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InfoQ Homepage Articles Engaging and Being Engaged as a Professional Coach – Candid Advice for Coaches & Clients

Engaging and Being Engaged as a Professional Coach – Candid Advice for Coaches & Clients

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Key Takeaways

  • There are things that coaches need to do prior to engaging with a client company
  • Coaches need to know about challenges they might be facing while trying to engage with a company
  • There are some practical things coaches and companies can do to set up the engagement for success
  • Things that hiring companies need to know about a coaching profession
  • Advice for hiring companies to not shut doors (intentionally or unintentionally) in front of experienced coaches, without opening up flood gates for charlatans, cheer-leaders, and 'best-practices" experts  

Have you ever found yourself in a situation, where you feel that you have so much great value to bring to your potential client, that you are so much better than anyone else they may have considered for the role so far …. yet, a client is hesitant to bring you in? Why?

Below are some recommendations for professional coaches:

You Must Self-Assess:

  • Are you a professional trainer, coach and organizational design consultant who had spent many years honing his/her craft and investing in self-development? Do you consider yourself a life-long learner who openly speaks about it?
  • Over the years, have you earned some of the highest industry-recognized accreditation that represents your professional journey? Do you make it explicit and visible publicly (e.g. LinkedIn, your web site)?
  • Have you, not only read dozens of books and case studies but also authored or co-authored some on your own? Do you blog, write articles about your experiences and beliefs?
  • Do you speak publicly (webinars, conferences), have your own web site, where you offer free educational information to communities? Do you have tens of thousands of followers in the industry, attending your events, reading your newsletters and benefiting from your expertise?
  • Are you a one-person entity that you have relentlessly built over the years? Are you responsible for your own networking and business development, along with providing community service (this almost always keeps you busy at nights and on weekends), ON TOP of your paid work?

If you answered ‘yes’ to most of the above, you are actually might be facing some potential challenges.

Understand, What Are Some of Your Potential Challenges?

  • When trying to engage with a client, if you sound very knowledgeable (even if it comes so natural to you), you might be creating an inflated impression about what your aspirations and intentions are. Without any intention, you could be perceived as someone who wants to come in, take over, set your own tone, and run the show.
  • If you attempt to impress others with your knowledge to soon, the effect could be the opposite to what you expect: you might be putting the people that you interact within an uncomfortable position, some of whom could be much less experienced than you, unable to speak at your level, and perhaps even aiming for your role in the future, because their old roles have been being downsized (Larman’s Law #4). This is not so much a problem with senior management but quite common with first-second level managers and single-function roles (e.g. BAs, manual testers) that are sometimes asked to validate/interview you initially.
  • You might be competing against a very large population of external candidates-consultants that are usually procured through staffing agencies/traditional preferred vendors, and presented as “coaches” (today, coaching is a highly commoditized and heavily overloaded term). In reality, such candidates are coaches in-name-only (a.k.a. coaches-centaurs). They are willing to engage at a deeply discounted rate and are easily inserted into an existing reporting structure (seamlessly fit an existing staffing model) just like any other, traditional “human resource”. Once in, they typically become individual performers (e.g. tool administrators, backlog stewards, or metrics collectors) – a classic coaching anti-pattern (read more about anti-patterns here). 
  • You might be trying to enter into a client company’s domain that is tightly controlled by a large consultancy that has already brought in their own, very expensive resources, installed their own, home-baked ‘best practices’ that are presented in the form of heavy power point decks and play-books. Even if you have a lot of experience with such best practices, unless you explicitly express your strong support for them, at the time of initial contact with a client, you might be perceived as a challenger and considered unfit.
  • Although the most generous rate for a highly experienced independent professional (we assume, you are reading this now) is just a fraction of what a large consultancy would be charging a client for each placed consultant, if you cost more than a coach-centaur (described above), you may put yourself out of range.

Understand, What Can You Do to Mitigate These Challenges?

First and foremost, remember: there is only one chance to make a first impression!!! You are lucky if you will have a second chance.

  • Try to understand, really well, what the client’s real goals and aspirations are. When you meet a client, even for the first time (first interview or just an informal lunch meeting), listen to THEIR concerns and feel for THEIR pains. Keep your strong views to yourself and tone down what you may know: do not overwhelm the client.  At times, a client will not be explicit with you about their real problems, so you may need to read between the lines, ask probing questions. But be careful, how deep you probe. Don’t become obvious.
  • Do not up-sell yourself. Do not speak about your own qualifications, credentials or past successes (unless it is absolutely necessary or you are being asked). Of course, it would be amazing if someone paved the way for you, spoke highly of you and talked about how you have helped other organizations.  If you have to refer to your past experiences, present them as circumstantial and based on past conditions (try not to sound absolute and categorical).
  • Always remember that when you meet a client, you are on THEIR territory, and eventually, you will leave and they will own everything you have done for them.  You may not even have a chance to claim credit for your work because its results will be seen only after you are gone. Therefore, be very explicit about your intentions upfront, of NOT wanting to ‘take over, become a hero, challenge everyone and change everything’. This could be a tough one, because at times, against your own will, you could be viewed as a leader-challenger, due to your perceived seasoning and expertise. You must make the client comfortable that you will respect their territory and their decisions and you are there to serve THEM.
  • During your initial interaction with a potential client, even if you discover something that makes you feel that an immediate course correction is required, refrain from stating this too soon (unless you are explicitly asked to provide your own view). It would be wiser to offer assurance to a client that you are seeing a lot of potential for working together and you are ready to support them in any of their efforts. Then, only after you fully engage and dig in, should you start gently steering the client in a different direction by, reflecting on what you see, and offering alternatives, as needed.

Recommendations for companies looking for professional coaches:

Let’s face it, today, finding an experienced and credible agile coach, is not easy.  If you disagree with this statement, you are either very lucky and have special access to some great talent (e.g. referrals or networking) OR your perception of the role may need to change.

There is no need to be ashamed of not being able to find a good coach. You are not alone; many companies face the same challenge.

Truth be told, unfortunately, the industry has changed significantly over the last few years and this has become the source of many problems (some classic problems are described here).  Today, the term “Senior Agile Coach” has been grossly diluted. 
But fortunately, there are still great standards and guidelines you can follow when looking for an agile coach, irrespective of industry trends. Please, consider the dimensions below when looking for a professional agile coach for your organization. The original sources of these requirements are listed at the bottom of this page and you are encouraged to explore them for additional details.

Please, do not reduce, simplify or trivialize some of the key expectations of a professional agile coach.  Because, if you do, these two problems will inevitably follow:

  • Industry coaching quality (average) will be further decreased, and even if you don’t care about this fact as much…you will care about the next fact….
  • Quality of service to your own organization will be also low

So… with that, what are the most important “Must-Have” for Professional Agile Coach?

Quantitative Assets

  • Has significant hands-on experience in at least one of the roles on an agile team
  • Has coached multiple organizations, departments, or programs
  • Has, at least, 1000 hours of experience coaching at the enterprise/organizational level or a combination of enterprise and multi-team level coaching
  • Has diversity of coaching experiences that can be demonstrated, using different client engagement examples, and which include experience at the organizational level

Demonstration of deep knowledge

  • Has formal and informal education about coaching and strong mentor relationships
  • Has good working knowledge of Agile and Lean values, principles, and practices.
  • Has helped individuals, teams, and leadership to understand and apply Agile and Lean values, principles, and practices effectively
  • Understands the dynamics, patterns, and development of multi-level teams and how they interact at the organizational level
  • Knows the difference between consulting and coaching and knows when to apply each.

Ability to clearly articulate and substantiate one’s own

  • Coaching Career Overview (coaching, agile history and how a person got where he/she is today. Include key milestone years)
  • Coaching Focus (summary of a person’s professional self today, including a coaching approach and/or philosophy to coaching)
  • Coaching Goals (personal development goals in coaching)
  • Formal Coaching Education (formal education activities which have contributed significantly to their coaching journey. This includes a wide range of courses on topics including facilitation, leadership, consulting, coaching, process, tools, techniques, frameworks, and other related activities which have influenced our coaching practice)
  • Formal Mentor-ship Education (coach, mentor-ship and significant collaboration activities where a person has DEVELOPED a skill or technique or RECEIVED guidance to his/her coaching approach and mindset.)
  • Informal Coaching Learning (significant topics you have studied outside of the agile literature which has impacted his/her coaching approach or coaching philosophy)
  • Agile Community Participation (agile community events, such as user groups, gatherings, retreats, camps, conferences, etc. in which a coach has participated)
  • Agile Community Leadership (leadership contributions to the agile community (e.g. writing, publishing, presenting, facilitating, organizing, training and other activities) through events, publications, courses, blogs and forums)
  • Agile Community Collaborative Mentoring & Advisory (significant collaborative agile mentoring, advisory activities, where a person was mentoring, advising other individuals to increase their competency or in development of a specific goal)
  • Coaching Tools, Techniques or Frameworks known (coaching tools, techniques or frameworks which you have implemented, customized, co-developed or developed in one or more client engagements)

Skills, Tools & Techniques

  • Has contributed to significant improvements in organizations or departments through coaching techniques
  • Has helped organizations and teams beyond the basics of Scrum theory and practice
  • Has enabled organizations to find their own solutions to business problems through the application of Agile principles
  • Is familiar with, promotes and embodies the mindset of Servant Leadership
  • Uses a rich set of facilitation, training and coaching tools, and models

Personal Qualities

  • Coaching Mindset Coaching skills/practices and frameworks
  • Evidence that the coach has taken both their Experience and Learning and synthesized these into definitive practices, frameworks, approaches, and strategies)
  • Self-awareness: Able to reflect on their own contribution to the coaching by virtue of their own ‘being’
  • Constant Learning: Has and continues to acquire Coaching oriented learning through multiple dimensions
  • Diversity of Experience with different types & sizes of organizations
  • Participation in the Agile community

Conclusion

To summarize, being a highly qualified and experienced professional does not automatically qualify you as the best candidate to be selected. There are many situational conditions that must be considered while interacting with a potential client. Often times, not all your assets and resources should be revealed at once and to everyone. You may have to be strategically smart in your pursuit and goals, even if your intentions are most genuine and it feels that you just have to be yourself and hold nothing back.

But the flip side is true too. A company must have its own qualified people (not necessarily coaches in the title) that are able to identify and validate real, experienced, professional coaches that come from outside. Otherwise, they will likely find themselves being part of a vicious downward spiral; further deteriorating coaching quality and effectiveness, described in more detail here (You Get What you Ask For: Agile Coaches-“Centaurs”), and harming itself along the way.

Additional Resources from the same Author

About the Author

Gene Gendel is an organizational design specialist, agile/lean coach and trainer, consultant and adviser to senior leadership. Almost 15 of 20+ years of his professional experience  – Gendel dedicated to working with companies of various sizes and lines of business, trying to help them improve internal dynamics, organizational structure and becoming a better place to work. Gendel is a Certified Agile Coach (CAC), by Scrum Alliance – a small elite community of Scrum Alliance Certified Enterprise Coaches (CEC). He is one of the co-creators of Team Level Coaching Certifications (CTC) program for Scrum Alliance and one of very few Certified LeSS Trainers (CLT) that are based in the United States. Gendel is the author of Adaptive Ecosystems: Collection of Independent Essays About Agility and co-author of Agile Coaching: Wisdom from Practitioners (free pdf).

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