Introduction

A colleague of mine in Dallas, Jack Schwartz, sent me an email asking the following:

Bob,

I’m working on a presentation focused towards Hiring a ScrumMaster and I wonder if you could provide some insights to the following questions:

  • What are the top skills you like to see in a good Scrum Master?
  • How can a hiring manager tell if a prospect is truly an agilest and not just using scrum words with ‘legacy’ project management? (other than clairvoyance)

Thanks,

Jack.

Well, Jack here is my initial stab at a response…

What are the top skills you like to see in a good ScrumMaster?

Well, first I’d like to say what I’m not looking for:

  • I’m not looking for someone who is strong in a functional area within the team. For example, if I’m staffing for a ScrumMaster in a team with a weak or non-existent Development Team Lead in it, I’m not looking for the SM to fill that role. Or an equivalent, PO, UX, BA, Testing, or any other role. If I have a skills gap or weakness in a team, I need to fill that with someone with those skills.
  • I always carefully review the person’s resume and background on LinkedIn. I’m looking for the backstory in their experience. So, I’m not looking for someone who has 20 years of traditional project management experienced, took a CSM class, and now “says” they’re a ScrumMaster. I’m looking for more relevant “chops or real-world experience” around the ScrumMaster role.
  • I’m also looking for someone who has selected Scrum Mastery as their career path. So, I’m not looking for someone who has simply jumped on the agile bandwagon because it’s sexy or lucrative.

That nicely leads to what I am looking for:

  • Someone who is smart (and more importantly) an eager and fast learner. Someone with natural curiosity and inquisitiveness.
  • Someone with real-world chops. It doesn’t have to be an incredible amount of experience. But they do need to have experienced the role in the real world, with success, failures, and learnings to share.
  • Someone who can be invited in and immediately operate as an effective ScrumMaster. For example, ask them to facilitate a stand-up, a retrospective, a backlog refinement meeting, or part of a sprint planning meeting. See how they operate with the team and how they handle themselves.
  • I’m looking for someone with intellectual curiosity around agile and their roles. Explore what books they’ve recently read and their key learnings/adjustments they’ve made? What’s their favorite agile podcast?
  • Someone who is truly egoless and all about the impact they make within a team. I want to hear stories of their team exploits and travels. How they helped the team to be better. How they challenged their teams. And how they handled adversity.
  • Courage is one of the five Scrum attributes and I really focus on it when looking for ScrumMasters. Do they have the courage to protect the team from outside forces? And even more importantly from themselves? Do they have the courage to have hard (crucial) conversations? Can they challenge me? And, can they say – “No”?
  • Finally, are they coachable? How are their listening skills? Can they admit past mistakes and share adaptable learning? Press them on a key point of agility and do they “hold their ground”? And can they say – “I don’t know” and “ask for help”?

How can a hiring manager tell if a prospect is truly an agilest and not just using scrum words with ‘legacy’ project management? (other than clairvoyance)

I don’t believe this is as hard as you might think. I mentioned earlier that I like to invite ScrumMasters in for an “audition” of sorts. I actually like doing this with any prospective agile team member.

I don’t want it to be a long, protracted engagement. But I think spending a couple of hours on a focused activity, is good for both the team and the ScrumMaster to get to know one another. I’d rather do that, then make a costly mistake in the hiring process.

Another focus is situational interviewing. If the candidate has experience, then you should be able to explore the nuance of it. You can tell a lot from the stories they tell.

  1. What part did they play vs. the team?
  2. Do they use I vs. We language?
  3. How prescriptive (telling, asking, demanding) were they in their language?
  4. How did they handle adversity? For example, how did they defend the team from external interruptions, pressure, and swooping in?
  5. How did they handle failure within the team?

I’ve found that if you listen carefully and fully (active listening – words, nuance, body language, and what’s not been said) that you can glean an incredible amount of solid information from these context-based or situational conversations.

A third and final point is the importance of performing reference checks. I remember checking on a ScrumMaster / Coaching candidate not that long ago. Everything looked great. I knew of him, had heard solid things about his skills, and the interview went fantastic. However, when I followed up with the reference check, I received some red flags with respect to our specific needs.

And that feedback made sense to me when I reviewed it against my own observations. So, we passed on the candidate.

Oh, and avoid anyone who calls themselves an Agile Project Manager or claims to have been a part of an Agile PMO ;-)

Additional Thoughts

I have two related thoughts on Jack’s question.

First, I wrote an article quite a while back entitled – The 3 A’s of Agile Interviewing. I think there might be some generic advice in there that might prove useful.

And second, Geoff Watts at one point published a blog article of a wonderful list of “good ScrumMasters do this…, while great ScrumMasters do this…”. I happened to capture it in a succinct 2-page format. I think it was published before his Scrum Mastery book and it was probably an early introduction to it. I highly recommend reading the book (and asking potential ScrumMasters if they have done so).

I also recommend using the list as an interview tool to excite discussion around what world-class Scrum Mastery should “look like”.

Hope all of this was helpful Jack, and stay agile my friends,

Bob.

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