Team Coaching and The Importance of Leadership

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When I first started coaching teams I had some very specific beliefs about the ingredients that needed to go into an effective team: a clear purpose, collective goals, agreed norms, a good understanding of each other and effective meetings. Combining these together I was convinced I had a clear recipe for success.  

Building on these beliefs then, I facilitated away days using exercises such as ‘Personal Histories’ (Lencioni) and psychometrics such as Myers Briggs Type Indicator® among others before guiding the team through the creation of team charter helping them articulate their vision, purpose, goals and working agreements. The day would usually be a success with great feedback and the team would leave on a high, with a new or renewed focus, actions and next steps. I was convinced I had everything worked out. 

However, something strange happened once I started to follow-up with my early sessions to review progress some months down the line. Sometimes the teams would be excelling, carrying on the trajectory they’d started on. And sometimes they would have stalled entirely having done little between sessions. If you’ve been here, you’ll know your inner critic will go into overdrive.  

Why was my ability to make a meaningful difference to these teams seemingly so random? I was doing the same things, following my same principles, yet the evidence was clear: it didn’t always work! I knew I had two choices to either stop team coaching, accepting defeat and assume the successes were no more than blind luck, or to work out what was missing…  

After some candid consideration I came to realise that there were in fact some clear indicators of success from the teams I’d worked with: 

  1. Is the team ready to be coached? If not, you’re planting seeds in poor soil and the crop will not flourish (see Vol 13 Issue 3, ‘Is Your Team Coach-Ready?’ for more). 

  1. Was I facilitating more than actually coaching? This muddies the water about responsibility for overall success. Taking a coach-approach ensures responsibility lies with the team (see Vol 13, Issue 2, The Role OThe Team Coach’ for more

  1. Did I coach the team leader(s) to lead the team? Without adequate and appropriate leadership, you can’t expect anything to happen. 

Team readiness and a focus on coaching over facilitating are of course no more than practical checkpoints for your delivery, but it’s the importance of team leadership in the process that I found particularly interesting.  

Team leadership is, quite simply, a critical success factor in team effectiveness. If you find that a team you are coaching lacks focus or follow-through then your first step is to look to the team’s leadership. What’s doubly important to remember here is that a team coach is not responsible for the team’s performance. Responsibility for successful, high performing teams always lies with the team themselves and their leadership. Unfortunately, the growing use of terms like ‘high performance team coaching’ muddies the water and can leave coaches and clients alike inappropriately assigning responsibility. 

I recently spoke with my friend Ruth Wageman, a highly respected Harvard academic and author of “Senior Leadership Teams; what is takes to make them great.” (Wageman et al, 2008).  She showed me a useful model for describing where leadership (authority) sits in any given team: 

The bottom labels show the four levels of authority, from manager-led teams to self-governing. The side labels show the distribution of responsibility at each level.  Whilst you may see other possible levels and types of team, what this model shows is the need to be very clear on both i) where responsibility for the team’s performance sits, and ii) the leadership role (whether this is a single leader, or many) in holding the focus on this. Recognising the distinct role of the leader in the work you do will naturally have an effect on how you design your sessions and ultimately how successful you are as a team coach. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you navigate that process: 

  •  How effectively are you contracting with the team’s leadership around their role(s) and yours?   
  • To what degree might you unconsciously be expecting the team to embrace your own values and ideas about leadership (e.g. self-leadership, servant leadership, transformational leadership, consensus-based leadership etc.)? 
  • Are you calibrating yourself to the team’s context and the leadership’s values when designing sessions? 
  • Where does the accountability and responsibility for the team’s performance lie and how aligned to this is your approach to team coaching? 
What are your thoughts on leadership and team coaching?