Are You Ready to Coach?

February 7th, 2011
Agile coaches are expected to help teams learn agile methods, engineering techniques, and improve the productivity of the teams they work with.  But before they can do they need to be ready to coach.  Being ready to coach means that you have coaching skills, relevant technical and process skills.

But the  foundational skill in coaching is skill in managing yourself.

Your attitude will contribute or detract from your ability to make contact, assess what coaching is needed, and actually help the client.   So,  before you begin, ask yourself a few questions.

Are you aware of your own emotional state? Manage your own emotions before you coach. Coach from a neutral, curious, and encouraging attitude. If you’re feeling angry or impatient, your emotions will leak into the coaching. Anger, frustration, or impatience won’t create a helpful interaction. Look inside to see where your emotions are coming from: Are you expecting an inexperienced person to perform as well as a master? What are your assumptions about what the other person should know or be able to do? Rather than blame the other person, reframe your judgment as “He doesn’t do that as well as I wish he did” or “She doesn’t know as much about this topic as I wish she did.” Shifting your attitude will make you a better coach.

Is coaching the best learning opportunity? When the team struggles and puts the team goal at risk, ask yourself: Where is the biggest opportunity for learning? Will the team learn most from making their own mistakes and learning from the consequences (That’s the beauty of short iterations—if the team misses a goal, the risk is limited by the length of the iteration) or will the team learn most if you coach them in a different direction?

Does the other person want coaching? Coaching always works better when the other person actually wants help. Try to wait for the person or team to come to you for help rather than immediately stepping in the moment you see trouble. Many people learn from solving problems on their own. That doesn’t mean you always have to wait until someone asks you for coaching. Coaching is part of your job, so you can always offer. But remember that it’s an offer—so ask before you inflict help. However, if you see a pattern emerging—a team member repeatedly refuses help when stuck—you have an opportunity to give feedback on how that pattern of behavior affects the team as a whole.

Does the other person want for coaching from you? Sometimes people want help, but they want it from someone else. Don’t take it personally if a team member would prefer to receive help from someone other than you. But again, look for patterns. If a team member is open to coaching from everyone but you, it’s a clue that the relationship may need repair.

Are you clear on the goal? If you aren’t clear on the desired outcome, you risk setting up a frustrating cycle called “bring me a rock.” “Bring me a rock” happens when success criteria are vague (or nonexistent). Here’s how it goes. You say, “Bring me a rock.” The other person goes off and finds a rock, and brings it back to show you. You look at the rock and realize it’s not the rock you had in mind. You hand the rock back and say, “Not that rock.” And the cycle begins again. The result is frustration and de-motivation—guaranteed! Of course, sometimes the goal isn’t known in detail. In that case, make it clear that the goal is to explore options and gain clarity.

Are you open to other approaches? You may have a very clear idea of how to accomplish the work or handle the interaction. But is it the only way? In most situations, there are many reasonable and acceptable paths to success. If you find yourself expecting things to be done a certain way, ask yourself if that way is simply your preference and not the only correct method. Help the person you are coaching think through different options and discuss the pros and cons of each approach. Then let the person choose the one that fits best for him or her. Team members gain capability when they develop based on their own thinking modes, strengths, and talents.

Are you ready to encourage rather than evaluate? Coaching is about helping another person develop skills and capabilities; it’s not a time for evaluation. Evaluation hinders coaching by creating a “one-up, one-down” dynamic. Most people have enough trouble asking for help in our culture without adding this burden. Stay away from comparative words such as good, better, worse, and bad. When you think the other person is headed down a rat hole, ask questions about risks and impacts rather than criticizing. Then help generate new ideas. Offer encouragement to let people know they are moving in the right direction.

When you can answer “Yes” to these questions, you’re ready to make contact.  And then you  can start to coach.

14 Comments

  1. Not only good to read before going into coaching but great reminders to read every week to keep it all in perspective.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by estherderby, estherderby, Jean Claude Grosjean, Kane Mar, Yves Hanoulle and others. Yves Hanoulle said: RT @estherderby: Posted: Are You Ready to Coach? http://bit.ly/dEwA25 #agile […]

  3. Great post, anything to get this, often ignored part of agile, more time in the spot light the better.

    I was inspired by Lyssa Adkins who is a professionaly qualifed CTI coactive coach, and I am on that same road now.

    We need more professional coaches in the industry.

    • Esther says:

      Hi, Cuan –

      We certainly need more *competent* coaches.

      I’d be interested to hear what skills you are learning in your co-active coach training, and how you are applying them in your work.

      One of the concerns that comes up for me with co-active coaches is around boundary. I’ve seen several “professional” coaches inflict coaching outside of a mutually agreed upon coaching relationship. That’s a violation and implies a one-up view where the coach assumes he is in a position to evaluate the other person’s capability to handle his own issues.

      More thoughts on coaching here: http://www.estherderby.com/2010/08/field-of-coaching.html

  4. Dave Rooney says:

    Great reminders indeed. I’ve encountered every point here at some time in the past year.

    So, Esther, my only complaint is why didn’t you write this a year ago?! :)

  5. Great perspective and good summary to help determine which stance to take as a coach.

    In addition to the questions you pointed out, I developed a mental model to help me determine if a coaching stance is right depending on the context.

    http://analytical-mind.com/2010/12/20/which-stance-should-i-take-the-4-quadrants-of-agile-managers/

  6. Great Insights!
    I always have to remind myself to turn “off” my personality, instant ractions to allow the team the opportunity to learn.
    These questions embody a coaching stance to develop.

    Thanks!

  7. I love the phrasing of ‘inflicting help’ I’m pretty sure I’ve done that in the past, and probably will again in the future. Great read – Thanks.

  8. Gert Wallis says:

    Once you get the technical details right of producing software products, the soft human skills becomes extremely important. The writing software part took about 3 years to get right. For the last 18 years, I have been struggling getting the interpersonal skills under control.

  9. […] об этом рассказывает в своей статье Эстер Дерби, автор книги “Agile Retrospectives” и одна из […]

  10. Agile Scout says:

    Esther-
    Great stuff here.
    The only thing I would add here is how the individual is continually growing their craft as a person and professionally.
    Are they plugged into community groups?
    Are they surrounding themselves with other Agile coaches/mentors?
    What are they reading?
    What are they blogging about?
    How are they keeping their coaching skills sharpened?

    etc etc.

    Good stuff here!

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