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The Subtle Difference Between Skills and Traits

July 13, 2020

Late in the second day of my PSM classes, I usually do an exercise with my students about skills and traits. To many this is an unfamiliar concept at first. So, I designed my training on the topic to achieve the following outcomes:

  1. Being aware of the difference between a skill and a trait
  2. Getting to know the skills and traits that might be useful as a Scrum Master
  3. Getting the know your own skills and traits

This blogpost is meant to provide the exact same learnings for you!

What differentiates a skill from a trait?

Students throughout my training sessions experience a number of different impressions of me as their course Scrum Master. By this stage in the class they will have seen the teacher, the coach, the facilitator, the actor, the story teller, the servant leader and many more. So, when I ask them if they perceive me as an introvert or an extrovert, the answer is usually - and more or less unanimously:

„You are definitely an extrovert!“

It comes as a huge surprise when I tell them that I am the actual opposite and after two days of training I’ll most probably go home, lie down on the couch, roll into a blanket, dive deep into a book and do not want to talk for a few hours.

Being introverted is a typical example of a trait. Something that defines your character and requires high efforts to change. Four other examples can be found in the well known „big five“ personality model.  Here in addition to extraversion are openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism.

A sketch of the big five personalities model

The reason why a trait is near to impossible to change is that - according to science - we inherit them partly by genetics and partly by our education and socialization at an early age. So more or less you have to live with what you have.

Why is it though, that my students still take me as an extrovert? The reason are my skills! These skills were acquired delivering many training sessions and coaching projects, and in educating myself further including rhetoric, presentation techniques, illustration and drawing (still working on that), facilitation and more. Many of these skills either complement my traits and are perceived as strengths or smooth out the traits that some might call a weakness - such as being an introvert and still being able to stand in front of a large group of people and passionately teach them Scrum.

The good thing about skills is they can usually be learned and improved. This makes them easier to address than traits.


How can we get to know the skills and traits that are beneficial to a Scrum Master?

After learning about the difference between a skill and a trait, I’ll send my students on a quest to collect the skills and traits they would perceive as valuable for a Scrum Master. Usually the evolving pattern is a mixture of people skills (e.g. communication or facilitation) and traits (e.g. emotional intelligence or being approachable). Depending on the students own context, other things like technical knowledge or leadership experience will complement the picture.

To tap into the groups wisdom, I use a Liberating Structure called 1-2-4-All.  First, all participants have time to reflect upon the question “What might be valuable skills and traits for a Scrum Master?” and to note their findings. Following this a series of short conversations, that enable exchange between the students take place, to complement their individual lists and gather new insights and perspectives from others. The conversations are first conducted in pairs, followed by groups of four and then finally a short debrief with the entire class to share their highlights and surprises (hence the name of the structure 1-2-4-All).

Rest assured, I do not believe that something like „the perfect Scrum Master“ exists. However, there are definitely skills and traits that help you along the way. Let's take a look at a few examples that are recurring in my courses:

  1. Knowledge of Scrum
  2. Being people friendly
  3. Facilitation
  4. Moderation
  5. Rhetoric
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Communication
  8. Knowledge of "Agile" in general (e.g. Kanban, Lean... )
  9. Technical understanding
  10. Trustworthiness

Make a quick check for yourself to be aware of the difference: Which of those would you consider skills? Which are traits? Are there others that you find extremely valuable? I'm looking forward for additional ideas in the comments.

Now let's take a look at what you can do to do for yourself to get to know your skills and traits better!


How can you get to know your own skills and traits?

Have you ever taken a closer look into your very own skills and traits? In case you haven’t, I strongly suggest you do! There are quite a few techniques such as pull-model or building your development and career house. Let me just quickly outline them so you get an idea of what they are about! 

Pull / Push Models

There are different names for this technique but in the end it is supposed to get behind your personal motivations. What are things that are pulling you forward? What are things that feel like a lot of work and you have a really hard time go get them done? Those can than be related to skills and traits you own.

Building a development and career house

This coaching technique will build a detailed inventory of your personal journey in life from a development point of view. What were significant events? Which crossroads have you encountered and what decisions have been made? By building this picture there usually evolves a pattern of the skills and traits that helped you along the way.

You can apply these coaching techniques either on your own for personal reflection or with a capable coach at your side (get in touch if you want to know more about them or if you would find a personal coaching useful for yourself).

The question is what to do with the insights that emerge? First and most important of all:

The key is to build on your strengths and don’t agonize too much about your weaknesses. Period.

This is true for individuals like us, doing everyday jobs as well as those operating at the highest level of performance. Take a look at 20-times Grand Slam winner Roger Federer who is still holding the record for being ATP ranked number one for 310 weeks (237 of them being consecutive weeks which is yet another record). He had some of his most intense matches against Rafael Nadal. There is no doubt that Nadal is the better athlete of the two (being younger and equipped with more lean muscle) leading to a very aggressive style of play that was the perfect kryptonite for a major weakness of Roger: his single handed backhand. However, despite working on that particular weakness, he was focused on improving his strengths, such as boosting his serve and close to net play further still. In doing this he was making use of some of Rafael’s own weaknesses. We could get into even more detail, like who is the better player on grass or clay, but I think you get the picture here.

My advice is: Be aware of your weaknesses, stay conscious and think about which of your strengths and skills might compensate for them.

Most important: never let others put you down or listen to things such as „You cannot do this“. You might not be able to do it their way. However, I guarantee you can do amazing things when being aware of your strengths and building on them further. If you do so, there will always be a right fit for your own individual set of skills and traits which can be applied to each context or situation you come across.

Which skills and traits would you look for in a Scrum Master? Which of them have you acquired over time and how did you do it? Feel free to share them in the comments! Any thoughts and ideas are appreciated!

Scrum on!


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