What Makes an Agile Coach Effective

Anthony Mersino
December 29, 2015

I’ve been giving a lot of thought about what makes a coach effective and how to improve my own effectiveness as an Agile coach.  Many or most of us probably are in a position where we have an opportunity to coach others, whether that be our team members, our employees, even our bosses.  As parents, we may be coaching our children and spouses. And we probably also have the experience where we are being coached by others.
A common frustration among coaches is that their coachees don't listen to them. The coach is pretty clear about exactly what the coachee "should" do. But for whatever reason, the coachee doesn't do exactly what the coach thinks they should do.  "If only" the coach thinks, we could really save them from pain or waste or whatever we most surely know to happen if they don't take our coaching.
We should not be surprised though at any refusal to take our advice.  Every person has a certain set of experiences, education, beliefs and expectations about how the world works.  Each of us makes our own decisions from that mindset.  We are invested in that mindset and credit it with the success we've had up to this point.  Why would we change? It could be very threatening to change or to try something different.  After all, it could turn out I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.  When people are asked to do something something that runs counter to their beliefs and mindset, the most common reaction is to resist or defend.  They shutout any further coaching.

I have experienced this shutout plenty of times, both on the sending and on the receiving side.  When I give coaching or feedback and the recipient defends or doesn’t take it in, I feel sad.  "If they only knew what I knew" I sometimes think.  Which is silly because if they did know what I knew, they wouldn't need me as a coach.
When I am on the receiving end of this type of coaching, I feel angry.  It feels like someone is telling me what to do.  Or that I am stupid.  I feel controlled.  And it can feel overwhelming sometimes, especially if they just keep on going.  I want to shout out - "shut up, stop talking, give me a minute.  Stop insulting my intelligence."  I also feel a strong urge to defend and justify.  I want to dig in and to explain why I am right.
I'm pretty sure I am not alone.  My mentor says that any unsolicited advice is a judgment.  Giving unsolicited advice implies that we don't see others as capable.  We go superior and help or save them.
This runs counter to holding people in positive regard.  Positive regard means that we believe that others are whole and complete and entirely capable of figuring things out on their own.
The thing is, I have a long term relationship with my mentor and I trust him a lot.  I know that he is for me 100%.  I am determined to learn and grow.  So when I feel the urge to defend against his coaching (and I almost always do), I know the best thing to do is to stop defending and take in the coaching.
As Agile coaches, we need to build high trust relationships before our clients are going to be open to coaching.  I love the way Tim Elmore states it, when he talks about the importance of connection. He says we need to "build a bridge of relationship that can bear the weight of hard truth".

So my current goal is to do a lot less of the “you should do this”.  Not only because it isn’t effective, but also because I know it feels shitty to be told what to do.  So what does work?


I've noticed that the following things tend to work for me, on either side of the coaching relationship.
1) Build the Relationship First - Invest in really getting to know people.  Invest time in learning about them.  See how you can relate to them and understand where they are.  Let them know that you are for them 100%; that you want them to succeed.
2) Meet People Where They are At - Lyssa Adkins talks about this concept in her excellent Agile coaching book.  In short, if one person's experience and beliefs only allow them to see so far, then we meet them there and encourage them from that point.
3) Guide, Don't Dictate - Dictators control others and tell them what to do. Guides are resourceful and helpful.  I sometimes find it helpful to ask, “ are you open to coaching”?  Or, I will ask powerful questions to help the individual figure it out for themselves.  If they are not in a position to take in coaching, telling them what to do is only going to upset them.
4) Relate Our Own Struggles - When someone shares with me their own challenge that is similar to mine, I feel joined.  It shows empathy. I feel like we are all in this together, rather than someone who is superior on me.  To be clear, this doesn't mean telling others to solve their problem in the exact same way that worked for me.  We can simply say that we've been there, and we understand how it feels.
5) Treat Everything as an Opportunity to Learn - If we can let go of specific outcomes and embrace learning, we won't feel all the pressure to make someone conform to our thinking or what we think should happen. We also need to let go of labels like right or wrong, or good or bad.  We should evaluate each decision or action based on how effective it was.

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About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.