You are an experienced team coach and have been referred by an existing client to work with a former colleague of theirs who has joined a technology-led, online retail company with rapid and large-scale growth ambitions. Established for two years, this startup company has built disruptive and potentially market-leading (albeit inconsistent in performance) digital payment tools to make online purchasing quicker, easier and financially secure.
You are invited to meet the HR director, who is looking for a team coach for the executive leadership team – made up of the CEO, the finance director, chief technology officer (CTO), HR director (HRD), chief marketing officer (CMO) and others who attend executive team meetings on an ad hoc basis. At your initial meeting with the HRD, she says she is looking for someone to design a bespoke leadership development programme to be delivered off-site that includes knowledge-based modules on ‘team communications and conflict’ and helps the team ‘step up its game’. She wants the programme to start straight away. Not entirely sure why the HRD is convinced a leadership programme is the answer, you meet the CEO. The CEO holds the same opinion: that delivering a programme for the whole of the executive leadership team would help improve dialogue, lessen disparities and build a better team. You come away from this meeting no clearer on the specific requirement nor why a programmatic solution is being sought.
Despite having sought out a team coach, it seems the organisation is looking for something other than team coaching. What would you propose as a way forward?
THEORY, INSIGHT AND OBSERVATIONS
This is an all too common occurrence, particularly because there exists significant confusion in the market about what team coaching actually is. This is equally true of organisational buyers of coaching and coaches. Furthermore, despite widespread practice taking place under the umbrella label of team coaching, there are currently no agreed definitions, professional standards or competencies.
Given the gap between practice and the evidence base to inform it, clients are left to make up their own minds about what might help a team. When this happens, clients, understandably, tend to resort to what they know and have tried before – as was the case in this scenario. The HRD and CEO both believed a leadership development programme to be the solution because this was familiar to them, having participated in programmes in previous organisations.
Figure 1 can help clarify a client’s needs and what a coach is willing to offer. Using this diagram, we can see the multiple forms team coaching may take and how a content-led leadership development programme, while often useful for skill development, is largely outside of the scope of team coaching.
My definition of team coaching – ‘coaching the whole team to create more organisational leadership through stronger collaboration and communication’ – published in this magazine previously, places significant emphasis on the interconnectedness and dependency between team members. Knowing about conflict and how to communicate can be useful but rarely leads to behaviour change. In this team’s case, the difficulty lay between team members – how they discussed and exchanged opinions and reached agreements, and then how they worked through these while maintaining effective relationships.
This is where guidance from the coach (based on my definition of team coaching) was able to guide the client.
The coach was concerned that a leadership programme (even a bespoke one) would be too generic to be able to meet the specific requirement here – addressing both communications and conflict. An impasse had been reached with the client, who wanted a programme. The coach, needing to find out what was meant by the broad descriptors and the subjective phrase ‘stepping up the team’s game’, gained approval to design a questionnaire to determine the team’s development needs.
Results from the questionnaire revealed a previously unacknowledged, yet overt, level of infighting between some of the executive team and a splitting of the team between those engaged in and those wishing to avoid conflict. The former group was very outspoken, whereas the latter had become muted in an attempt to avoid being drawn into arguments. The result was that few real exchanges took place and there was minimal communication between colleagues. Yet, to realise their growth plans, team members needed to work together.
These results enabled a constructive conversation with the CEO and HRD. The coach was able to demonstrate how a leadership programme would not address the relational and behavioural challenges between team members. Instead, these dynamics needed to be surfaced so they could be named, explored and worked through. Equipped with this clarity, the CEO and HRD decided to engage with team coaching, and subsequently the group made progress in communicating more directly and working through intra-team conflict.
- Team coaching is not yet clearly understood. Coaches can help clients understand what it is and what it is not, and whether team coaching is the best solution to their issue. It does not suit all teams and not all teams are ready to make the most of it.
- Presenting issues can be unclear at the first meeting or start of an engagement, and often differ between, and across, stakeholders and team members. Knowing this can help normalise a confusing picture for coaches.
- Using a discovery/diagnostic tool such as a tailored questionnaire or a team effectiveness survey (such as Middle Circle® for Teams) can help clarify and create an agenda for team coaching.
- Content-led programmes can be useful in providing knowledge and increasing understanding around topical ‘teaming’ issues, such as decision-making. In themselves, they rarely change behaviour, particularly at the whole-team level.
- Changing behaviour between team members requires specific support in noticing and naming prevailing dynamics and helping a team work through them. This can include developing protocols and skills around, for example, how a team will work through difficulties should they arise. A team coach is well placed to provide this support.
Look out for more Coaching Conundrums from Dr Dec in the next edition of Coaching Perspectives. To subscribe visit the AC website.
- Clutterbuck, D. (2009). ‘Coaching teams in the workplace’, Global Focus, Vol 03 | Issue 03 in www.efmd.org/globalfocus
- Hawkins, P. (2011). Leadership Team Coaching: developing collective transformational leadership
- Lawrence, P., and Whyte, A. (2017). ‘What do experienced team coaches do? Current practice in Australia and New Zealand’. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 15
- Thornton, C. (2010). Group and Team Coaching: the essential guide. Routledge
- Woudstra, G. (2012). Pillars of Top Team Coaching. Executive Coach Studio