About a month back, I wrote an article called One Year as a Dojo Coach. I threw some shade at external Agile Coaches, aka consultants. It went like this:
“Traditionally, Agile transformations and trainings involve consultants...who come in to shake things up and throw out abstract concepts for people to nod at. The coaches do not feel the organization’s pain. The advice is not actionable. They speak from white papers that follow the happy path and not the real path.
I personally believe detached coaching is a major reason why Agile does not retain well. Agile is a mindset, not a singular thing you teach and leave. It takes practice and cultivating. It’s personal. And, as much as these Agile shortcomings give me job security, I simply cannot accept a role as a pusher of superficial Agile coaching. Journeys are not checkboxes.”
While my empirical bias still keeps a watchful eye on Agile Coaches, I’ve decided that my recent narrative wasn’t completely fair. Truth is, in my 15 years of IT experience, I have encountered some amazing Agilists, a few of whom have become mentors to me. Guess what? They happen to be external coaches.
The majority of enterprises across the globe engage Agile Coaches. Why? Because Agile is hard. It is incredibly specialized and intimating and the implications are painful if you get it wrong. That pain can be in the form of loss of hard dollars or unlearning bad habits. Although sunk costs hurt, they pale in comparison to unlearning bad habits. Bad habits can mean the erosion of product value and strategic outcomes, plus a bunch of demoralized people.
With that said, I want you to avoid that pain. I want you to recognize the difference between a bad or “so-so” Agile Coach and a great Agile Coach, so that your organization can reap the many benefits of Agile. You don’t want to clean up any messes made by someone temporary, so choose someone who is going to be awesome for your company.
To help you, I’ve noted 5 key qualities that make a great Agile Coach, along with positive signs that they're a good fit. As a bonus, I’ve also included bad signs, hopefully enabling you to spot the not-so-great coaches.
Without empathy, effective coaching would not be possible. A great Agile Coach meets you where you are by putting themselves in your shoes and then offers relevant advice that best fits your unique situation.
Good sign: The Coach finds other people much more fascinating than themselves and ascribes to the “the interested inquirer” mindset, asking lots of questions without the air of judgment.
Bad sign: The Coach possesses a Zealot attitude and whips out a convenient blueprint for coaching your organization.
2. Active listening
This goes hand-in-hand with empathy. If the Coach does not actively listen, then they will likely misunderstand your needs, rendering the engagement fruitless. Not to mention, the annoyance of talking to a brick wall can hurt morale.
Good signs: The Agile Coach does more listening than talking, makes good eye contact, and is physically pointing their body toward you (even over a web cam).
Bad sign: The Agile Coach dominates conversations. Whether they do so with flashy flip charts or clever exercises, they are not providing the space for you to open up so they can really hear you.
Of course, you want an Agile Coach who treats your organization’s goals with a superior standard of quality and a sense of urgency as if they were their own. You are the priority. Therefore, a great Agile Coach fully owns the engagement and is committed to providing value for you.
Good sign: It feels like you are their only client.
Bad signs: The Coach multitasks during meetings, cuts discussions short, and has a lot of scheduling issues.
A great Agile Coach thoughtfully guides the organization to overcome their challenges. They remain humble, do not take personal credit, and bring positive energy, all of which are vital ingredients for positive change. They allow the organization to be in the light. After all, this is your organization’s growth journey, not a trophy for your Agile Coach.
Good sign: The coach is obsessed with the organization’s progression towards their goals and celebrates them without mentioning their own personal impact.
Bad sign: The coach brags about how their engagement with you is making an earth-shattering impact, indicating that you are simply a feather for their cap.
An Agile Coach who can remain comfortable in uncomfortable situations is a gem. Grace provides a sense of calm for the organization that promotes clear thinking in times of pressure. A great Agile Coach does not need to have all the answers or be hyper-clever, but they need to provide inspiration that compels people to think rather than react.
Good sign: A feeling of relief fills the air when the Agile Coach comes into the room.
Bad sign: Your teams feel anxious, especially when they are trying to learn something new. If your Coach is anal about small details and not mindful about choosing battles, then that fuels feelings of imposter syndrome and frustration within your organization.
If you should encounter a Coach (or any Agilist for that matter) with these 5 traits, then recognize their greatness and cultivate them. These are intrinsic qualities and usually cannot be learned.
Look for these traits during your next round of interviews. You may be able to pick up on whether the candidate is an active listener during the interview, however, don’t be shy to ask trait questions such as “How have you shown empathy in your coaching?” If you find yourself being open and honest with the coach, then that's a really good sign!
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