How (and why) Team Coaching works

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Have you ever worked in a really outstanding team? If so, you will know that feeling of excitement, drive and motivation that infuses the entire team, that sense of purpose, of having a mission, the way the team socialises together, shares everything and feels like a happy family. It’s like magic.

And have you ever worked in a team you couldn’t wait to leave? If so you might remember the arguments, the finger-pointing, the avoidance of responsibility, the poor productivity, the late-arrivers and early-leavers, the stonewalling, and the way you hated Monday mornings. Horrible, wasn’t it?

Great teams don’t happen by accident. They are crafted.

A team is much more than a collection of individuals. A team has a shared purpose, diverse skills on which others rely, and a way of interacting and behaving that allows them to perform at more than the sum of their parts.

But not all teams manage to perform at this level. Why not? The reasons are too numerous to mention, and some are complex. Individual and collective motivations, the clarity of the team’s mission and purpose, their leadership, the physical and emotional environment in which they find themselves… all contribute to the team’s performance in one way or another.

Let’s say you are looking to improve the performance of your team or teams. How do you go about it? Do you give them goal-based incentives, bonuses or perks? Do you threaten and cajole them into ever-increasing effort? For the record, neither of these works very well for anything except the most rudimentary of mechanical jobs. Any team that uses their collective knowledge, skills and intelligence are not motivated by carrots or sticks. For more on that, read Daniel Pink’s book Drive, or just watch the video.

But if you are unsure how to get the best out of your teams, and getting them to function at their peak, it might be well worth hiring a team coach.

A team coach views the team as a relationship system — a complex and highly adaptive group that requires a high degree of social emotional intelligence in order to thrive. Just think for a minute about the worst team you ever worked in. There may have been a lot of blaming, avoiding taking responsibilities, not committing to outcomes or deadlines, contemptuous language, disengagement and worse.

While team members need to have the right skills and experience, a clear purpose and objectives, and clearly bounded autonomy, it is only when team members have complete respect for and trust in one another that team performance can exceed the sum of its parts.

Team members have to want to go the extra mile for each other, for the team. And no amount of cajoling will achieve that. But team coaching could.

Team members have to want to go the extra mile for each other, for the team.

At this point it is, I think, important to define coaching in general, and team coaching in particular.

The International Coach Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment. Coaches honour the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole.”

David Clutterbuck, author of Coaching Teams at Work says: “Coaches act as external stimulators to the potential that other people hold within them. They use a combination of patience, insight, perseverance and caring to help the client (coachee) to find the internal and external resources required for improvement.”

Peter Hawkins defines team coaching as “enabling a team to function at more than the sum of its parts, by clarifying its mission and improving its external and internal relationships. It is different, therefore, from coaching team leaders on how to lead their teams, or coaching individuals in a group setting.”

It is obvious from these, that the coach is not hired to teach or to consult or even to mentor, although elements of all of these can sometimes be included. Most importantly, it is critical to recognise that, in order to improve team performance, change is required. And the responsibility for that change lies with the client — the team being coached and the Sponsor who hires the coach. The coach cannot force anyone else to change. No-one can.

Coaching is a process. It is rare that one meeting or session can create transformational results; it often takes numerous sessions or interventions in order that lasting change is embedded.

While research shows that minor differences between one process and another make little difference to the outcome (it’s all about the relationship), my basic approach to team coaching has five steps:

This is the first stage, where coach and Sponsor define who is in the team and who is not, and their stakeholders. We also determine the sponsor’s objectives for the team, the team’s objectives and those of their stakeholders, all of which need to be considered to ensure they are not in conflict with each other. It is imperative to have a clearly defined objective for the coaching, so that it can be targeted and progress measured. Finally we agree accountability, logistics, and so forth.

In this stage, the coach starts to look into why the team are not already meeting the objectives set for them. What is getting in their way, how do they work together, what are their strengths and challenges? This may include interviews, structured assessments, surveys and questionnaires and/or direct observation. This phase concludes with a report for the sponsor highlighting the strengths the team possesses that can be leveraged, and the challenges they face, as well as a proposal for how coaching can help them overcome these challenges.

Organisations often get a lot from this, as an external viewpoint can highlight issues that are being taken for granted, overlooked, ignored or just accepted.

This stage is all about building or strengthening the team alliance — creating a collective mindset that places the team and its goals first, creating agreements about behaviours and rituals for which team members hold each other mutually accountable.

Also necessary is to create an alliance between the team as its own entity and the coach, because in team coaching the team as a whole is the client, not the individuals in it.

In this stage, the actual coaching itself happens. Over whatever period has been agreed, the coach typically facilitates a number of regular interventions — workshops, surveys, discussion groups etc — in order to review data and recent progress, gain new insights and knowledge, and to agree what needs to be done, by whom and when. While the coach is heavily involved in these sessions, the majority of the work comes between sessions, when the team members carry out the actions they have agreed to, often in the coach’s absence.

Depending on the urgency of the need, the team’s availability (and the coach’s) the coach may work full-time for one client, spending most of the time observing the team in action, intervening on an ad hoc basis as necessary. In these situations, the coach needs to choose between multiple styles of intervention, from simply mentioning what has been observed and bringing it to the team’s attention, through asking for explanations or asking if there are alternatives, to more directive approaches of suggesting solutions or options. Most of the time, the coach is biased towards a facilitative approach, as the coach is rarely more knowledgeable than the people being coached; they are, after all, experts in their own jobs.

It is just as common, however, for team coaches to be present — and therefore paid — only for the time spent in scheduled interventions, i.e. on a part-time basis. This means that the client maximises value for money, and allows the coach to build relationships with more than one team or client at a time.

This stage — and the previous one — are recurring. After an agreed amount of time spent executing, a review is held in which the team are assessed against the agreed outcomes for the coaching engagement to see how much progress has been made. It is a key event to ensure that a) the sponsor is getting value for the investment in coaching, b) the team are progressing, c) the team can provide feedback to the coach and sponsor from their perspective, and d) there is an opportunity to terminate the engagement if progress is not being made.

There may be a number of reasons why progress may be slower than expected: the team may not want to be coached (although the coach should determine this during the early stages of the engagement), or the stated objectives may be countered by other unidentified organisational or personal forces.

Having reviewed progress to date, the team, coach and sponsor can then agree to proceed further, modify the objectives, or to terminate the engagement.

A relationship systems coach is most valuable when a group of people who work closely together (or need to) recognise that they are not meeting standards set for them - or standards they set themselves - and need some help. A consultant would suggest solution options (sometimes a confusing number of them), but they may not be applicable to the team’s unique environment and situation, so changes don’t ‘stick’.

A coach will unlock the full potential of all the wisdom that inherently lives within each member of that team, and align it with others in the team to achieve results otherwise impossible. Changes that the team come up with themselves are more likely to be long-lasting, especially if the coach has helped them build a designed alliance and team members are holding each other accountable for their agreements.

If your team/s are in need of any of the following, a relationship systems coach can help with these too:

- Conflict management
- Team Alignment
- Leveraging Diversity
- Role clarification
- Change Management
- Increasing Team Synergy
- Improving Feedback
- Decision-making

If you got something out of this article, please give me a clap or two, and share it with your colleagues. Let me know if you’d like to discuss some coaching for your team.

You can also follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn if you want to connect.

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Chris Davies

Team Coach | Leadership Coach | Agile Coach | ORSC Practitioner. I write about teams, leadership, organisations and agile.