Podcast Ep. 91: What Makes a Scrum Master with Quincy Jordan and Christy Erbeck

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Episode Description:

In today’s episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast, Dan Neumann is joined by not one, but two AgileThought colleagues: Quincy Jordan and Christy Erbeck.

In their conversation, Dan, Quincy and Christy discuss the key qualities to look for when bringing a new Scrum Master into your organization. They discuss the important characteristics you should be on the lookout for, the key skill sets, important soft skills, and some of the qualifiers (and disqualifiers). They also share what to pay attention to when hiring, red flags to watch out for, and insightful questions you can ask during the interview process to make sure they’re a good fit.

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Key Takeaways

  • What to consider when looking for a Scrum Master:
    • Key characteristics
    • Skill sets
    • Soft skills
    • Qualifiers and disqualifiers
  • Good qualities:
    • Humbleness – they focus on the betterment of the team rather than shining the limelight on themselves
    • They are a servant leader
    • A capacity to focus on the strengths of others
    • A good balance of leadership and humility
    • Open to feedback
    • They have a growth mindset
    • They are a learner, not a knower
    • They come from a place of curiosity vs. judgment 
  • What to pay attention to when hiring:
    • They understand the five Scrum values
    • Mastery of the Scrum Guide
    • They are staying up-to-date on the Scrum Framework
    • They listen to how they use their words; i.e. are they phrasing from a competitive standpoint or a collaborative standpoint? Are they phrasing from a comparative standpoint or an inclusion standpoint?
    • They should have stories and anecdotes of how they have applied the Scrum Guide in real life
    • They should take on the role of a Maestro rather than a “Master”
    • In the interview process, identify how they apply values, think through problems, and how they recover and “rise strong” from a failure
    • If they don’t have any certifications, inquire why that is and how they have self-taught
    • If they do have certifications, ask when they received them and what they have done with them since
    • Ask how they are participating in the agile community in their area
  • Disqualifiers:
    • Humility to the point where they are not actually leading anything
    • Having too much knowledge and have a hard time pulling their weight from their own experience/knowledge and not allow the team to determine the “how” for themselves
    • They are not open to self-evaluation or evaluation from others
    • They have a fixed mindset
    • They are a knower; not a learner
  • Misconceptions:
    • Do not assume that you can take all of your project managers and turn them into Scrum Masters
    • “We need a very technical person to be a Scrum Master” – untrue; in many cases, a less technical person makes a better Scrum Master

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 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: [00:16]
Welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast. I’m Dan Neumann and happy to be joined today by two colleagues, not just one. So we’ve got Quincy Jordan and Christy Erbeck both principal transformation consultants here at AgileThought. So thanks for hopping on.

Quincy Jordan: [00:31] Hey, Dan, happy to be here once again.

Christy Erbeck: [00:33] Thanks Dan.

Dan Neumann: [00:35] So the topic for today, adding people to an organization is always a really important decision. And for organizations that are taking a Scrum approach or adopting the Scrum Framework, or maybe looking to expand their team, adding a Scrum Master to that mix or bringing on a new one, it is a pretty important choice. And we wanted to explore kind of what, what might the three of us be looking for if we were looking at Scrum Master candidates and advising an organization on what to look for, if they’re bringing on a new person in the Scrum Master role?

Christy Erbeck: [01:12] Well, this happens all the time. We get asked from our clients even internally, when we’re looking to hire new people, what do we need to be looking for? And what are the, what do we need to be looking for as anti-patterns or things that might seem to be appropriate for a Scrum Master, but in reality are not the types of characteristics or skill sets that we want in a Scrum Master.

Dan Neumann: [01:40] Yeah. So the things, both the, the qualifiers and the things that are positive and you would want as well as looking out for those disqualifiers, any red flags or things that are a bad smell. Yeah. What about you, Quincy?

Quincy Jordan: [01:53] Yeah. Well, so in one, I completely agree with everything that Christy has said. Uh, I would also add for organizations that are, uh, looking to bring on Scrum Masters. One of the things that, that I like to look at as, okay, well, make sure you don’t do this while you’re also doing these other things is, you know, do not assume that you can take all of your project managers and turn them into Scrum Masters. Like that is a very typical thing for organizations to do. And, um, it’s a very different mindset, you know, and in many ways, um, you know, the level of soft skills, you know, that I think that you must have as a Scrum Master is, is a different perspective than the soft skills that you might have as a project manager. Um, or that’s a good to have as a project manager. It’s an absolute must to my opinion, as a Scrum Master. Um, in addition to that, I would also, um, so one of the things that I tend to express is the ability or the trait of humbleness, you know, to have that. And what I mean by that is sometimes the Scrum Master role is a very, thankless role, you know, and certain ways. Um, and you don’t always get the limelight. Uh, and, and you’re not necessarily trying to get the limelight, you know, either, uh, because they’re a servant leader, right? So they’re trying to really bring out the best in the team and not so much, you know, shine the light on themselves. Um, so having the capacity to really focus on the strengths of others, uh, is really important in my opinion.

Christy Erbeck: [03:51] I agree, Quincy. And we also find oftentimes that traditional project managers make better Product Owners than they do Scrum Masters. And when organizations come to us with, Hey, here’s this list of project managers, we really want to turn them into Scrum Masters. We can evaluate those skill sets in the level of emotional intelligence they have and where would they be better suited and then provide that recommendation back to the organization. And at the same time, allowing for a role that would be a much more seamless transition, most likely for a project manager to go into that Product Owner role, then it would be to go into a Scrum Master role. I would say if we had 10 project managers, probably three would fit the bill of aligning to the Scrum Master role of the servant heart, that growth mindset, that humbleness that you spoke about, the, the care and feeding of the team, the facilitation, the willingness to be in the back of the room, not in the front of the room from a leadership standpoint and the other seven should move into Product Ownership roles, where they are setting that vision in that direction. They are doing things that are much more directive in nature than a Scrum Master.

Dan Neumann: [05:12]
You brought up something really important there, when I think of project manager, roles, descriptions, usually they’re things like direct and control and, and, you know, ensure et cetera, et cetera. And that mentality does align pretty well with, you know, the Product Owner be solely responsible for that product backlog. Um, and then on the Scrum Master side, you mentioned servant leader. And so there’s the humility side, the humbleness that you were mentioning Quincy as well as then the right blend of the leader part, right. We don’t want humility to the point where they’re not actually leading anything, uh, with that Scrum Framework. So yeah. So it kind of a, um, a yin and yang or a balance of those two perspectives.

Quincy Jordan: [05:54] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Having that ability to, to take that leadership part. And in my eyes, in an experience, I would say, uh, knowing how to really hear what’s going on and chime in at the right time, knowing how to give people, you know, the right amount of space, uh, you know, and how to, um, and, I know Christie talks about this sometimes, but for knowing how to allow people to have permission, you know, to know that they, uh, they’re being empowered, you know, they can make decisions, they, as a team, they can be autonomous, uh, but then also helping them to stay focus on those things that they specifically have committed to, you know, as a team. So it is a delicate balance, you know, at times, um, to, to balance out the leadership portion, you know, with the soft skills and the guidance without directing and you know, all of that. So those things are, um, those skills I would say are, they’re very important, but I like to point out that they’re not technical, right? So a lot of times people will think that, well, we need a very technical person to be a Scrum Master. And I would argue that in many cases, I think a less technical person actually makes a better Scrum Master, uh, because they don’t have, they don’t have that knowledge to try to challenge the team in ways of how to get things done. Uh, as opposed to sometimes when people have too much knowledge, um, in that skill set and area, they have a harder time pulling away from their own experience in their own knowledge, uh, and not allow the team to develop and determine the how of things.

Christy Erbeck: [07:54] And I think that speaks to Quincy, the Scrum values. So one of the things that I like to do is understand the extent to which that person who’s interviewing for a Scrum Master role understands the five Scrum values, as well as how, how current are they on the actual Scrum framework and the language within the Scrum Framework, things have changed. And if they haven’t changed their language along the way, then I, it makes me really curious about the extent to which that they are capable of modeling the way modeling the behaviors, those values, and, um, in, um, really purposefully facilitating the events within Scrum, the practices, et cetera. Um, the other aspect to language is I listen for how they use their words. Are they phrasing from a competitive standpoint or from a collaborative standpoint? Are they phrasing from a comparative standpoint or an inclusion standpoint? Do they say I do this? And I do that. And me, me, me, me, me, or are they about the team and the we and that, that, um, again, that’s, it speaks to the space of where they see themselves as a leader and their ability to step out of the spotlight and support from behind beneath around without having to be in, in that spotlight and let the team be in the spotlight.

Dan Neumann: [09:33] Yeah, no, that, that, that makes sense. That I’m glad you gave some examples, cause you were, as you were talking about some of the phrasing and some of the language, I think it was helpful to hear exactly what you had in mind there. What do you look for? I guess for me, I like stories as well when people are talking about what they’ve done in the Scrum Master role. So in addition to, like you said, being competent about the contents of the Scrum guide. If we’re looking for Scrum Masters, they should have Mastery of the Scrum Guide also then the stories of how they have applied that in real life, whether it worked out well or didn’t work out well. Right? Cause we learned a lot of times from, from tripping and falling, you learn oh, maybe I should watch where I’m walking next time. So I like those anecdotes. So details.

Christy Erbeck: [10:18] I love that too. And you said something Dan, that reminded me of, was it Sam who talked about the origin of the word “Master” is not what we think it is. It’s actually Maestro, which means conductor and that is a much more appropriate term and interpretation then how many people will interpret, interpret the word Master like Scrum Master, I’m coming in to tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. Yeah. But my stro is all about the orchestra and allowing the skillsets of each performer to bring out their best. That is what a Scrum Master is about, is to facilitate and orchestrate the music as a whole, for that Scrum team.

Quincy Jordan: [11:12] Yeah. I love that analogy.

Christy Erbeck: [11:13] I get really excited about that. You can’t tell.

Dan Neumann: [11:18] Yeah. That resonated with you. That seemed to resonate pretty strongly with you as well. Right? The Maestro thing. Yeah.

Quincy Jordan: [11:25] It does. It’s um, yeah, we’ll just, you know, when you think about the, you know, what a Maestro does and you know, what a conductor does in you, uh, imagine a Scrum Master or someone in the Scrum Master role. Uh, and they have a team, uh, you know, front end developers, back end developers, QA, you know, and so forth. Uh, and you know, it, it truly is like they’re making music, you know, um, it’s, it’s a symphony going on. Uh, and if they, if everyone contributes with their skillset, like, it sounds beautiful. I mean, it really does.

Dan Neumann: [12:14] I don’t, maybe you guys had different band directors when you were in high school tonight. Cause like Mr. Wenzel one point lifted me out of my chair by my ear. Okay and to be fair, I deserved it. but I deserved it too. So I don’t know, but I love the idea of conducting. I’ve seen a lot of conductors be very, a command and control though, too. So I don’t know. Oh, we don’t have to go down the road of revisiting terms that everything’s called these days. But I do like I do like the having Mastery of the Scrum Framework or being a Maestro and bringing out the voice. I am, I’m okay with that. But I just flashed back to Mr. Wenzel, pulling me up by my ear.

Christy Erbeck: [13:06] Well then Dan, either you have to watch, we’ll put a link in the show notes to one of the Florida orchestra performances because that the, the conductor of the Florida orchestra is the epitome of the Maestro. And he is like a Leonard Bernstein or some other Master Maestro and how he brings the orchestra together. And he pulls all like Quincy was saying, he pulls the best out of everybody to make this amazing product that the audience delights in and loves.

Dan Neumann: [13:46]
Maybe that’s why, maybe that’s why he was teaching band in rural, Northern Michigan and not conducting symphony in a major city. So I, I digress, thank you for going down that rat hole with me. Um, so the terminology, like you said, and, and having a Mastery of the framework and being able to relate examples, and again, it doesn’t have to be a, this is what happened and it was amazing. It would be, this is what happened. It was a dumpster fire. Here’s what I learned from that. And here’s what we would try next time, et cetera.

Quincy Jordan: [14:14] Yeah. And I think that makes an excellent point, you know, of that trait of, I learn from, you know, past experience. I, you know, I learned I do better. Um, I try to encourage other people, you know, to do better, but that is another key component, you know, as well. Um, if someone is, they know they have a tendency that, uh, you have to win them over in a very strong way, then they’re probably gonna have a hard time, you know, as a Scrum Master. Um, if they’re not very open to, uh, self evaluation and to some degree, you know, evaluation from others, you know, as well. So I think that, you know, really kind of led into a excellent point there.

Dan Neumann: [14:59] Yeah. Open to feedback. Sure. No, that’s a really critical skill.

Christy Erbeck: [15:03] Yeah. The growth mindset. And I have a wonderful picture. I will see if I can get permission for us to use it and share it in the show notes of the difference between the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. And you could even use that image of the, you know, just the language and what we say to ourselves, if we have a fixed mindset versus having a growth mindset, um, in the interview process to identify how do they apply values? How do they think through problems? How do they recover and rise strong to use Dr. Brené Brown’s language from a failure? And there’s, you know, there’s so much just in being a learner versus being a knower and this, a core trait for a Scrum Master in my opinion, is to be a continuous learner.

Dan Neumann: [15:58] Yeah. I like the phrase learner versus no, or I’m not, it doesn’t click to me that I’ve heard that before, but the way you described that makes total sense. Right. You know, are you resting on what you know, or are you continuing to, to seek out information? I know there are folks in our company and in some folks I can think of, I worked before with outside of this company that are always learning something and I’m like, all right, Rich, what are you, what are you reading now? Cause it’s just, he’s a sponge and he’s always bringing in new information.

Christy Erbeck: [16:30] So I can, I can tag that back to a Dr. Brené Brown quote, uh, and see if we can put that in the show notes as well. Uh, but it, it resides from a standpoint of do I see myself as an expert and therefore I know it all and it’s and we’re, you know, coming from that place or am I coming from a place of, I am, I definitely know a lot. And I’m an expert in some areas and there’s so much more than I need to know and need to learn. And so I’m coming at the questions, the problems, the situations from that space of what can I learn from this curiosity, I’m coming from a place of curiosity versus judgment because I know everything.

Quincy Jordan: [17:14] For some reason that also kind of just made me think about some of the other aspects of a Scrum Master that yes, here they are serving the team, but there’s also a certain comfort level that you have to have when called upon to go beyond the team. When you have to relay information and communicate with, uh, maybe some aspects of the broader organization or leadership. Um, so even though you, even though a Scrum Master needs to be able sit back and hear and help to enable and empower, they also need to be confident enough to step forward. You know, when called upon, uh, in front of leadership without any problems at all.

Dan Neumann: [18:05] Yeah. That the section of the Scrum Master role in the Scrum guide, the service to the organization. You’re right. It’s easy to get focused on service to the development team service to the Product Owner. And then the rest is helping the organization understand the appropriate use of the Scrum Framework and, and, uh, and inspect and adapt. Uh, empiricisms the word that wasn’t coming to my tongue right away, but just understanding how that works well and how to leverage that. All right. So I got one certifications. Where do you guys sit on that when you’re looking for bringing Scrum Masters into an organization, I’m hoping for controversy, we always agree with each other. I’m just kind of hoping we disagree.

Christy Erbeck: [18:42] Well, if they don’t have certification, then I want to know how they’ve applied and how have they either self-taught, why haven’t they gotten a certification? Um, if they do have a certification, when did they get that certification? What motivated them to do that? And what have they done with that certification since they’ve received it? Um, how are they participating in whatever agile community is in their area? Um, so I’ll stop there.

Dan Neumann: [19:13] That was good. Right. So I think what I, what I was hearing you say is, Hey, do you have it? Um, not, not if you, if you do, you’re, you’re, uh, you’ve passed the gate. And if you don’t, you’re out of the gate, but if you don’t, why not? Uh, the principle, the principle of the thing, the financial side of the thing, you know, maybe it’s somebody who would have to pay for it on their own and can’t, or won’t for whatever reason, but then how have they applied this garment. I was hoping we’d disagree.

Christy Erbeck: [19:37] The certification does not mean that you’re going to get a free pass and you’re going to get the job because to me, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on if you cannot back it up with actual skills and application.

Quincy Jordan: [19:52] Yeah. I completely agree. It’s it’s I think it’s about application. Maybe if we talk about different types of certifications.

Dan Neumann: [20:01] But the Scrum Master certification in this context.

Quincy Jordan: [20:06] Yeah. I think, you know, it it’s, it does not mean that you are definitely qualified, but it should at least mean you have some foundational understanding, which is important. Um, one of the beauties to me in the Scrum framework is it’s so simplified that, uh, that it’s not complicated. Like it doesn’t need to be. And so the framework itself is fairly easy to understand. And, and I think all of the certifications or most of the ones that I’ve been exposed to. They all do a pretty good job, you know, uh, covering, you know, the fundamentals of what Scrum is. So, you know, having one, not having one, I think you should have one, I think it helps. Um, I think if you don’t have one, I don’t think that means you aren’t a good Scrum Master, or it can’t be a good Scrum Master. Uh, so I would never probably close the door to someone just because they don’t have a certification that will be more interested in their application of their knowledge.

Dan Neumann: [21:08] Very cool. Well, I want to thank you both for exploring the topic of how we go about identifying the Scrum Masters. And so I heard a mindset elements that the technical competencies and what the Scrum Guide says experience with applying it and kind of how to weigh or not weigh or factor in, or don’t factor in, uh, certifications from, from the two, two big Scrum bodies. So thank you very much for, for diving in, even though we still agree, but we’ll work on that. We’ll get that another time. Thanks very much guys.

Quincy Jordan: [21:47] Absolutely have a good one.

Christy Erbeck: [21:48] Thank you, Dan.

Outro: [21:52] 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@agilethought.com/podcast.

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