Main idea: Teams need more than a great leader to evolve and thrive. Competent coaches enable teams to become more resourceful, evolve with their environment, break old mindsets, and tap into new ways of performing.
This is the final part of a 6-part blog series on teams. Start with the first blog here.
The best leaders I’ve worked with know exactly who is on their team, have created a compelling path forward, established healthy behaviors for how the team works together, and fought hard to gain the support from the organization. The last piece of the puzzle comes down to ensuring the team has competent coaches. It is also the easiest to ignore when things are going well.
Leaders and their teams are too often left to fend for themselves. The corporate environment for teams can sometimes feel like a scene from The Walking Dead with separate factions of tribes roaming the brutal countryside. Each team fighting for resources and their own survival. Having designated coaches looking out for the organization’s best interests, observing, and facilitating connections can help the team keep moving forward.
Too often teams get into routines that are no longer efficient or engaging. For example, meetings continue on long past their usefulness. They often simply continue because it’s on the calendar. Members continue to make decisions based on outdated mindsets. This is most obvious when we hear someone say, “this is how we’ve always done it” or “if it’s not broken, why fix it.”
Without good coaching, it is difficult for a team to see the big picture, to hold a collective self-consciousness about its routines and decision-making processes, and to challenge itself.
Why don’t more teams have coaches?
Some of it is due to lack of support from the organization (see blog 5). Limited resources make it difficult to prioritize internal staff to invest time on coaching and lack of funding can make it impossible to hire external help. There may be individuals in the organization who have the potential to be great team coaches, but the organization has not set up the processes and training to make it possible.
It is also a challenging expectation for leaders to set up coaching for their team. I’ve worked with many leaders who fail to ask for coaching because they perceive it as a sign of weakness in their leadership. It takes a confident leader to open themselves up to input from coaches on how their team is performing, to be challenged, and to allow outsiders an opportunity to influence their staff.
So much is out of the control of the leader and leading the team can often feel like trying to guide a ship getting pounded at sea.
When the organization, the leader, and the members of the team finally acknowledge that competent coaches are needed then the real work can begin to future-proof the success of the team.
When teams have access to competent coaches they have the potential to become a microcosm of a learning organization. The team becomes capable of understanding how their collective behaviors help or hinder their success. Each individual on the team begins to see more clearly the role that they play on the team in a holistic sense of skills, values, and behaviors.
The shadows that surround the team begin to fade as coaches shine their light on areas that were previously unseen. Leaders of the team learn to become more resourceful in ways they couldn’t have done without an outside perspective. When the conditions in which the team works changes coaches are able to challenge old routines and mindsets.
Teams need more than a great leader to evolve. A competent set of coaches can help teams become more resourceful, evolve with their environment, and tap into new ways of performing.
Competent team coaching is about having access to committed individuals who are vested, but not accountable for the success of the team. Don’t overlook the importance of the word “competent” when finding coaches for your team. Be sure the coaches have the team’s best interest at heart, have experience managing teams, and know the difference between coaching and advising... a coach telling the team what to do will do more damage than having no coach at all.
Assemble your group of coaches to address the different needs of your team. This may be technical, cultural, behavioral, or some other attribute that is important to what your team is facing at the moment. The late Richard J. Hackman, an expert on teams, recommends forming your set of coaches based on where your team is at in their life cycle. For example, in the early team stages, it is more critical to have coaches who excel at motivation, engagement, and interpersonal interactions. During the middle stage consulting skills are needed on tactical execution and strategic interventions to hone in on what is needed to reach the team’s goals. Finally, in the closing stage, coaches that are best at education and information sharing such facilitating debriefs and future learnings are best put to use.
How to set yourself up for success with competent team coaches.
1. Know what you need from coaching.
Don’t leave it up to the coach to tell you what you need. This is easy to do when hiring an external coach because they come with the halo of expertise, but a good coach will take the time to understand your unique needs. If you designate internal staff to play a role in coaching, then take the time to clearly articulate what areas the team needs coaching. This will focus the coach, set expectations, increase the chances of a successful experience.
2. Prepare the team for how to be coached.
Team coaching isn’t a shadow evaluation or a tool for manipulation. Organizations are rife with politics and it’s easy for coaches to be viewed as potential spies. Be clear with the team on why coaching is important, the role it will play in the team’s success, and what you expect from everyone involved. Encouraging transparency and openness will create the conditions for the coach to be successful working with the team.
3. Assign coaches to the team, not just the leader.
A team coach must understand the dynamics of the team and the environment they operate in. Providing access to the team can be especially frightening to the insecure leader. It requires a high level of trust for this to be effective, but when done well it becomes a competitive advantage for any team. Introduce the coach(es) to the team and be clear they are there to coach the team on the attributes that make a team successful.
4. Thoughtfully construct your coaching team.
As referenced earlier in this blog, be thoughtful about the type of coaches your team needs. It will not go well if a leader just throws coaches at the team and wishes them good luck. Take a moment to consider where your team is struggling, what challenges are they facing, where are they headed, what stage are they at in their team life cycle. Start slowly by introducing a coach or two to really focus on the areas that need the most attention. In the early stages of a team’s life cycle, the coach may simply be the gas station on the long highway of confidence.
5. Hold the coaches and the team accountable.
It’s important to measure the impact the coaches are having on the team, but don’t take a single-sided view by evaluating the coach. Evaluate the progress of the team in the context of both the coach and the team’s partnership. As a leader, you create the conditions for your team and their coaches to be successful. The best leaders have regular check-ins with the coach and team. If a coach turns out to not be a good fit or is not able to meet expectations, move quickly to replace the coach.
Discuss the concept of team coaching with your team and identify the areas where coaching is needed. Evaluate the life cycle of your team. Reach out to other internal leaders with the potential to play a role in coaching your team and research potential external coaches. Start the process slowly.
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Read the first blog of the series here.
About the author:
Kris Potrafka, Ph.D. is the Founder and CEO of Music Firsthand, a music technology start-up. He is a former Operations and HR executive working with leaders to solve complex organizational development challenges. Follow Kris on Medium and connect with him on LinkedIn.