From “Guide” to Coach
My first work as a coach came about accidentally in the late ‘90s while working in a fast-growing software company. Developers and system engineers were rapidly being promoted to management jobs without previous management experience. To help them through this transition, I was designated as their “guide.” The idea was to transfer my knowledge as a manager and developer of people to folks who were new to these roles. For me, this was an accidental opportunity to develop new skills, and started my path to become a professional certified coach. This eventually led me to my role as an Agile Coach and Trainer, where I work with organizations to transform their work process and team mindset.
Learning to Evaluate and Adapt
During my initial work as a “guide,” I evolved as I went, seeing what worked for one person and then applying what I had learned with the next. As I built expertise over time, I developed techniques and frameworks to apply coaching practices effectively. For example, I realized that the interview training I received as part of hiring new employees was useful here. It used a variation of what I now call “Powerful Questions,” and was an efficient way to get to the most effective agenda for me and the person I was coaching. The method focuses on what the client is concerned about, rather than teaching what the coach thinks the client needs to know. This approach worked with teams as well. Teams became more effective as they learned to listen and reflect on what had been said by teammates, rather than ordering each other about.
An added benefit of coaching individuals was that the process was transferable: I found that the new managers I had coached were often coaching their teams using the same techniques. I have seen this pattern since: just one person modeling coaching practices has a ripple effect and can help shape an organization’s culture. In those days, without calling it Agile, a collaborative environment emerged, often creating breakthroughs and “quick wins” for our customers. I like to think my coaching of the new managers was an important part of that. For example: leading meetings using Powerful Questions as the basis of the agenda, results emerged more quickly. Team members often learned these techniques “osmotically” as they engaged and became part of the organization.
Starting Your Coaching Journey
Being curious and interested is a big part of becoming an effective coach. Colleagues will naturally respond to your interest. Tactically, a key skill is your ability to pose open-ended (that can’t be answered with a yes/no), questions to “open up” a conversation. This can help a colleague or a team work through a problem and move them onto a path to solve their own problem. Over time, you will develop a set of favorite questions that work for you. A few of my favorites:
- What do you notice about this?
- What will tell us when we are there?
- What about this will be important in a month?
Using the right question for the scenario you are in can move a team, or inspire an individual to take the next step to a beneficial end result. And move you nicely along in developing your coaching skills.
David O. Levine is an Enterprise Agile Coach and Program Manager with over twenty-five years experience in Product Management, Project Management and PMO at the Manager and Director level.