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The Servant Leader PMO

Agile Servant Leadership

Servant leadership at its simplest is defined as;

Look after your team and they will look after you and you’ll have a great team

Back in June this year at the PMO Conference in London, Richard Hendrickse, a Portfolio Manager at Nationwide shared his insights into why the PMO are natural servant-leaders – both as individuals and as an entity within an organisation.

The whole subject of servant leadership has had a resurgence recently with the concepts raised in the Agile Manifesto in 2001. Before that with SCRUM, the whole leader concept has servant leadership at its core:

The name “Scrum Master” represents a pattern known as Servant Leadership. A Servant Leader manages a team not by telling them what to do, but by removing impediments that get in their way and by coaching them in agile best practices. It can be thought of as a type of stewardship

It’s certainly not a new type of leadership, it’s evidently been around since 500BC and “Serve to Lead” is the motto adopted by the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) in 1947.

The interesting thing about servant leaders, and what makes them difficult to spot and potentially emulate or reward, is you barely notice them. They’re the people who get things done with minimal fuss and noise. Often this has a negative effect because of this intrinsic motivation to be a servant leader means they’re often unseen, even unappreciated. Nevertheless, servant leaders get results if an organisation manages to keep them!

Research in the 1970s from Robert Greenleaf led to a more philosophical take as it looked at servant leadership in society and from then on, further research has produced tangible outcomes like the attributes of a servant leader as shown below from Spears and Sipe and Frick:


What is Servant Leadership?


At its simplest it is serving your team, putting them first. That then leads to them looking after you. Two words figure highly in servant leadership – authenticity and community. By being authentic, you’re able to build a community in which people want to belong and want to work hard to keep that community together and prospering. For a more detailed overview and history, take a look at Wiki.

In the session at the conference, Richard shared his insights that he believes the PMO is a natural servant leader and I’m inclined to agree with him. Let’s explore further why that is, we’ll start with the attributes of a servant leader.

Servant Leadership Attributes


Taking Spears’ ten attributes or behaviours:

  1. Listening – active listening which includes being seen to be listening is something every individual in a PMO needs to demonstrate. Get all the facts first, asking questions.
  2. Empathy – being aware of how people are feeling, being able to gauge reactions, choosing communication styles based on an individual’s preference.
  3. Healing – being able to rebuild bridges after damage or change, focusing on how to make things better.
  4. Awareness – knowing what is happening in the organisation and the context in which you’re working in – but not becoming all knowing and controlling
  5. Persuasion – techniques to use when you have responsibility and no authority
  6. Conceptualisation – making the complicated and difficult plainly understood – and being able to communicate that to stakeholders.
  7. Foresight – using experience to predict or using previous lessons to plan future work or needs
  8. Stewardship – the PMO is the stewart of project management practice in an organisation, the place where assets are looked after and improved.
  9. Commitment to the growth of others – creating capability in others which enables them to become more skilled in what they do.
  10. Building a community – the PMO and the people who work in it, have a strong sense of community, they stay together.

If we take a look at the Sipe and Frick pillars of servant leadership, the additions of putting people first, enabling collaboration, systems thinking in problem solving and understanding the bigger picture and well as the detail and being an excellent communicator.

The PMO and the people who work within it can of course benefit hugely from adopting these behaviours or attributes in the work they do.

Richard’s own insights were driven in part from an agile transformation programme which he was a part of as the PMO lead. It was this Agile mindset which led the PMO to think – with new approaches and methods we need new leadership approaches. The PMO Leads at Nationwide indeed think that the introduction of an increasingly Agile way of working is a great opportunity, “We’ve been waiting for this” is their response.

PMOs Stuck in the Servant Role


So what is the opportunity for the PMO? For too many people working in PMOs today, they’ve been stuck in servant mode for too long. Carrying out the same command and control role when in reality the business is changing the way it approaches projects and programmes. With Agile, self-empowered teams are looking for environments in which to take risks and carry out experiments, not be bogged down with checklisted, stage gated process. There is no room for a rigid PMO with a set of old dated principles.

The PMO needs to look to the principles of servant leadership – not only to manage the PMO itself but to also improve the whole entity in the organisation too. Move from servants to servant leaders.

Below, servant leadership in the workplace from Iarocci and highlighted alongside it, the key insights from the Agile PMO report from PMO Flashmob, gives insight into how the PMO today, supporting and enabling Agile delivery is already thinking about and adopting servant leadership attributes.

Becoming PMO  Servant Leaders


Authenticity and community are two of the most important parts of servant leadership. The team is more important than the individual and the PMO generally identifies very strongly with this, much more than say, the project managers within a business or programme managers.

Being authentic is about leading by being yourself, otherwise keeping up the pretence of being someone else will inevitably fail.

Becoming a servant leader is about developing all of the attributes associated with it – and also being able to have the opportunity and responsibility to be in charge, not just for a short period but over time; to be responsible for others regardless of where you are and what you do in the PMO. It also requires investment – in knowledge building as well as time spent with others to learn from and be guided.

To exploring the PMO becoming servant leaders in an organisation there are a set of questions to think about – for you and your PMO:

  1. How do you select people to work in or lead your PMO? Do you focus on past experience or their capabilities as a potential leader?
  2. How are people invested in? Is it by training course or by time from colleagues, peers and managers?
  3. Is there an opportunity to practice new skills? To try out behaviours like those of a servant leader?
  4. Are you making people responsibile for other people? Does the PMO Analyst take care of the new hire?
  5. Do you have a community? Is there a community of practice (CoP) or something less tangible?
  6. Who do you reward? The often overlooked and unseen servant leader or those that shout loudest?
  7. Who is the backbone of your PMO?
  8. What traditions do you have in the PMO? What stories do you tell about your PMO and what stories are told by others?
  9. Find the existing servant leaders in your PMO and the wider delivery organisation – they’ll be the onesmaking things work but you’ll not notice unless you know what you’re looking for.

In today’s delivery environment with a multitude of different approaches and methods to getting work done, plus the drive towards being more adaptive in how we work to respond quickly to change, the PMO has a choice to make in how it chooses to fit into that environment. Command and control PMOs aren’t going to cut it anymore so how will you adapt and will you be looking at what kind of PMO leadership is required to create a team that prospers and is valued by the organisation?



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About Lindsay Scott

Lindsay Scott
Lindsay Scott is Director of PMO Learning, the PMO training specialist and Arras People the programme and project management recruitment specialists. Lindsay is the project management careers columnist for PMI's Network magazine and co-editor of the Gower Handbook of People in Project Management. Lindsay created and hosts The PMO Conference and hosts the monthly PMO Flashmobs

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