that they want to explore that. So unlike some conferences I’ve gone to where here’s the agenda, you pick one of the multiple tracks. This is one where an attendee would say, or an open space is where an attendees says, this is what I want to talk about. And we’ll be gathering in this room if you will, virtual room at this time. Is that consistent with how you folks are setting it up?

Vasco Duarte: [27:04] Yeah, absolutely. And just to be clear though, there’s an open space, and then there are live sessions that are organized and planned, like workshops, lean coffees, and so on. And then there’s the recorded talks, which is the bulk of the program. There’s going to be 30 plus talks on Scrum Master specific topics.

Dan Neumann: [27:21] Wonderful. Yeah, it sounds like there’s, there’s a lot of different formats and a lot of different topics for everybody. Wonderful. Well, thank you Vasco. We’ll put a link to that into the show notes at And we’ll be sure to point to for people to get more information.

Vasco Duarte: [27:41] Thank you very much for having me on your show. Dan, it’s been a pleasure.

Dan Neumann: [27:44] Wonderful. It’s been a pleasure having you. Thank you.

Outro: [27:48] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views opinions and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and the guests, and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips for this episode and other episodes at

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