April 29, 2019
How exactly does someone become an Agile Coach? Recently, several people have reached out to me to ask how they can become an Agile Coach. They have been practicing Scrum Masters and they want to “move up” to Agile Coach.
There are many paths you could take to become an Agile Coach. Below I share some recommendations about how to do that along with a little bit about my own agile journey as context.
And as a bonus, I’ve invited several experienced agile coaches to share their tips for people who want to become an agile coach. So you will get to hear from a dozen practicing agile coaches.
But first, let’s take a look at why I think there are going to be a lot of people wanting to become an Agile Coach.
Agile coaching is a great job for those who have the skills and temperament. Back in 2019, Indeed.com listed Agile Coach as one of the top 25 best jobs in the US. Agile Coach was the highest paid of those “best jobs” with an average annual salary of $161K back in 2019. In 2021, ZipRecruiter is showing the average annual salary slightly lower at $154K.
So yes, it seems that Agile Coaching is a pretty attractive role and I would expect more people to show interest or become agile coaches. It is going to be a gold rush! And there are going to be a lot of new “agile coaches” getting in on the gold, as we can see has already occurred.
And that leads to our first tip from a seasoned Agile Coach – in this case from Bob Galen of RGalen Consulting Group. You can watch the video below or read the transcript.
Bob Galen – What is your personal “why” you want to coach? What are your goals? So if your goals are – sort of joking, tongue-in-cheek – so if your goals are making money and sort of having prestige and all of that then I think that’s probably the wrong why. I think a better why would be to become a servant coach and a servant leader and to really help teams and to help whoever you’re coaching to get better.
I’d like to think my path to becoming an agile coach was a straight line. Pretty much from start to finish. Something like this.
Well, it wasn’t anything like that at all. My actual path to agile coaching looked a lot more like this. Here is a little bit of background on that journey.
1985 – 2008 – Leading Technology Projects and Programs
Part of my strength as an agile coach comes from leading technology projects and programs, something I have done since the late 1980s. (I know, I am as old as dirt.) By the late 1990s, I was specializing in troubled project recovery and taking on large technology programs. One key thing I learned at this time was that most problems tend to be people problems and not technical ones.
These programs put my people skills to the test and I actually had some setbacks. Along the way, I wrote a book about the lessons I painstakingly learned about working with people. All of this was excellent preparation to becoming an Agile Coach. Here are a few milestones along the path:
2008 – Taught Agile Project Management Course
Since the early 2000’s, I gained a lot of experience developing and teaching courses. So when I was asked, I jumped at the chance to develop an Agile project management course. In hindsight, I knew so very little! I developed the agile project management course around Jim Highsmith’s book by the same name.
I was so excited about agile and Scrum that I began applying agile approaches (mostly incorrectly) on the large technology programs I was running at that time. I had one hammer and I put it to good use on all the nails I saw around me.
2011 – First “Agile Transformation”
I was running a large IT program in 2011 when the organization I was working with decided to adopt agile for the program. I am grateful that they brought in agile experts for training and coaching. It helped me to appreciate how much I still had to learn.
At this time I began reading voraciously. Through books I learned about Mike Cohn, Craig Larman, Dean Leffingwell, James Shore, Kent Beck, Alistair Cockburn and other experts. This inspired me to keep on learning. Around this time I also pursued my PMI-ACP which was my first agile certification.
2012 – First Agile Coaching Job
After finishing my first agile program, the firm that did the agile training and coaching asked me to help them support an agile transformation at another client. I was named the Agile Coach and I initially served as Scrum Master for the teams to model the behavior while we trained the client team to be Scrum Masters.
Yay, I’m an Agile Coach!
And that leads to our second tip from a seasoned Agile Coach, Rick Waters. Rick is a not only a coach, he is a Certified Scrum Trainer and Certified Business Agility Coach.
Rick Waters – Please don’t just go out and start calling yourself a coach when you know you’re not. When you have a little bit of experience as a scrum master, please don’t call yourself a coach. It’s as easy as doing this:
*Puts on a hat that says “coach”*
But this doesn’t make me a coach. It’s my skills and my experience and how I relate that to others and help others grow that makes me a coach.
Yikes! I kinda wish I had Rick’s coaching earlier!
Since 2012, I have been doing this work of Agile coach helping organizations move to or improve their agile processes. Along the way, I got my CSM, CSP, PSPO and CAL1 certifications. I’ve been coaching pretty much nonstop since then. In 2014, I helped Northwestern University launch an Agile Certificate program and I’ve been teaching Agile there since then.
That is what I did. It worked for me because of the long experience I had working with teams and the people skills I have developed. But that is not what I would recommend.
There are many paths you could take to become an agile coach. With the help of my fellow coaches, I’ve outlined a few recommended steps below.
To become an Agile Coach today, I believe that you should be extremely well versed in Scrum. There are coaches that specialize in XP, Kanban or Lean, but 70-80% of the world is using Scrum. So you really need to understand and master the Scrum Framework.
Which means you should also have experience as a Scrum Master. Or at least that is my recommendation. Good coaches could also come from the Product Owner or Development Team member role. Having experience in all 3 Scrum roles would be great! But if you only have one, I would recommend the experience as a Scrum Master. If you don’t have experience working as part of a Scrum or Agile Team, start there.
Practicing one of the Scrum Roles is great and complimenting that hands-on experience with training and certification is even better. I strongly recommend one of the Scrum Master Certifications (either PSM from Scrum.org or CSM from the Scrum Alliance). You can read more about my thoughts on the entry-level certifications here. Second I would recommend Product Owner Certification (PSPO or CSPO) and Scrum Developer Certification.
You can go deeper with Scrum of course and Scrum certifying bodies are happy to comply with lots of options. I can’t vouch for the value or ROI of these certifications. I did achieve my Certified Scrum Professional (CSP) from Scrum Alliance in 2014 by attending workshops with Craig Larman. I was inspired and deeply impacted by Larman’s no-nonsense approach.The workshops were extremely helpful; I don’t know that the CSP designation was.
Scrum Alliance also has a few Scrum Coaching certifications for the team and enterprise level. I don’t know much about them but I don’t think they would hurt your career if you want to become an agile coach.
I suspect many of you are wondering, now that I have mastered the Scrum Master job, am I ready to start coaching? That is a great question for Mike Marchi, a Management Consultant and Agile Practice Leader with Strive Consulting.
Michael Marchi – So I get asked all the time, “when will I be ready to be a coach?” “when can I move from being a scrum master and do a coaching role?” and I tend to think it happens after you experienced being a scrum master for a number of years – in a number of different environments, and when you find yourself getting to the point where your concerns are beyond what the team is experiencing. You’re starting to see things in the culture, in the organization that need changing. And I think at that point when you start recognizing patterns of behavior among – you know- that you can draw upon from all your different experiences. I think really that’s when you’re starting to reach the point of moving into a coaching role.
OK, you’ve mastered Scrum. Now you need to keep on learning and my recommendation is to hit the books.
I know, I know, book learning is an old-fashioned concept. Still, you have to do it. I cannot emphasize enough the role that reading and self-study played in my quest to become an Agile Coach. I have worked hard to read all that I could on topics related to agile coaching and development. This includes blog posts from trusted sources, as well as books. My personal goal is to read a book every two weeks.
What should you read? I’ve provided a couple of recommended reading lists on my related blog, How to Succeed as an Agile Coach. There are a number of obvious books for coaches like those on Scrum or Agile. There are also less obvious book choices related to change management, psychology, organizational development, and leadership.
As a starting point, here is a top 10 list of books I think are essential reading for Agile Coaches.
Let’s hear from some other coaches on the importance of learning and self-study. First up is Gene Gendel, an Organizational Design Coach, Consultant and Trainer.
Gene Gendel – As a coach, you must continuously self-educate in various ways. Reading, get structured learning from credible sources, being coached or mentored by other more experienced coaches. Through this kind of interaction, you shall grow. Your journey will never end, as it requires lots of learning along the way. So don’t ever think of yourself as “I am done” or “I am perfect”.
Emilio Perez, an Agile Coach with 3PTSTOBEAGILE makes a similar recommendation about the importance of learning and becoming a better person.
Emilio Perez – Do lots of reading, networking, updating certifications, attending seminars, conferences, summits, and contribute to our community. You see, I love coaching, it’s not just about Agile. It’s about making a commitment to becoming a better person and a better professional.
What about training and certification beyond Scrum? Most coaches would recommend that you extend your mastery beyond Scrum. After all, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. I’ve been there.
Let’s hear from Tom Cagley, a Transformation Coach about learning beyond Scrum.
Tom Cagley – Never fall in love with a single technique or idea. Very frankly you’re going to need to bend, fold, staple, and mutilate all sorts of techniques because context matters. Every situation’s different. Use an entire palette. Spend time every day, and I do mean every day, learning something new. So that you have that palette to draw from.
With Scrum as a starting point, there are many possible training courses and certifications that you could take to develop as an Agile Coach. Here are a few that I would recommend.
Lean and the Toyota Production System provide the underpinnings for Agile and Scrum. I don’t think you can be an effective Agile Coach without a solid understanding of Lean Principles and Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing experiences.
For Kanban, you can read Kanban in Action or David Anderson’s classic Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business.
You can also take training classes on Kanban and get certified. Check out the Lean Kanban University for various Kanban training courses and certification. You can also get the Professional Scrum with Kanban certification from Scrum.org.
Though not as popular among agile enthusiast, the agile certifications from the Project Management Institute (PMI) can bring depth and increase your understanding of agile. Unlike the Scrum certifications, the PMI certifications include eXtreme Programming (XP), Lean Software Development, Kanban and other frameworks and associated practices.
The PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) was the first agile certification that I obtained back in 2012 and at the time it was useful to broaden my perspective.
The strength of the PMI-ACP is that it is not specific to Scrum. Scrum certifications will focus on, well, Scrum. They may cover lean principles but don’t generally cover lean software development, eXtreme Programming or Kanban. The PMI-ACP does this.
The downside of the PMI-ACP is that was created by the Project Management Institute. With their tendency to see the world as full of projects that need to be controlled, they generally see agile very differently than those people who leverage the agile mindset and principles.
The PMI-ACP certification is a little unique in that it requires agile experience and includes a rigorous exam. I found that my study and preparation to pass the exam was more valuable to me than the letters after my name. You can read more about the PMI-ACP certification in this blog – Get the PMI-ACP without Hardly Trying.
In 2019 PMI bought Disciplined Agile (DA). DA proponents pride themselves on being agnostic and pragmatic. DA includes Scrum and a few certifications called Scrum Master which you can read about here.
Like the PMI-ACP, DA is broader than Scrum. And as far as I can tell, DA does not see the entire world in terms of projects.
Lyssa Adkins, the author of Coaching Agile Teams, runs an agile coaching program at the Agile Coaching Institute that I have heard is excellent. Several of my colleagues have taken Lyssa’s Agile Coach Bootcamp and they give it great reviews.
Here are some of the current offerings from the Agile Coaching Institute:
They also provide opportunities for continued learning through coaching competency cohorts that meet in person and virtually for 10 months.
I recommend the ACI programs because of the strong endorsements I have received from my colleagues, not because I have experienced them personally. Please visit the ACI site for more information.
Another path for development as an Agile Coach is the ICAgile training curriculum. IC Agile is the International Consortium for Agile. They are not a training company; they defined a roadmap, set learning objectives and accredit training for various agile roles including agile coach. In their words:
International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) is a community-driven organization that consists of pioneers, experts, and trusted advisors. ICAgile is not just another certification body. We are changing the way people do agile by helping them become agile.
From the beginning, ICAgile’s mission has been to help organizations achieve sustainable agility by focusing on the transformation of people, not just processes. We do this by providing learning journeys that equip people with an Agile mindset as a foundation, then guide them along a path towards mastery in their chosen discipline.
IC Agile has defined a roadmap and training and certification for 3 levels of agile coaching. Lyssa Adkins, mentioned in the previous item, was a key contributor along with Ahmed Sidkey to the agile coaching roadmap. If trying to grow as an Agile Coach, I would recommend getting these training courses and related certifications as well.
International Coaching Federation
While not specific to becoming an Agile Coach, getting certified as a coach is also highly recommended. Coaching is a growing profession and there is a professional group for coaching called the International Coaching Federation. The ICF provides certification for professional coaches, agnostic of whether they are a life coach, executive coach or agile coach.
ICF Credential-holders are part of a self-regulating group of elite coaches who provide accountability to clients and the coaching profession as a whole. They pursue and complete rigorous education and practice requirements that provide unquestioned legitimacy to their commitment to excellence in coaching.– International Coaching Federation
The ICF provides three levels of professional certification for coaches. Each of these has specific requirements for training hours you need to complete and coaching experience you need to obtain. You can learn more about these by following the links below:
I don’t have first-hand experience with the ICF. I did investigate it a few years back and found the program rigorous, though somewhat time-consuming. The coaches I spoke to in my investigation thought highly of it and valued the framework and tools that coaches can learn and apply.
Here are some additional tips for how to become an Agile Coach. My coaching colleagues and I will provide details in the sections that follow.
Tip #1 – Your Focus Changes as an Agile Coach
Most aspiring Agile Coaches will come from the role of Scrum Master. As Scrum Masters, their focus is typically on helping the team. [Many Scrum Masters neglect coaching the PO and the organization, often at their own peril!]
To become an effective Agile Coach, you will need to shift your focus from the team to the organization. You will need to evaluate the ability of the organization to leverage the agile mindset and agile ways of working, as Steve Young, Senior Agile Coach shares below.
Steve Young – As a new agile coach, you need to realize that it’s about the people now and less about the software and the process to get it done. Are the people understanding how to use agile principles in practices? Are they applying them in their day to day software lives? Are they using it to their advantage instead of just another process?
Tip #2 – Don’t Do this as an Agile Coach!
Do we all agree that as an agile coach we should not criticize or, God forbid, yell at our clients? Yeah, great. Thank you. Yelling and criticizing clients is bad for business. It makes all coaches look bad.
I’ve frequently been tempted to yell at clients. And critical thoughts often enter my head, which I try not to blurt out. When this happens I try to remind myself:
You can read more about what not to do as an agile coach here.
Tip #3 – An Agile Coach will Listen More than they Speak
Not long ago I overheard a Scrum Master that I worked with on a call with his team. It was one of the Sprint events, and, the Scrum Master was doing all the talking. Not great. You can read about it here in Scrum Masters Need to be Good Listeners.
To be a great agile coach, you need to do even more listening. And learn to ask great, open-ended and powerful questions. Here is what Frank Rios, Enterprise Agile Coach has to say about asking questions that help the client figure things out for themselves.
Frank Rios – Listen more than you talk. Ask questions. Ask lots of questions. Try not to give solutions. Consultants give solutions, coaches believe the people you are coaching, are capable of coming up with the solutions themselves. Teach them to come up with the solutions themselves. That is being an agile coach.
Tip #4 – Take Notes
One of the ways that I have found helpful to focus on listening and not talking is to take extensive notes. When I attend a team meeting, I will stand outside the circle and avoid eye contact with the team. I use my phone or iPad and take notes in the OneNote application, keeping a separate folder for each team. Of course you could use a physical notebook or other tool as well.
By taking notes, I am less likely to say something. I will often note that the team skipped over something or someone in the conversation, and then I wait and see if they come back to it. They usually do. And if they don’t, maybe they didn’t need to.
My notes are helpful if the team or Scrum Master asks for feedback afterwards. I don’t share my notes unless someone asks, and even then, I only share what I believe will be helpful to the team’s growth.
The added advantage of having a written trail is that you can go back and review those notes for your improvement, as Dave Saboe, Senior Agile Coach, shares below.
Dave Saboe – Two things: one, be curious. Curiosity helps us to find the real root cause and avoid any biases we might have in interactions with others. And number two, keep an observation journal. As you go throughout your day, write down any observations you have. Maybe someone changes their body language when you talk about a certain topic, maybe you see something on the wall that might be interesting. At the end of the week, review your notes, you might be able to spot patterns and get an indication of what’s really going on in your organization. Increasing your powers of observation will also make you a better coach.
Tip #5 – Pick Your Spots
One thing that I’ve learned over my tenure as an agile coach is that coaching is worthless if it is not heard or accepted.
People need to be in a position to actually hear, process, and accept what the coach is saying. That only happens if there is a trust relationship between the coach and coachee, and the coachee is open and receptive to coaching. Any other time, it is better to save your breath as a coach.
Implied in this tip is the idea that you need to build a trust relationship before attempting to coach anyone. It is not simple or quick. Building a trust relationship involves getting to know people on a one to one basis and understanding them as a person.
Read more about picking your spots in, What Makes an Agile Coach Effective.
Tip #6 – Get As Much Experience as Possible as an Agile Coach
Wow, this tip is really really important. If you have only experienced one organization and just a handful of teams, your experience base is too limited to be an effective coach. Get out and see more teams and more organizations.
I’ve been lucky to have worked with over a hundred different teams as a coach or trainer, and nearly 30 different organizations. I’ve had a chance to experience what is effective as an agile coach, and just as frequently, what is not effective. Here are some related comments from coach and Certified Scrum Trainer, Maria Matarelli.
Maria Matarelli – As an agile coach, it’s good to have a variety of experience. So not just working with one or two teams at one company, but looking for opportunities to learn from other scrum masters or coaches at different companies and different ways that people are applying agile and learning from different challenges and different contexts. Also get involved in your local community. Attend conferences, meet-ups, online forums, engage with other people, share resources, knowledge and learn from getting a variety of different perspectives.
Hopefully you’ve noticed by now a common thread among our guest coaches – the need to learn and get coaching from other coaches. That leads to the 7th and final tip.
Tip #7 – Get Agile Coaches to Mentor You
One important way to accelerate your learning and growth as an Agile Coach is to get coaching or mentoring from a more experienced coach. I’ve had the opportunity to partner with and learn from some great coaches over the years. Early in my career I got to work with Sally Elatta and Richard Dolman and I am grateful for their patience and investment. Though not a formal mentor, I had a 3-week exposure to coaching with Craig Larman which had a deep impact on me.
And I’ve had the great fortune to team coach with Tom Cagley and Susan DiFabio. I’ve learned so much from both of them and been able to improve my coaching through channeling their wisdom and voices when they are not around.
Rick Waters shares his thoughts about getting mentors:
Rick Waters – Great coaches need great coaches. If you don’t have a mentor, then it’s going to be very difficult for you to become a great coach. Some of my best advice for you is around finding yourself a mentor who you can talk to face-to-face on a daily or almost daily basis. Find this person who has great skills in coaching and take instruction and advice from them as much as you possibly can. Having them around to immediately receive feedback on exercises or practices that you are just trying out is immensely important.
Bonus Tip – Don’t Strive to be Indispensable as an Agile Coach!
One final note. An Agile Coach should not be striving to be indispensable, or to be at one organization forever. In fact, doing so will result in stunted growth for you and the organization.
When you become an Agile Coach, your job is to help the client help themselves, and not for them to be dependent on you as a coach. Let’s hear from Mike Marchi on this final tip:
Michael Marchi – When you are being a coach, one thing you have to keep in mind is your goal as a coach is to not be there forever. You are trained to teach these people to fish, give them the skills that they need to get along without you. A coach should never be trying to maintain their own longevity.
Another coach friend of mine refers to this as the Nanny McPhee approach:
“When you need me, but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go.”
– Nanny McPhee, Nanny McPhee the movie
I hope that you found this article and all the tips from experienced coaches helpful. I’d like to thank all the coaches for sharing their insights and wisdom. Thank you! And if you are reading this and you are in need of a coach, hire one of them!
PS: Please feel free to add your coaching tips to the comments below. You can also send me a video if you want to be included.