What to do when you first meet the team you’re coaching

Starting to Coach a Team

Victoria Schiffer & Russell Baghban, Agile Coach Camp Melbourne 2017

How do you approach first contact with a team you are about to coach? This was the question I posed at Agile Coach Camp Melbourne, where I facilitated a session on this topic.

Four brave souls volunteered to role play a team meeting their Agile Coach for the first time. Each team member played the part of someone new to Agile. The team member’s responses varied from apprehension and fear, to curiosity and even bravado. It was a hard gig for the Coach!

I’d like to thank the 15 or so engaged folk who generated the ideas so ably summarised by Victoria Schiffer and Russell Baghban’s visual depiction of the session. Here’s my deeper exploration of the ideas shared.

Start with a warm handover

It’s easy to know when the coach’s sponsor hasn’t provided a warm handover of the coach to the team. It sounds something like this – “I’m not seeing the output I’d expect. I’ve brought in an Agile Coach to improve things”. This isn’t a warm handover!

Sponsors can set a coach up for success by being honest, but not brutal – “I know you are working hard. We’re still encountering road blocks as we implement an Agile way of working. Given that this is new for us, I’ve brought in an Agile Coach to support you.”

Sometimes a coach will find there’s been no expectation set of what the coach’s role will be. In the absence of any handover whatsoever, the coach will need to explain what a coach can do. How the coach will support the team, is an ongoing conversation.

Form a coaching triangle

A coaching triangle refers to the relationship between sponsor, coach and team. Before beginning to coach a team it’s essential for the coach to understand the sponsor’s expectation of the coach, and of the team. This is tricky, as the coach may discover there’s a need to influence or coach the sponsor, to guide an effective outcome.

Establishing a good relationship with the team is essential for the coach, but keep your expectations for the first meeting at “let’s get to learn something about each other”.

The coach must also be aware that the team’s relationship with the sponsor is most likely one of history and expectations. While it’s great to be a catalyst for new ideas, a good coach seeks to ensure the team and the sponsor are in step.

Listen listen listen

Michael Bungay Stanier expresses it best when he says, “Get comfortable with silence”. When you are meeting a team for the first time, the temptation is to launch into a description of who you are and what you want to achieve with the team. Some folks even suggest that putting together a coaching contract should be the first thing on the coach’s agenda.

Resist the urge! Consider starting with, “Tell me about you guys”, then simply listen listen listen. Sure, you might ask a few questions along the way, but in Bungay Stanier’s words “bite your tongue and don’t fill the silence”. The silence that follows a question you’ve asked is the person thinking, and that’s great!

Don’t set an agenda

Truly… don’t set an agenda for the first meeting. Let that meeting be an opportunity for the folks in the team to talk, and to tell you what they want to tell you. It’s the first best time to get insight about who each individual is, and how they interact. Is there someone who is quieter than the others? Why might this be so? Do individual’s perspectives cohese, or diverge? Is there defensiveness, resistance or hopefully curiosity about what comes next?

Don’t feel you have to direct the conversation – let it unfold. Sometimes holding the first meeting in a coffee shop, rather than a meeting room, can reduce the awkwardness, and help folks feel more comfortable.

Express curiosity, but don’t solve problems

When you are introduced to a new team, the perfect prop can be the question. “How does your work fit into…?” This allows a team to explain their understanding of both their work, and the obstacles they face. This is not the time to solve problems, but rather to express curiosity and learn more.

Bungay Stanier again, talks about “Taming the advice monster”. There will be a time to discuss approaches and even offer advice, but not in the first meeting with a team.

The wrap up

The best wrap up is to leave folks ready for what might come next. Propose another opportunity to meet. Suggest the team might think about things they are curious to learn more about, or some of the obstacles they mentioned in this meeting, and take it from there.

If you do choose to put in place a coaching contract with the team, you’ll know when it is the right time, but it’s rarely at the first meeting.

The infographic accompanying this post is the collective wisdom of those at Agile Coach Camp. During the session there was divergence of opinion on many of the ideas that surfaced. What we all agreed on though, was that change is not prescriptive. Use your first meeting with a team to begin the process of building trust. It is what will be required for the team’s change journey.

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