February 24, 2022

Why I’m becoming a Professional Coach

The agile industry has fallen short in providing agile practitioners with all the tools they need to navigate the complex transformations they face. In my opinion, the biggest gap in the toolbox is professional coaching. 

The agile ‘industry’ was born in the 1990’s before the Agile Manifesto was written. Since then, the market potential of agile coaching was projected at $500 million by 2023 and has moved firmly into the territory of organization transformation. Consultancies saw the potential for total organization transformation by combining process consulting services like Scrum implementation, dev ops, Kanban, lean, with technology offerings like work management systems, cloud data, quality engineering, AI, chatbots and more. Lately, learning and development offerings and change management have entered transformation pitches as a way to support the knowledge workers thrown into all this change. 

Transformation has evolved to mean any kind of large scale change to improve an organization's ability to respond to rapid change within its market. That makes transformation big and complex. You can't change the process without impacting the people or the tools.  Agilists have evolved from ‘agile practitioners’ to ‘change stewards’.  Many of us have gaps, like professional coaching, that we desperately need to be the change stewards our clients need. Unfortunately, a lot of us don't know that professional coaching exists or we believe that ‘coaching’ is the same as mentoring or asking powerful questions. We have a knowledge and quality gap.

Four years ago, I thought professional coaching was related to professional football. I’d been practicing agility for over a decade and never came across it. Before you raise your educated agile nose, please know that I’m not unusual. Most agile practitioners I’ve met came into their agile career through their own unique paths and have unique stories. Many come into an agile career solo, practicing where and how they can, with little guidance outside certification courses and the luck to find good thought leaders within the coliseum of agile opinion. Only recently have standardized approaches to practicing agile roles, agile coaching and agile leadership become available to the agile-passionate masses.

When I was introduced to professional coaching,  something resonated in me. I knew what I was missing. I’d known for a while that simply telling teams what to do wasn't  working. Diagnosing their problems sometimes helped, sharing my experience and what I’d seen elsewhere helped a bit more. Running experiments was the most promising but not always effective in helping teams change. There were still large spaces where I just wasn't connecting. Despite that lack I felt in myself I was still successful. I was sought after and always busy. I had evidence that was ‘good’ at this but I couldn't let go of the thought I was just missing some ‘magic’. And then I found professional coaching and tried it. It was ‘magic’.

Professional coaching gave me that missing tool for helping people with the most sensitive adjustment, their personal reaction to the change they were faced with.  When I added professional coaching techniques to my one-on-ones, small groups, or those moments when I just was not connecting I felt unlocked.  

I remember the first time I stopped myself from suggesting the ‘right’ way to think about getting stakeholders to Sprint Review and paused. I very awkwardly asked instead ‘What needs to be different for stakeholders to come?’. I knew what needed to be different. Okay I thought I did, but I wanted to give this professional coaching thing a try. What I got was a phenomenal response I could never have predicted. 

We need to be different. We need to give them something worth coming to see. We should give them something they can use. I bet they’d show up then.’ 

I think I stared at that team member for 60 seconds. It got awkward. My brain was exploding because that person just showed self-awareness and a sense of accountability I assumed they were six months away from. I was surprised. I was delighted with  their insight and ability. I was hooked.

I’m still not great at professional coaching techniques. Sometimes I slip into mentoring people and giving advice. Sometimes I try to influence them toward the solutions I think are best for them. I’m going through a program to get better at it. I have, however, learned some things while researching professional coaching programs, the professional coaching discipline and the techniques involved. 

  1. What you’re learning about coaching in your agile coaching courses is a high level summary of a deep discipline. You’ll probably get some great principles and a few good techniques. It definitely didn’t make me a professional coach. What it did was give me a starting point to do my own research and truly appreciate the discipline and nuances of professional coaching.
  2. When some people hear ‘agile coach’ they believe you already have professional coaching skills. Most of us don’t. The agile industry has defined agile coaches as specialized generalists. We can do a little bit of a lot. Few of us have invested in the professional coaching discipline.
  3. Professional coaching is worth your time. Professional coaching is, like professional, built on an ecosystem of behaviors, ethics, techniques and rules of professionalism.  When you do all these things together they create more power than they do apart.
  4. Investing in the professional coaching discipline will likely mature you faster as an agile practitioner than going to the next certification training or conference. We can get the alphabet soup all day long. I know because I invested in a healthy bowl of soup. While tasty, those certifications don’t always prepare you to become good at what you do. 

Lastly, it's important that it's professional coaching. There are a few key attributes of professional coaching that make it a valuable approach to coaching for agile practitioners.

  • The ethics of professional coaching help us navigate our relationships between all the people we help. They give us the scaffold to build working agreements, make explicit statements about confidentiality, transparency, and what is protected. They give us clear boundaries we can confidently work with.
  • The accountability of the client is crucial in professional coaching. We are there to help them become inspired to take action. Their ideas, their accountability.  These principles alone are worth the price of admission. I once did an experiment with a team (with their knowledge and permission) where I stopped giving them advice and started coaching them to find solutions. Their maturity grew quickly and they became invested in their own experiments.
  • The discipline of removing your bias as a coach has helped me in areas outside of the professional coaching stance. It's interesting how much more effective I am at helping a team navigate conflict when I remove my bias and investment in the outcome.

I believe that the agile practitioners who invest in professional coaching are the practitioners that will keep and get jobs because we help organizations truly transform.  We need that tool to help people embrace change. We need professional coaching in Scrum, Kanban, agile leadership and in agile coaching.  I am not a professional coach, I just play one for my client. I hope to change that someday, and I’ll do my best to use the tools until I earn the honor of my International Coaching Federation professional coaching accreditation.

Get good at getting better,

Summer