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Want Better Agile? Just Turn Managers Into Coaches!

Turn Managers Into Coaches

Anthony Mersino

Wed Nov 22 2023

11:20 AM

I was struck recently by an article from Forbes that said in order to create high-performing teams we need to turn managers into coaches.

Earlier in my agile learning journey, I would have been all over that. “Yeah, that’s right. They are the problem! The managers need to learn to coach.” 

Maybe I am evolving but I didn’t have that reaction when I saw the article. It actually struck a discordant note with me because not long ago I had learned a hard lesson from fellow coach Bob Galen about having empathy for managers.

For those of you who don’t know him, Bob is a seasoned Agile coach. I think seasoned is a polite way of saying old (ahem) I mean mature. (He refers to himself as “salty”.) In any case, Bob is a guy who has been around the block. Bob is recognized for his coaching and managerial chops and he even has an alter ego as an Agile Moose.

Agile Moose from Bob Galen - Agile Coaching Expert

But I digress.

Bob took me to task about empathy because of the articles I had written about agile transformations in organizations and some of the challenges with first-line and middle managers. What I saw as organizational impediments to agility, Bob saw differently. He saw it as managers doing the best job they could, given their knowledge and the system they were operating in. His coaching caused me to view managers and leaders in a different light.

Bob reminded me of our exchange recently when he asked me to share the story in his forthcoming coaching book, Badass Agile Coaching. I don’t think he called the lesson “Don’t Do This Dumbass Thing That Anthony Did” but you get the point.

I probably sound like one of those recently reformed smokers who, now that they quit, can’t stand to be around people that smoke. “Like, how can they be that dumb to keep smoking“.

So the article from Forbes was about how managers need to adapt their style to a coaching style. Easy peasy. Let’s just get that converter machine that Elon Musk invented up and running.

Turn Managers Into Coaches

Ah, if only it were that simple. But it seems like that is the prevailing wisdom these days. If we could just get managers to change then all would be well. It isn’t just Forbes making those kinds of statements.

Stefan Wolpers and Johanna Rothman are both recognized as agile experts. In describing a talk Rothman was giving at Agile Camp Berlin 2021, Wolpers wrote:

Too many people say, “With agile, we don’t need no stinkin’ managers.” However, because managers create and refine the culture, modern managers create and refine the agile culture. Without modern management, any agile initiative will die. It’s time to invite managers to change their behaviors and create a real agile culture.

While “inviting managers to change their behaviors” sounds more polite than “we don’t need no stinkin’ managers”, I imagine that it would be offensive to many managers.

Like the Forbes article, this statement makes some assumptions. First, that the managers behavior needs to change. And second, that managers need to be told that.

Are we sure this is the case? All managers need to change? Do we know for sure that managers need to become coaches? Or is it possible that managers and leaders are just a handy scapegoat to be blamed for organizational culture?

Change is tricky that way. It is always easier to point out a change that someone else has to do than to recognize changes needed within.

Bottom Line: I don’t know if Forbes is right or Wolpers and Rothman are right. What I do know is that people are generally not malicious and most are not ignorant either. If it was as simple as turning them into coaches or inviting them to change their behaviors, don’t you think that they would have already done that?


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