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What Kind of Coach Does Your Team Need?

Key Takeaways

  • Coaching is being treated as a panacea, and can easily fail by being applied to the wrong challenge that was presented, where the team might require a consultant or a trainer rather than a coach, with the problem being exacerbated rather than relieved. 
  • Establishing psychological safety and trust within a team is a mandatory foundational stone for all coaches to enable teams to introspect and move forward.
  • Different team/organizational issues, such as process flow adoption versus process flow refinement, may require entirely different types of coaches. The former may need a facilitator centric coach, the latter may require deep technical expertise combined with informed recommendation for a strategy.
  • A coach with competencies that do not match the team’s needs can cause more harm than good. They might act as a crutch for the team, acting as a doer rather than a guide , which, in turn, may leave the team with knowledge of mechanics, but lacking the cultural mindset.  
  • Responsible leadership means understanding the details of your team’s challenges and maturity and bringing in the coach that matches their needs rather than assuming that all coaches are the same. 

Coaching has entered the zeitgeist. A quick google search on “workplace coaching” yields over 150 thousand results. Organizations are hungry for information on how to use coaching in the workplace and how they can best benefit from it. Hiring a coach is now the de facto strategy for enabling teams to address challenges and progress towards key goals and milestones. Coaching has explicit and implicit benefits. Explicitly, coaches can boost performance, increase confidence, resolve team impediments and help the team progress towards shared goals. Implicitly, good coaches impact the culture within a team, creating an environment of mutual trust, where a safe space can exist for innovation and to allow a team to absorb the strategic asks. The latter is a key competency in professional coaching, whereas the former is more a hallmark of blended coaching, where the coach, taking their domain expertise partnered with their coaching training, delivers a tailored experience for the team. 

Technology teams in particular focus on hiring blended coaches, particularly coaches with experience around software development and process improvement paradigms such as Agile or Lean. The blend of skills for technology centric teams can range from mentoring, to training, to coaching for performance, process, or clarity; however, there may exist a mismatch between a coach’s expertise and the current needs of the team. As coaching is primarily client-driven, the assumption is that the client chooses the right coach for their particular needs at that particular time. However, the team in this case may first need to understand what coaching is before deciding what kind of coach they need, and why they need it at this particular time. This understanding now becomes a very important factor when deciding to hire a coach to bring into your team, as trust and experience need to flow two ways to ensure the relationship works. The team must fundamentally understand what coaches can achieve while tapping into their own experience and knowledge while trusting in the process that makes the road ahead both attainable and within their control. Coaches must trust in the team’s innate ability to achieve a state of excellence while balancing the need to draw on their experience to use the right skillset at the right opportunity to help build momentum. 

As people learn more about the value of psychological safety on teams and in the workplace, they are beginning to piece together that matching a team’s maturity– both in culture and process–, and a coach’s strongest competencies is one of the most vital aspects of hiring the right coach. One of the best ways to improve trust in a technology-centric organization is by hiring a coach to foster that culture. Why? Having an objective viewpoint on a team’s psychologically safe status is the best way to help a team find where it is weak. If a newly formed and inexperienced team brings on a coach whose strength is in organizational transformation but not in teaching and mentoring at the team level, that team (and the organization that supports it) will gain little from the coaching engagement and most likely will see it as a waste of time and money. Worse, If a team has not acknowledged the need for a coach but one was foisted upon them, trust and culture building will be nearly impossible. 

What can an organization do then to ensure a good fit? What are the variables that a team needs to consider, in order to have a successful client-driven relationship? What understanding of the competencies of coaches needs to exist within a company to make the right choice, at the right time? In the following article, we will explore answers to these questions as we examine the role that a coach can play in establishing, maintaining and nurturing a safe space for teams to grow and achieve their goals.

Why is coaching so prevalent?

The decision to bring in a coach in a technology centric company is often a reactive decision, driven by the need to improve some aspect of their current mode of working or as an accelerant towards a future goal or mission. This means that the range of challenges facing a coach could vary from the tactical: addressing stressors on the team, their product, or their market segment, through to more strategic ambitions– being an architect for delivering a mobilization phase to bring a team on a journey towards a desired horizon goal. This means that the decision to acquire the services of a coach is one that might originate in part from the team but more realistically, it’s ultimately a leadership decision to invest budget in hiring a coach. The inverse, where the team decides they need a coach and has the opportunity to select their own, is rare, but can lead to a much more open mindset because there has already been established a base understanding that challenges exist and that coaching can be a remedy. That has happened to Leigh, when a recently acquired product team within Red Hat had suffered through another energy sapping release, which saw a quality cycle move from 20 days to 90 days. That was the motivation for the technical leads to request from their leadership that a coach be brought in to help them chart a path forward. That openness and team matching led to a story of how Red Hat has embraced Agile which led to a new way of working The act of pushing a coach on a team is in harsh contrast to the generally accepted norm that coaching is client-driven, where someone seeks out a coach to solve a particular problem and who is engaging willingly, knowing that the journey benefits them directly. This contrast means that many teams unwittingly acquire the services of a coach without having a foundational understanding of what they should expect from a coach, what their role as clients in that relationship is, and more importantly, the degree of control that they should have over how the coach interacts with them. A healthy relationship between team and coach includes some form of a “Designed Alliance,” a part of the Co-Active Coaching model, in which the role of the team and the role of the coach are clarified at the outset of an engagement. When this alliance is formed and teams are told that they not only can question the coaching they are receiving but actually have the responsibility to question and deeply probe their coach’s interactions with them, they are often dismayed. When a coach is pushed on a team by an outside force, (e,g, Leadership), that sense of “ownership as client” is, at best, a conflicting message; instead, they see that leadership hired the coach; therefore, Leadership is the client, not them. 

What can confuse teams at an even more fundamental level is the misinterpretation of what coaching is. Numerous studies have shown that the role of the “coach” regularly gets confused with the role of the mentor, the consultant, the trainer, and even the therapist. Indeed, we surveyed 145 coaches recently to explore whether we have gotten Agile Coaching Competencies wrong. Our preliminary results show that confusion is evident when examining the competencies and how each coach perceives their strengths. The widely accepted Agile Coaching competency model, developed by the Agile Coaching Institute, lays it out pretty plainly.

Agile coaching requires striking a balance across teaching, mentoring, facilitating, professional coaching, and implementing Agile and Lean practices, also while having technical, business, or transformation mastery. These competencies are demonstrable characteristics that define a coach’s capabilities and the expectations that teams should have of them. Added to that mix, the maturity level of a company will largely influence which of those competencies and to what degree a coach will need to employ them. When coaches do not fully grasp the competency set needed to be an effective coach for a particular organization, or if they are not self-aware enough to acknowledge that they have competencies in which they still need to improve, the understanding of how appropriate coaching should function is immediately eroded. That lack of clarity, in turn, can lead to more harmful long-term impacts as the team forms behavioral patterns and dependencies based on the coach’s current skill set, instead of on where the team needs to grow.

What does a team coach actually do?

Exploring the relationship between team need and coach capability in more detail, a technical team beginning their journey towards maturity will have drastically different needs of a coach’s skill set than one several years into their journey. Fast-paced startups or product offerings that are gaining in popularity will likely have more focus on quality, performance, and speed of delivery. Here, the coach’s role will lean more heavily into being a sounding board for the team’s ideas, for helping the team find consensus on a path forward, and for facilitating, teaching, and leaning into the blended offering they come with. Most technology companies will require either an experienced technologist, able to guide teams on best practices around tooling, languages, integrations and the general technological landscape that they will be moving towards, or a process specialist who has worked in this industry and can lean on vast experience. At this stage of the coaching relationship, the team’s dependency on the coach to lead and chart a path forward is invaluable. If we contrast that to the needs of a more mature organization, one which is several months or even years into their transformation journey, the services of the coach differ. In a mature organization, the coach’s role pivots to mindset-focused work, wherein the goal is to complement the mechanics that have been adopted and help the teams understand the reasoning behind choices, instilling a decision-making process that is standalone and self regulating.

Maturer teams also benefit far more greatly from moving away from the approach of attempting to build consensus. Consensus in immature organizations is necessary to help move the team forward; however, it can often be viewed as coercion disguised as collaboration, as the coach is the expert and the guide, with their role designed to change other people's thinking. This can happen where leadership, who have hired the coach and who ultimately dictate for how long the coach is engaged, have a preconceived notion of the direction they want the team to take, be that a sense of identity or the adoption of a certain tool. The reasons for this vary. The leaders may want to show the team working under a certain framework for marketing purposes, or they may wish to conform to a way of working for standardization purposes. An example that both of us have encountered is the request from management to move a team towards Scrum and to adopt JIRA as a tool. That mandate has set the terms of the engagement and it caused us both to drive consensus conversations that are pre-seeded with desired outcomes. 

While this approach– leaders by title and/or experience dictating how a team should work– means well by driving the team towards what is assumed to be a positive benefit, both for the organization and even for the coach’s contractual obligations, there is an underlying conflicting message: “Your team is on a journey, and the coach is guiding you– but only if you go where we want you to go and achieve the results we assumed you would.” This prescriptive agenda to mobilize the teams can feel like a coach led engagement, which is an antipattern in coaching. The more mature org inverts this need, where consensus won’t bring new ideas and won’t move the team beyond social norms that have been established, the more division may be needed. The coach, through driving a discursive approach to seek alternatives, allows for greater innovation and left field ideas to arise by not following the feeling of consensus. This divisive approach switches the engagement to be a more traditional client-coach relationship, which is always client-driven. That inversion of the consensus model allows teams to consider alternative solutions and allows a deeper ideation phase to occur where everyone feels safe contributing and putting ideas out there. It helps drive engagement, which in turn becomes a multiplier for productivity, profit and retention. It allows a platform for career growth for individuals who can help see a path towards the company's goals or indeed help project new strategic goals that they are uniquely positioned to influence and deliver.

How do we choose the right team coach

The notion that encapsulates that sense of interpersonal freedom and creativity is now known as psychological safety. In his InfoQ article, “How Psychological Safety at Work Creates Effective Software Tech Teams That Learn and Grow”, Ben Linders summarizes it well:

When tech teams feel safe for interpersonal risk-taking, there’s more personal engagement and people will speak up when there’s something that bothers them or if they have an idea. Team members are more likely to take risks, admit mistakes, share ideas, experiment, discuss conflicts, and ask for feedback. This has a direct impact on the performance of the team.” (Linders, B. 2022)

A coach can foster that safe space for innovation and open discussions by really embracing the core ICF-centric competencies of being active listeners, asking powerful questions, and fostering an environment of mutual respect and trust. Safe spaces aren’t just created by speaking such words; they are honed, refined, supported and established culturally over months to years. A coach in this mindset helps individuals within the team to understand their role, their approach to ideation and novelty generation and crucially fosters a feedback centric mindset within each individual.

That coach switches seamlessly between coaching the collective and the individual. Their mindset work helps feedback become open and receptive, coaching individuals for resiliency to decompose the feedback and identify the key triggers that cause unsafe environments. One such trigger is the relationship of the feedback giver, helping the receiver to distance themselves from the relationship and history with the giver, that can often bring defensiveness because of past involvements or indeed their organizational role, thereby removing the learning opportunity. Coaches help the identity trigger, wherein the feedback gets focused inward in an overwhelming, threatening and confusing manner. They finally help focus on the truth trigger, where we fundamentally know something to be true but the implications of that truth cause us to deflect, argue and ignore the learning in favor of a different perspective and narrative. A great example that we have witnessed is when teams collaborate on key architectural considerations where the assumed knowledge that titles bestow on the owner are simply not matching the experience of the SMEs in the room.

Take the chief architect who at one time had both the knowledge and ability to design the original system, but due to wider responsibilities is now distanced from the reality of a fast moving modern technology stack that the team are now experts in. They found themselves sitting passively on key design meetings with no meaningful contribution, meanwhile feeling the burden of their title and their need to preserve a well-earned authoritative appearance. This makes for a high stakes decision point for both the team and this individual. That denial of the truth trigger in this case was extremely harmful to the team at large, from both a lost work perspective to undermining the talent and capabilities of rising stars. That situation led to several weeks of meetings and engineering spikes to examine dated viewpoints while the Architect fought against the truth that his place was no longer to drive, but to advise. The ego and the implications of the truth became a barrier to safety generation within the team and here a coach would have quickly helped to diagnose the trigger and allow a path forward to emerge.  

The level of skill and nuanced handling of such scenarios requires a coach with a key set of competencies and behaviors that might not exist in a general catch-all coach. The mastery required to deliver the blend that could include technological understanding of the teams’ product area, the process-centric skills desired, such as Agile or Lean experience, the pure coaching capabilities, and the experience of cultural generation, engagement practices and facilitation techniques. This ultimately leaves organizations searching for the unicorn coach. That one-size-fits-all coach is difficult if not impossible to find, and bringing a coach with such a wide skill set into a team can often cause more harm than good both for the team and the faith bestowed in coaching as a profession. 

What does all this mean for teams, coaches, and organizations?

The leadership, the group paying the bills, can have clear, metrics-driven goals to assess the impact of the coach. If the coach spends too much time focusing on safe space generation and overcoming the cultural inertia to move the team forward, their relationship might end before it begins. The team might embrace the facilitation and mentoring-centric coach and become very mechanically proficient at the process and strive towards goals. However, that creates a superficial layer of mechanical practice that is missing the philosophical and mindset immersion that will eventually wither and collapse when the coach, who has achieved the company's initial goals, moves on.

However, another challenge is when the coach does not move on, but has achieved the goals in the original contract. Here, the coach who was hired to grow the team's awareness of shared goals and focus their energy towards ensuring that there is a successful outcome to the engagement can help the company set new goals. Every new goal we set becomes a horizon, but horizon goals, by design, keep moving as the company achieves milestones and reacts to new knowledge or customer needs. As those goals move, organizations must consider whether the coach they hired initially is still the right coach to bring the team on the journey towards the next horizon goal. Do they have the key skills to deal with a bigger challenge? Have they experienced this before? Are they operating in a scale or environment where they simply are not comfortable and can’t lean on their prior blended experience to rescue themselves? The experience of the coach, their competencies, and where they are on their own continuous improvement journey may simply not be complementary to the challenges that are now put in front of them.

Their impact and thus ability to move the team beyond their current thinking and towards this new goal might not be sufficient. Teams that find themselves in this position often stagnate rather than flourish, or worse still, the coach's attempts to generate momentum towards an unattainable goal harm the progression towards the goal and may negatively impact the hard fought ground for safe space and trust. This was wonderfully summed up by Michael de le Maza who offered a metaphor around pebble coaches Vs diamond coaches. Pebbles are well-rounded; diamonds have facets. Those facets are key specializations which act as force multipliers when deployed in a targeted manner in teams. While in the above we talked about more mature teams needing that psychological safety centric offering, the truth is, it should be the first thing that teams embarking on a journey should consider when contemplating bringing a coach in. That’s a facet that exceptional coaches can offer and who will pave the way for a more rounded coach to come in and offer their blend to help mechanically transition the team and their individuals to the desired goal. 

This means that coaching in organizations, as a profession, should not be long lived, but rather should be defined in a coaching agreement, tailored towards both the competencies of the coach and the maturity of the team they are engaging with. This will require a reset in expectations, a move away from the metrics-driven improvement, and a focus on hiring real coaches, dedicated to their craft and specialisms, who embody the competencies and characteristics of a diamond coach.  Our recommendation is thus to treat your team coaches like cattle, not pets, which is a DevOps metaphor for utilizing a resource as and when needed, rather than keeping it around forever. We suggest that you employ a coach for what you need, when you need it and more importantly with the right mix of competencies on both sides of the relationship.

Coaching is a force multiplier for achieving goals and helping progress teams beyond their current mode of thinking. The skills and competencies employed by a coach need to be wide ranging, while the depth to master singular competencies can take a lifetime of commitment to achieve. There exists an intersection point between what a coach can competently achieve with their current skills and what the team currently requires to progress. When those align, you get the intended impact of progression, achievement and ultimately a successful relationship. Beyond that is misalignment; either the team's needs right now are not capable of being met by the skills of the proposed coach, or the coach’s skills are not applicable to the stage of the journey that the team is on and unable to progress them beyond their current state. This can lead to reputational damage to coaching as a profession, but more importantly, it can halt or even regress any attempts to improve the team both right now and in the future. 

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