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Easy Agile Podcast Ep.18 Top qualities of an agile leader and team

28, Apr 2022
Sean Blake
Written by Sean Blake, Head of Marketing

Sean Blake

"It was great to chat with Alana and learn from her experience" - Sean Blake

In this episode, I was joined by Alana Mai Mitchell. Alana is a results coach, author, podcast host, and Senior Product Development Manager at one of Australia's largest banks where she works with Agile teams every day.

She has over 13 years experience in digital financial services and coaching. She's spoken live on Channel 10 here in the Australian media and has had her mental health story featured in publications, like The Daily Mail and Mamma Mia. She's the author of a book, Being Brave, and she's the host of the Eastern Influenced Corporate Leader Podcast.

We covered a lot of ground in today's episode. We talked about:

  • The importance of putting your hand up and telling your manager when you want to be challenged more and to be exposed to new opportunities.
  • Building trust with your team and disclosing some vulnerabilities about yourself.
  • Alana's mental health journey over the course of six years, and that journey continues today. What she's learned and what we can learn from her experience to better look after our teams and people in our community.
  • Servant leadership and being a generous leader.
  • The importance of authenticity and direct communication.

I hope you enjoyed today's episode as much as I did.

Transcript

Sean Blake:

Hello, welcome to the Easy Agile Podcast. My name's Sean Blake and I'll be your host today. Today, we have a really interesting guest and a fantastic episode ahead for you. Our guest today is Alana Mai Mitchell. Alana is a results coach, author, podcast host, and Senior Product Development Manager at one of Australia's largest banks where she works with Agile teams every day. She has over 13 years experience in digital financial services and coaching. She's spoken live on Channel 10 here in the Australian media and has had her mental health story featured in publications, like The Daily Mail and Mamma Mia. She's the author of a book, Being Brave, and she's the host of the Eastern Influenced Corporate Leader Podcast.

Sean Blake:

We covered a lot of ground in today's episode. We talked about communication styles. We talked about the importance of putting your hand up and telling your manager when you want to be challenged more and to be exposed to new opportunities. We talked about the importance of building trust with your team and disclosing some vulnerabilities about yourself. We covered Alana's mental health journey over the course of six years, and that journey continues today. What she's learned and what we can learn from her experience to better look after our teams and people in our community. We talked about going first in servant leadership and being a generous leader. The importance of authenticity and direct communication. I hope you enjoyed today's episode as much as I did. Let's get started. Alana, thanks so much for joining us on the Easy Agile Podcast today. It's great to have you here.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Thanks so much, Sean.

Sean Blake:

Before we jump into our conversation, Alana, I'm just going to do an acknowledgement to country. We'd like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land from which we're recording today, the Watiwati people of the Tharawal speaking nation, and pay our respects to elders past, present and emerging. We extend that same respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples who are tuning in today.

Sean Blake:

Well, Alana, there's so much to talk about today. The background is, we used to be colleagues in the financial services industry. We bumped into each other again out of the blue at Agile Australia '21 Conference, just at the end of last year, which was a great conference. We thought we'd have you on the podcast because you've got so many different stories to tell, but I thought maybe we could start this episode by talking about your career journey and how working with Agile Teams has weaved into your career trajectory.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Yeah, sure. Agile really came into the forefront right back in 2013. I always remember my first Agile training. We had a team day, where I was working at the time. We had an external facilitator come in because the Agile framework was something totally new to financial services at that time. We played Lego. We had each of our wider team was divided into smaller teams, like scrum teams, all this new terminology. Then we were building island and we had an island each and the product owner was feeding user stories in from the customer. Partway through we were building, I think, a rocket launcher and then no, we didn't want to rocket launcher anymore.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

We wanted to tweak it. We had to adapt to things on the fly. I always remember that experience because it was so transformative, just having such a direct and collaborative way of working with people on a project. To this day, of all the Agile trainings and experiences that I've gone through, it's always the ones that are really interactive that I've remembered the most and gained the most and taught them, like learnt them myself as a participant and then taught them to other people as well.

Sean Blake:

Along the way, do you think, you've been through all these training sessions and you've been working with teams on the ground. What have you found from Agile, which is a big topic, but what have you found to be the most transformative and the most helpful from the way that these teams used to do things to the way that they do them now?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

I would say communication. What I found was, because I had the contrast with both, I've worked in Water Force style projects and Agile projects as well. I think the biggest part is the amount of effort and rigor that we would go through reviewing requirements and have those be delivered into technology. Then it go quiet and you not hear from technology until they come back with something and they're like, "I've got a baby." You're like, "What kind?" The difference with Agile is that you are able to co-create them.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

You're creating with your customer or your end user, if you're working with an internal user, and then you are also working with technology and finding out what kind of constraints technology has or what kind of ideas they have as well. You have that ability to communicate with the dev. Sometimes your devs are on-shore, often cases they're offshore. We're all remote now, so it doesn't make as much difference as it did when we were in the office. You can really just pull away a lot of the process that gets in between people and have conversations. That's what I really think is the most transformative part.

Sean Blake:

Great. Yeah, so that communication. Do you feel like the communication throughout COVID and working remotely has been more challenging? Are you one of those people that find those face-to-face communication skills, you really prefer the face-to-face or has remote been okay for you? Because I know some people have struggled. Some people have found it easier to be on Zoom all the time.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Well, I mean, when I go in the office and we have that brief time where we were back in the office, I had a smile on my face the whole time. Because I just love seeing people and I'd go around and walk over to my team and say, "Hey, how are you going?" Just catch up with them. I think the one piece that's missing for me in the remote working whilst there's greater flexibility, you can do multiple things at the same time. You focus a lot of your work. You can get a lot more done quicker. I do find that informal relationship building, you need to actually schedule in time or pick up the phone out of the blue and connect with someone.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Whereas in the office, I would just find that because people were there and I don't know, you might be having lunch at the same time or going downstairs for something at the same time or even the corridor conversations that happen after the meeting where you can just chase someone or ask someone a question or they chase you and you just get things done. It's just different. I'd say it's more, the catch ups are more scheduled and formal, I find in a remote work setting.

Sean Blake:

I feel the same way. I feel the small talk and the talk about the weekend on Zoom is much harder for me and much more tiring to try and sustain that than in person. It becomes more naturally. I really have to make a big effort, especially on one-to-ones with people in the team when I'm trying to check in on their health and wellbeing and how they're going at work. I just find that much more exhausting than what I do in person. I think it's just those nonverbal communication skills and you can see people's body language easier when you're in the office.

Sean Blake:

Someone's slumped at their chair for six hours out of a seven-hour work day. Then you're like, "Oh, something's wrong." If you know that you've got to get on Zoom and try and pretend to be happy and that everything's okay, then you can fake it a little bit easier. Of course, there's loads of benefits to remote work, as you say. That human element personally, I find it's much more challenging to replicate using digital tools. Maybe there'll be more innovation that comes, but the time will tell on that.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Yeah. On that, I wanted to add some of my friends in the technology space. Talking about the metaverse and how at the moment you and I are having this conversation through screens. I'm in my space, in my house, and you can see my painting in the background and I can see that you've got a podcast set up. One of my friends was talking about how, he's an architect, and so he was thinking about how we create digital spaces. When we meet digitally, if we were meeting as our avatar, what kind of space would facilitate better conversation? That blew my mind when he was talking about that. I was like, "Oh, I hadn't even thought of that." Absolutely, you could meet in a virtual space because we're doing what we've got with the tools that we have today, but the tools can change.

Sean Blake:

I guess it's almost certain they will change. I can't see that Zoom will be the market leader forever. I'm sure there'll be things that come along very soon that will try and replicate some of those physical experiences that we miss so much of being in the office and having those social experiences together. Alana, I'm wondering about the teams that you work with now or in the past, those Agile teams, do you have any tips for people who are new to Agile teams or maybe they're coming in?

Sean Blake:

They want to improve their communication, whether they're remote or in office, and improve their organization's Agile maturity, but they're just finding it a bit of a struggle. Do you have any tips for people who are just, they're butting their heads up against the wall and they can't seem to make progress with some of those patterns and habits that you talked about, like taking requirements away and not knowing what's happening for so many months or years before you hear something back from technology? How do you actually start to influence that culture and behavior, if you're new to Agile?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

I'm going to take a slightly different approach on that to answer your question. Because the thing that came to mind for me was when I in Outward Bound, which is a remote wilderness organization in 2012 in the US. I was instructing there. One of the frameworks that they use is William Glass' Choice Theory. Choice Theory talks about that we have five needs, and I'll put myself on the spot. Well, I'll mention some of them, because I can't remember all of them. There's like need for fun. Some people have a high fun need. Then there's like need for power, like feeling powerful. There's like, love and belonging, is another important need. There's two others, which I can't recall right now. I think when you are coming out of a situation, from a perspective, you've tried a couple of times when you're approaching it, and not getting anywhere, I would have a look at what needs am I, myself looking to get met out of this communication.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Then on the flip-side, what needs is my communication partner or the team that I'm working with? What is the most important need for them? As we were talking about remote working, like the fun need. People love to have fun and you can actually have fun at work. It doesn't need to be separate. Thinking about like, if you have a high fun need, and you also notice your team has that as well. How can you address that in your communication style or bring out some kind of activities that can bring that to life? I would always go back to what are my needs and what are the needs of other people that I'm working with? Because when you're working with different teams, they have different agendas, they have different goals. If you can figure out what you have in common, it's a lot easier to bring another team or people in those team on the journey, once you figured out what the common ground is.

Sean Blake:

That's great advice. Think about it from their point of view, rather than just what you need and your own agenda and try and adapt to your approach to them. That's really good. I saw this quote recently, Alana, which reminded me a little bit about your mental health journey, which we'll talk about more in a moment. The quote was about, when you're looking for a new role or a new job, you shouldn't just look for a great company to work for. You should look for a great manager to work for, because the influence and your experience as an employee, working for a manager, is often so much more important than and influential than just picking a great or a well-known company to work for. Have you found that to be true in your own career?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Oh, yeah. I have found that some really phenomenal leaders. In a previous organization that I was working in, I like to keep learning and growing all the time. In previous roles, sometimes I get bored. It happens. That's really valuable to organizations because I'm constantly looking at where to improve things. I had a time where my manager was focused on other things and learning and development wasn't as important. Then I had a lady named Christina come in and Christina was like fire. She was just, "This is what we got to do." Open to change, really clear communicator, she's from the US. She's really direct in a compassionate way and she's really progressive as well. I found because of her influence in the organization.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Also, through my willingness to put my hand up and say, "I'm willing to participate." Which is, for the people who are tuning in, it's not just about the leader creating the opportunities for you and saying, "Hey, present to this general manager forum or executive general manager forum." Or whatever it is. It's also about you saying, "Hey, I'm willing and I'd love to." And communicating what you are after. We met on that path and I had some of the most, stronger success working with Christina. I was fortunate at that the culture was also really great. The immediate team culture needed to shift as well, which is part of why Christina came on board, and the company culture is really good.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

I would say on the point on like manager over culture is that when you are someone who is progressive and you're wanting to shape the culture for the better, you're going to find cultures that need a little attention or need a little work or things that aren't quite as performing as well as they are. With the sales perspective, opportunity plus. If you go to a culture and everything's amazing, you're sure you can make it a little bit more amazing. Really, when you have the support of your manager, who's, you see these initiatives and they're going to say, "Okay, go for it. I've got this GM forum coming up that you can present at, or let's find your sponsor. Let's find your mentor." That the two of you working as a team can be at the forefront of the new culture, which impacts the rest of the culture.

Sean Blake:

Interesting. I don't know if I've ever been in a culture that's perfect and overachieving and too good, but absolutely you can get too comfortable and complacent in roles and you can almost just be a little bit shy from putting your hand up for those opportunities. Do you think there's many cultures out there that are too good? How do you assess the quality of a culture before you accept the role and start working in that team?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Oh, good question. I always asked, what's the vision and how does it relate to this role? I want to hear it from the hiring manager before I join a company. What I'm looking for is I'm asking that question to multiple people. I'm looking for a congruence, about the hiring manager sees a similar story as to what their peer, who's maybe interviewing in the second interview or their leader in the third interview. I'm looking for those things to match up, because that's telling me there's consistency. It's just, I'm getting the same story. That they're also communicating well. That would be a sign to me. Yeah, that's about what I do.

Sean Blake:

That's good. Good tip. Alana, you have a quote on your website, which talks about your mental health journey. It says, "I have totally recovered from five mental health breakdowns across six years, where doctors once talk would me, I would be homeless." That sounds like a lot of hardship and a lot of sweat and tears and pain over many years. Do you want to walk us through a little bit of that journey and what you've learned about yourself through those experiences?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Oh, yeah. Thanks for pulling that out from the site, Sean. In 2013, I started to notice that things weren't right. I wasn't feeling myself. I sought help from a counselor, career counselor. Because I thought, "Is it my career?" I said, "Am I not in the right job?" I spoke to a psychiatrist and a psychologist and they did a little bit of an investigation, but no one really got to what was going on. Then I made some quick decisions in my career, which I look back on and I think, "Wow, I really was in the throes of it and not thinking clearly at all when I made those choices." I found myself, about November 2014, in between roles. As someone who was previously really ambitious, like high-achiever, chronic high-achiever without having a role and a career prospect at the moment back then was a big deal.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

I had what was called a psychotic episode. Essentially, that was like me, believing deluded thoughts and not having a really strong grip on reality, having some story going on in my head that wasn't true at all. It ended up because I was taken by ambulance to hospital. Then still at that point, people didn't really know what was going on. I was a in mental health ward and came out from that, started on medication, which improved things. I thought, and this is part of why I had the multiple psychotic episodes, is that I thought that the stress of being in between jobs or stressful situations at work, I thought they were the triggers for the psychotic episodes.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

I would take the medication for a while, get better temporarily, think everything was normal, stop the medication. Then six months later I would have another breakdown. Then that happened over six years and I realized towards the fifth and final, so that was when I was running a coaching business that had a few clients at the start and then we didn't have any clients at all. I essentially ran out of money and got into debt. Then when the doctor learned about my financial situation, he said, "You're going to be homeless." I was so offended. I was like, "How dare you." I was like, "No, I will not. I will not." I look back now and I'm so thankful for him sharing that with me, because he provided me with a choice. Something to push against and choose another way. He activated my will, from me going from being offended to being thankful, where I'm at today.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

I charted my way out of that. Now, I have well-managed schizophrenia and I take medication. I'll be taking medication for the rest of my life. It's part of who I am. I don't experience like, some people have a lot of appreciation for, because I know that they're in their mental health journey. It's not all smooth sailing, even after they have an answer of a diagnosis. It still can be challenging in there's up days and down days. For me, I'm consistent. It's been now coming up to four years since the doctor and I had that conversation in the hospital. Life is just incredible since then.

Sean Blake:

That's great. I'm so happy to hear that. Thank you for sharing your story with our audience. I think it's really important, isn't it? To be vulnerable and to share the truth about things that have happened in the past. Do you think that there's something that we can learn? With the people that you work with now, do you have a clearer understanding or are you looking for signs of people in your life who might be struggling with some of the similar issues and what can we do as people in our own communities and working with teams to look out for each other and to better support each other with some of these mental health issues front of mind so that we can be more supportive?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

I always listen for and check in with how the team is doing and it's not just, you ask how are you, and you're listening for more than what they say. If they say they're good, how are they saying it? We had that conversation before about the remote working and it's different. To come to the, are you okay, and we have the, are you okay days. Someone asked me in the office where we were actually working together. They're like, "Are you okay, Alana?" I couldn't answer her. It's not always as simple as getting a no, sometimes it's, you don't get a response. Then the alarm does go off. I really think taking in all the points of interaction that you have with someone and aligning to, is that consistent with how do they were, is there something different, check in with them, how is it going? If you're having a conversation, great. If they're sharing with you, even better.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

If they're not, you can always just check in with yourself and being like, "Is it something you need?" As to, why are they not sharing or is that something that's going on with them as well? The other piece I wanted to tie it, bring it back to the Agile leadership piece and from the conference that Agile Australia that we were at. I really see that building trust with teams is so key. We're in this remote working environment or hybrid working environment, depending on what office you're in. It really is important to build trust with your team. One of the quickest ways you can do that is by sharing vulnerably with what you have to share. I don't mean going for exposure and putting yourself in vulnerable situations where you are uncomfortable with what you share.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

It's disclosure, so it's something that you're 100% comfortable within yourself, and you've accepted it within yourself and you share that with your team in openness. When you do that, you see that your team also, they hear it and they mirror it as well. You go first and they share. The mental health example, I shared that on LinkedIn. I've shared it in situations with my team. Then I've been invited to talks and I've had people approach me. It really builds without having to go through a lot of, I ask this thing of this person, do they deliver it above and beyond expectations when I ask for it? How many times do you need to go through that process before you trust someone versus you, coming out and creating an environment of trust through of vulnerability? I do caveat that it's like not oversharing, it's sharing what you're comfortable with at that point in time, and that might change as you go on.

Sean Blake:

Interesting. Does this apply to leaders as well? I know that you've spoken about being a generous leader in the past, and that reminds me of servant leadership, which is another kind of Agile phrase that you hear come up quite a lot. This idea of going first, disclosing what you're comfortable with to your team, even as a leader, showing vulnerability is really important. I know in my experience, if you can share some of the honest and harsh realities of what it's like to be in your position, then your team are more empathetic with the challenges that you have.


Sean Blake:

Because a lot of people assume that when you are in a position of leadership and responsibility, then things are easier because you can just delegate or you've got budget to solve some of these problems, but it's not actually the reality of it. The reality of it is you struggle with things just like anyone else. By sharing and disclosing things with people at all levels of the organization, then that helps to build empathy and a bit more care and support no matter what level you're at. Are there other things or habits or qualities of a generous leader or a servant leader that you've seen or that you try and model or encourage?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

The big one that stands out for me is authenticity. Really knowing yourself, knowing what your leadership style is, knowing what your challenges are, what your strengths are, what you're working on and being authentic about that. When you feel something, sharing what you feel, not having to feel like you need to say it a different way or sugarcoat it, being able to speak your mind in a way that's direct and compassionate. We're not going for like arrogance, and we're not going for wishy washy. We're going for direct and compassionate, then share what's in your heart, so authenticity. Those are the leaders that you, I'm so glad you brought up empathy because when you're vulnerable, empathetic, and authentic, those are the leaders that really stand out for you and me.

Sean Blake:

That's great advice. Authenticity, direct communication, build empathy. All right, thanks for sharing that.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

You're welcome.

Sean Blake:

Alana, how did you decide that you wanted to write a book about some of your experiences and can you tell us about how your book, Being Brave, has changed your life and how you think about sharing your story?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

I naturally have a lot of things going on. I love projects. I love it, that's why I'm in projects. Because I love setting a goal and reaching it. The company I was working at had done a number of workshops and I got to a point where I didn't have as many activities going on. I was like, "Oh, that's really interesting. I don't have as much stuff going on." This was just at the start of the pandemic in 2020. A friend, a really dear friend of mine said, "Try meditation. Try meditation daily." I meditated each day and I had been surrounded, my network is very much of a coaching network. I know a lot of coaches and they had written their own books as well. I was on the radar and I was meditating and I got the idea to write a personal memoir about my story.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

It's really interesting that even in through that process of doing a lot of personal development work and going through the process of writing the story, there were still some things in that, that I wasn't quite comfortable owning yet. It's been, since I wrote the book that I've accepted that. In a book, if people read it, I talk about psychotic episodes. I don't talk about schizophrenia because it was all later when I was asked to do a media thing about schizophrenia, that I was like, "Okay, yep. Time to own that." I feel like the book at a point in time had me accept all that had happened with unconditional love and then to still, modeling that piece of going for disclosure and not exposure. Still, I had my fragility on what I wasn't ready to disclose yet. Since then, that had progressed further.

Sean Blake:

That's awesome. That therapy you're sitting down to write the story actually helped flesh out the story itself and you came to terms with some of those things that happened. What has been the reception to the book?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

Most people, when they pick up the book, it's a short book, so some people even call it a booklet, because it's 11,000 words. It's short. They say, "Wow, I read that in an hour and a half, in one sitting. I couldn't put it down." someone had said, "It's the story of the famous rising from the ashes." They can take a lot of inspiration from it. The point of the book and a lot of what we're talking about vulnerability is going first as the leader. You set an example that others can follow in, so that will flow into their lives as well. The book is set out with a story and a few questions at the end that people can go through for their own insight.

Sean Blake:

Great, awesome. Alana, is there anything else you'd like to share with our audience before we start wrapping up the episode today?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

I did, because I know this is about Agile more so, and that's a really important topic to your audience. I did write and have a think about after that conference we went to, Agile Australia, about what is beyond the Spotify model? Because the Spotify model is very, word is spoken about it at the moment with the crews and the tribes and squads of course, and the chapter lead models and all that they have, which I'm sure everyone tuned in would be really familiar with. I started to think about, what are the things that are relevant beyond the Spotify model? What's next? If your organization is at a point where you've already at your job at some of that, and you're looking for what's next. I did write an article about that. It's on LinkedIn, and I'll give it to you. If you want to, you can put it in the show notes.

Sean Blake:

That's awesome. We will definitely do that. Where can people go to find out more about you? Where can they buy your book or visit your website?

Alana Mai Mitchell:

My site is www.alanamaimitchell.com. On there is more about my story. There's a few things about coaching, which may be relevant. I'm not coaching at the moment, I'm more focused on my career in financial services. Then the book is on Amazon and it's in English and also in Spanish. There's the audio book and also the print book and the eBook.


Sean Blake:

Awesome. Well, Alana, thanks for disclosing what you've disclosed today and sharing your story with us. I've learned a lot about your experiences, and I've got a lot to think about, to reflect on, how to be a more generous leader. Thanks for spending time with us and being part of the Easy Agile Podcast.

Alana Mai Mitchell:

You're so welcome. Thanks for having me on the show, Sean.

Sean Blake:

Thanks, Alana.

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