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Lessons on the Competencies of Coaching from Spotify and ICAgile

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InfoQ recently published the video of a talk given at AgileAus 2019, titled "The Evolution of the Agile Coach" by Spotify's Erin McManus, and Fiona Siseman. McManus, an engineering manager, and her colleague Siseman, a coaching manager, discussed how the role, needs and competencies of an Agile coach differ between established Agile cultures such as Spotify’s, and those organisations still undergoing a transformation. They shared how Spotify produces "full-stack coaches" who are as comfortable coaching continuous improvement at the enterprise level as with teams and individuals. Similarly, Shane Hastie, InfoQ editor and ICAgile’s director of learning, has also recently written about the competencies and the learning path of a coach working towards the prestigious and peer validated ICAgile Certified Expert in Agile Coaching. The learning journey of a coach is ongoing and requires a breadth of skills to serve those being coached.

A 2019 academic study by Gisela Bäcklander titled "Doing complexity leadership theory: How agile coaches at Spotify practise enabling leadership" describes six principles which Spotify coaches adhere to in order to achieve their goal of "building high performing teams and a high performing organisation." McManus and Siseman explained these six principles.

  • Establishing and reinforcing simple principles: This the "why are we doing" rather than "what we’re doing," explained Siseman. This activity also includes coaching an action bias and encouraging high-bandwidth communication, like jumping on hangouts, for more effective communication.
  • Increasing Context Sensitivity: McManus shared how they help teams become aware of their context. She gave the example of coaching teams to help them to think about how the things they are doing can affect other teams, as well as the tribe and mission goals.
  • Observing and Influencing Group Dynamics: Siseman said that Spotify coaches use their "experience to judge whether action is needed or not." She pointed out that "just a coach inserting themselves into a conversation can change the team dynamic and change the conversation." Siseman shared that she will "prioritise the best learning for the team in that moment."
  • Making the Unseen Visible: McManus described coaching to help teams become aware of actions not aligned with their goals. She described this further, saying that "coaches make those situations more apparent and therefore easier to address, by choosing questions and playing back situations."
  • Boosting and Supporting other leaders: Siseman shared how they help grow existing leaders. Examples included book clubs for product owners and teaching "engineering managers individual coaching skills to use with their direct reports."
  • Facilitating and encouraging positive dialogue: McManus shared that as a coach, they do this by "being present and engaged and listening to the dialogue in the moment." She asks questions such as, "Is everyone contributing in this moment? Is everyone being heard? Are they interacting in a respectful way?" McManus said that "if any of these things aren’t in place, then we gently redirect the conversation back to where those things are happening."

McManus and Siseman shared how Spotify coaches have managers who support them by investing in understanding the role of a coach. They explained as full-stack coaches that they wear multiple hats which range from facilitation and team coaching, to being agents for organisational change themselves.

Hastie, who himself is an ICAgile Certified Expert in Agile Coaching, described the start of the coaching journey as one where a coach’s core skills align with the ACI Coaching Framework.

This ACI Agile Coach Competency Framework specifies several areas in which a coach should build their competencies:

  • Being an agile practitioner, Hastie explains that the Agile coach must have a deep understanding of the "why?" He wrote that "they need to be able to lead by example and show the teams under their guidance what it means to be agile in their way of thinking and working."
  • Teaching is a competency which enables the coach to "teach people new skills, and they must be able to do so effectively." Hastie writes that there are multiple styles of teaching in which to acquire improvement, "formal or informal, in a classroom with a large group or in a conversation with a single individual."
  • Professional coaching is a discipline in its own right, for which the coach requires competence. Hastie writes "coaches honour the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole."
  • Technical, Business, and Transformation Mastery are examples of domains where the coach should have the deep mastery to support and mentor within their organisations and coachees. Hastie wrote that coaches "must be able to demonstrate deep knowledge and real mastery in a domain and have a working knowledge of the other two."

Sharing his own personal journey during a talk for London’s Adventures with Agile community in 2019, Hastie provided more depth on the relationship between coach and coachee:

Establishing trust is a vitally important skill set of a coach. Because you’re asking people to expose their uncertainties, their questions. The things they are struggling with. You are guiding them on a journey. Being present. Being fully engaged with the coachee at all times.

Hastie talked about how "you will have different coaches for different aspects of your practice." Using himself as an example, he talked about the accountability which comes with knowing your own limitations:

I am an Agile coach. I might have a specific skillset I’m bringing and I’m good at coaching you in that area. One of the things I have to know as a coach is where I’m not good. And when to suggest there is someone else who can help there. That’s about accountability. It’s not an all care, no responsibility position.

McManus spoke about how coaches provide incremental value which is not always visible at first sight:

Coaching in an agile organisation delivers incremental value. That incremental value is harder to see. So it is really important to be clear about what it is and why it’s valued.

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