From Agile Coach to taking on the COO role

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There are these tipping points in our lives that push us to the edge, roller coast us to dare things we couldn’t have dreamt of, and drive us to leave our comfort zone. These are very uncomfortable moments. These are incredible moments. They open the door for deep self-exploration, for setting the new limits to our possibilities.   

About 8 months ago, such a tipping point moment happened in my career. I am an Agile coach with a long history of transformational projects for clients all over Europe. Being the Vice President of Agile Transformation in Symphony Solutions, I have always been brave to try things out and known to work dedicatedly for the goals of company’s clients, driving the value of an Agile mindset to address their business challenges. My career was bumpy at times, yet always steadily progressing, logical, and highly fulfilling.    

"The respect of gender differences, and appreciation of diverse viewpoints that Symphony Solutions practices, have always been our competitive advantage."

As I look back at that moment, I see myself sitting on a leather sofa of the meeting room, discussing forthcoming changes in Symphony structure of the leadership team. And then this moment happens. I am offered the role of Chief Operating Officer at Symphony Solutions, the company I’ve been working for many years, the company I have helped grow, alongside other people who are my friends not simply work colleagues. My first thought: “If I take it, my family is going to see me even less, with all the travels and personal time sacrifices that it takes to be a COO”. But what I actually say is: “But I am a woman…” It seems this reply has been anticipated, as Theo Schnitfink, the founder and visionary of Symphony Solutions, replies that having a woman that leads the organization – is a great asset of an organization. The respect of gender differences, and appreciation of diverse viewpoints that Symphony Solutions practices, have always been our competitive advantage. And something I couldn’t agree more with. As the thing that I value so deeply about Symphony – is the opportunity to be myself, which I have experienced throughout all my career with the company. Gender stereotypes should never impede growth.    

My second thought is how much I need to learn, as I want to do the role right. I suggest that I first enroll in an MBA program. Again, this answer seems to have been expected. Instead, I am offered a mentorship with the CEO of a major Tech Company in the USA. And so I decide to give it a try.   

"Only after 2 weeks of me stepping into the new role, the Covid-19 crisis burst out."

From that moment, my entirely new journey starts. I spend hours and hours with my mentor. I bring up lists of questions to discuss. Even more questions arise during our sessions. The time spent with my mentor: a pragmatic, straightforward, seasoned leader that has experienced growth and shrinking, mergers & acquisitions, and transformations – is my personal MBA that is an invaluably important life experience. Being a C-Suite member himself, he has always found time for me, he has been fully present and dedicated to my questions and dilemmas. He was fully invested in the mentorship we have had. And I am deeply grateful to him for the time, energy, and wisdom that he has shared while helping me develop for the responsibility I was about to take.    

Interestingly enough, my prior experience as an Agile Transformation consultant helps a lot in the preparation for a new role. A major chunk of questions that we discuss with my mentor, is how to respond quickly to the needs of clients, customers, and the markets, by listening to the voices of employees, partners, and external stakeholders. With time, my long list of questions that I bring to the mentoring sessions dries out. I have a plan. I feel ready to step into this new stage of my career journey…   

I took over the COO role at Symphony Solutions on February 25th, 2020.    

And then, only after 2 weeks of me stepping into the new role, the Covid-19 crisis burst out. Suddenly, all plans, preparations, and expectations turned upside down. An entirely new reality emerged, for which no one has been quite prepared. When I glance back at it now, this looks ironical enough, as I have actually found myself in the shoes of a leader that has to walk the talk in living an Agile approach for driving the organization forward. For years I have consulted companies to apply Agile methods in times of change. 8 months ago I became the one to do this, for Symphony Solutions.  

We had the tough times and went through the challenges that stretch the most mature leadership teams. With our biggest clients cancelling and delaying the projects, with the need for optimization of support teams, with rounds of brainstorming for cost management measures, solidarity cut discussions, and whatnot. That period has probably been the most challenging time in the life of the company and my personal career journey.   

I remember one evening before a major painful decision that we had to take, and how it made me feel that night. The decision was going to impact negatively lives of many people. I was the one to make the decision, and bear responsibility for it. I was the one to listen to the stories of broken careers caused by that decision. Even now, the wave of empathy rises when I think of my colleagues impacted. It was the time of enormous stretch. And I still remember the words of my mentor, “Doesn’t matter what option you will choose, be ready to be hated right now. As a leader, you do impact the destiny of many people. In the situation that we are in now, your impact is breaking people’s well-being and disrupts their stable life. Accept it.  

"As a leader, you have the responsibility to make the right decisions, even if these decisions are painful in the short-term. Look at the long-term. Do the right thing for the company, and people in the long-run."

While doing so, I may say that we took care of every story we have heard. We brought on the table not simply Symphony operational struggles, but the struggles of the people who were impacted by our decisions. At that time, I had to consider the personal backgrounds, life stories, family situations of those colleagues that dedicatedly worked with us for years. Many of these stories impacted the way we made decisions about optimization measures. And this is yet another leadership lesson that I have learned from this period. These struggles that we have had, they stay invisible. Most of the painful fights for balancing the interests of people and business are known only to a very narrow group of the leadership team. 

Now when we through with the crisis, and when things have returned to the growth track, I can look back and reflect on how we did it. We have definitely proof-tested on ourselves the Agile Transformation approaches, for which Symphony Solutions is known on the market. We practice what we preach, as Agile has been the strategic choice for Symphony Solutions for years already. The consistent application of Agile has paid us off. It helped us make mistakes, learn, and adapt fast. It helped us see the opportunities in limitations. Among few examples to mention, we transformed our experience of geographically dispersed teamwork into a new remote business model; we used the opportunity of work from home to re-evaluate employee journey and to structure our processes. We go forward with new hopes, aspirations, and plans. We go forward with formidable baggage of experience.    

I personally go forward with huge gratitude to those many people who have constructively challenged, helped listen to the crucial voices from the field, from employees, clients, and most important for leadership team; as well as to people who have joined collaboratively to drive the changes in Symphony Solutions that we have lived through.    

And one last insight that I have encountered on the way. Interestingly enough, I now spend more time with my family than ever, with all the flight bans and work from home modes.  

"Now I know the future may not always bring you the challenges you expect from the opportunities that come your way. Yet the tipping point is a unique time in life. It is worth trying to test your limits."

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