Servant leadership: The future of data architecture

Serve, enable, question, listen, engage and empower should be the new management mantra of data architecture that leads to a continual, virtuous cycle.
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In my previous article, The rise and fall of data architecture, I expressed my concern with the current state of data architecture. Within the article and based on my views, I wrote that architects had become too remote and too disconnected from the teams they are supposed to be enabling.

I feel that one of the ways to solve some of the challenges with the current approach to data architecture in this regard is by embracing the concept of servant leadership. Now, servant leadership is a type of management style. It’s true to say that while architects fulfil a very senior and important role in a company, this does not necessary mean they are managers, responsible for managing large teams of people.

So, why link architecture to servant leadership? Here are my views.

Architects are leaders

The fact is, while architects are not necessarily managers, they are indeed leaders. They play a critical role in deciding how solutions are built, and how teams operate. They are the ultimate technical leaders in the company.

The reality is that dozens, potentially hundreds, of people are impacted by the work that architects do. It does not make sense to define standards and architecture for people to follow, without having a clear and true understanding of what these people do.

I believe that one of the most significant mistakes that an architect can make is to not acknowledge they are leaders of people, or that their work has an impact on people and how they work. This is part of what causes architects to become disconnected from delivery teams.

Serve first

One of the most important concepts in servant leadership is the concept of serve first. A leader’s first and most critical job should be to enable the people that they lead. They do this by trying to better understand their people, their goals and aspirations, and what they need to do their job better.

This concept results in a very close relationship between leaders and their teams. This is the total opposite of the current relationship between architects and development teams and needs to change.

Successful servant leaders spend a lot of time asking their employees for their input.

We live in a world filled with disconnected and remote architecture that no longer adds value. Adopting a serve-first mentality, however, will bring the architect closer to the people impacted by that architecture.

It will result in the architect changing focus, to prioritise how to enable these stakeholders. The goal of an architect “leader” should not be to lead, but to serve. The priority now changes to, how do I as an architect serve these stakeholders? What do they need, and how can I help them achieve this?

How do we serve? Listen!

Successful servant leaders spend a lot of time asking their employees for their input. They engage with their teams to obtain their opinions, their ideas, etc. Most importantly, they are honest in their desire to listen; it does not come across as fake, or as an act. The desire to learn from their team is real and transparent.

It’s not just listening though. A good listener must also be good at asking questions. They must know what questions to ask, and they must be prepared to ask as many questions as needed to understand their people’s viewpoints and opinions.

The art of soliciting input, asking questions, is also dependent on building trust. A good servant leader needs to demonstrate they are trustworthy.

People need to trust that they can share their opinions safely, that they won’t get into trouble for sharing the bad news. They must also trust that the servant leader won’t steal their ideas. Without trust, there can be no valuable exchange of information, and therein innovation.

Empower to succeed

Another key principle of servant leadership is to empower employees. Servant leaders want employees to be involved to the fullest. Having changed how we engage with our teams, what do we do with the insight that we gain? Who is best suited to help solve these problems, and act on these ideas? After all, there are only a small number of architects in a company. Architects cannot do it all!

In addition, a good servant leader is constantly looking to identify the next generation of servant leaders. So, if people have good ideas or help in identifying problems, let them be part of the conversation and solution.

Empower them to rise above themselves and unleash their potential. Share the credit, spread out the experience, and possibly walk away with some future architects identified.

Wrap it up – change the pyramid!

Architects have become entrenched in the organisational pyramidal hierarchy. As such, most of their attention has been focused on stakeholders at their level, or above them in the pyramid. But who then is supporting those below them in the pyramid?

There are many more principles behind servant leadership; however, I believe the few that I have mentioned here are some of the key principles that are required by architects within the data industry.

By following these principles, an architect can upend this pyramid and change the current status quo. Serve, enable, question, listen, engage, empower. This must become the new mantra of architecture that leads to a continual, virtuous cycle.

The result is an architecture that serves the people and enables them to be better than they were before the architecture was created.

Julian Thomas

Principal consultant at PBT Group

Julian Thomas is principal consultant at PBT Group, specialising in delivering solutions in data warehousing, business intelligence, master data management and data quality control. In addition, he assists clients in defining strategies for the implementation of business intelligence competency centres, and implementation roadmaps for a wide range of information management solutions. Thomas has spent most of his career as a consultant in South Africa, and has implemented information management solutions across the continent, using a wide range of technologies. His experience in the industry has convinced him of the importance of hybrid disciplines, in both solution delivery and development. In addition, he has learned the value of robust and flexible ETL frameworks, and has successfully built and implemented complementary frameworks across multiple technologies.

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