Six puzzles for the team coach

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Working with groups can be pretty exciting. Numerous colleagues find it a pleasure and a challenge to help groups and teams develop. Sometimes in the role of team leader or project leader, sometimes as a consultant, trainer or team coach. What exactly are the specific puzzles associated with the role of team coach, I wondered. Here are six of them.

1. Who is your client?

Probably the team! you say. However, in real life only very few invitations come from the team itself. It’s the managers, project leaders and team leaders who seek help, ‘on behalf of’ or ‘for’ the team. I don’t mind if my first contact is with the principal, but it’s impossible to start working without the endorsement of the whole team. So I usually have intakes with them, either individually, or – ever more so – in little groups. If that’s not possible I will make a plan with a few team members and ask them to share it with the rest of the team. If that’s not even feasible, I will use the first team session to check motivation and make up a ‘psychological contract’ with the collective. If the team doesn’t buy it, I’m not their coach. So who’s my client? The whole team and not the team lead.

2. You always get something out of it?

What if you’re hired by a team who appears thoroughly motivated, but after a while has little to ask? A ‘you-always-get-something-out-of-it’ team. Ever had this? You are working really hard and the team co-operates duly, but without spunk. We’ve all been there, and before you know it, it’s pushing five. Too late for a serious rescue attempt. Honestly, have you never thought, “I’ll just sit through it and I’m off …?” Understandable, but not professional. Don’t let it happen, it’s not good for anyone. Better call it a day before the end… you’d be surprised what might surface then…

3. The team leader participates?

Duh! Yet, I heard team leaders who thought it’d be a good idea to coach the team without them. My advice is to not agree with this. The team is a system and all of the roles are important. With team coaching, as a shared experience, the team shows that it can bear a joint responsibility. Sometimes it is helpful to provide the team leader with additional advice. Some of them politely suggest they’ll keep themselves a bit in the background. Perhaps well-intentioned, but all it does is make the team dynamics unnatural: the team can frolic around in the playground while the leader watches benevolent from aside. No, the team leader should act like they normally do (if this is still possible). There is one exception: in an escalated conflict, with the leader as one of the factions, you could temporarily commute between parties to test the waters, hear everyone out first, or negotiate the terms.

4. Are individual conversations confidential?

A thorny issue. If it’s proper coaching talks, yes. If it’s intake interviews, then rather not. Most of my colleagues would insist on confidentiality but I see little point in becoming a vessel full of secrets. Of course I will deal carefully and tactfully with what I hear. But for many teams the very learning issue is to become more open with each other. You won’t achieve this when they open up to you and no one else. Or, worse, if you become the messenger. Of course I will announce beforehand that intakes are not necessarily confidential. People are usually not bothered.

5. Can you have a personal interest?

Absolutely. It would be strange if you hadn’t. But be very careful to let them weigh in too much in your approach. This is exactly the reason why for team leaders or project managers it’s risky to adopt a coaching role. But also external, independent consultants have their opinions and desires. It is tempting to suggest the team to book a few sessions more, it is only human to keep confrontational feedback behind, it’s logical that you sometimes would make completely different choices, but when you’re a team coach; it is not about you.

6. Initiative or not?

If you walk along with a team for a while, it’s not unusual that you take some initiatives. You distribute the program. Schedule an evaluation session. Collect issues for the agenda. Catch up with your sponsor. Make adjustments, et cetera. Personally, I’m rather reluctant with this, even though it’s not commercially very smart. I show that I’m available, that I’m interested, but I won’t be pulling the cart. Bear with the silence if you dare, and if the team doesn’t contact you… tricky puzzle!

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