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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Mar 2019

The craft of team coaching

An Executive Coach works 1:1 with a leader, a Pairs Coach works with two leaders at a time and a Team Coach works with a team of leaders. I do all three, although not at the same time!

Team coaching is hugely rewarding and often challenging work and I want to say a bit about why I do it and what it means to me. My journal entries are always prompted by recent experience, and I want to thank Georgina Woudstra for an excellent Coaching at Work Team Coaching Masterclass last week that prompted me to put electronic pen to paper today.

Why do I want to coach teams?

I have been fascinated by how groups work since a young age. Perhaps my early experience as a shy observer on the fringes of social groups now serves me just as well as my time as an active team member and leader later in my career? Many leadership teams are made up of highly capable individuals but do not maximise their collective capability. A team coach can play a role in increasing this collective capability and the team’s impact. Today’s complex problems require team efforts and teams deserve support to meet that challenge. Team coaching is a craft that I enjoy learning and practicing. I call it a craft because it involves practical skills that can be learned from great teachers but that ultimately need to be honed in practice over time. I don’t believe team coaching perfection is achievable but I enjoy working towards it.

What is Team Coaching?

The way I describe my role as team coach is as follows:

My role is to support a team to be effective. The definition of ‘effective’ depends on the team. My work includes helping a team stay aware of their context, their intentions, their impact on stakeholders and followers, their processes and their patterns of relating in order to be agile and creative in achieving their goals. Critically, I am also here to support the team leader to create an optimum environment for effective work.

How does Team Coaching differ from 1:1 Coaching?

There are many parallels between individual coaching and team coaching.  For example the team coach does not come with a prescription for success. I treat the team as a creative, intelligent entity that will find its own way to be effective in its context. Although there are many models of team effectiveness out there*, they are frameworks, not the answer.

What is different about team coaching compared to individual coaching are the layers of complexity that a team coach must attend to.  In preparation for a recent training programme, I wrote a list of all the things I attend to when coaching a team and it covered 2 sides of A4.  Here are some of the important elements.

1 Contracting for Team Coaching

Multiple team members means that integrity and confidentiality need extra special attention. And when it comes to goals and expectations, it’s important for a team coach to clearly contract with the leader and the team to avoid a mismatch of assumptions.  Team coaching is a ‘muddier’ field than 1:1 coaching. In organisations there are many ways in which teams and groups have been intervened with over the years including training, process improvement, task facilitation, process facilitation, consulting, coaching, team building, team psychometrics and team development. It’s important to be clear about goals and roles at the beginning of a team coaching piece of work.  Goals for a team who are just starting out might be different to goals when a team is in execution mode. Goals for a temporary team may be very different from a stable team. Goals might be tangible performance goals and/or about learning, capability and climate.

2 Levels of Systems

A leadership team is a system operating within multiple other systems, from the largest global systems to industry and stakeholder systems. Although a team coach does not take responsibility for the delivery of a team’s results, she is usually working in service of the team’s contribution to organisational goals and purpose. It is rare that a team is in control of all the resources it needs to be successful. Usually, team members are in some kind of matrix structure and many of the agents of success sit outside of the room, or the organisation, so a team coach needs to stay aware of the eco-system of which the team is part.

3 Sub-systems

A team also has sub-systems within in it. Pairings and sub-groups within a team can have their own sub-cultures and dynamics. And, of course, there are individuals in the team too, each of whom has intra-personal dynamics, a history, a set of assumptions and a version of the truth about what’s going on. The team coach’s primary focus is the team as a system but paying attention to sub-groups and individuals in that mix is important.

4 Team leadership and followership

Some researchers believe that the effectiveness of the team is 50% down to the leader**. The team leader is responsible for creating the conditions for team effectiveness and is accountable for the team’s results.  Leading a team is a responsibility and a challenge.  I like Amy Edmondson’s description of leadership as ‘a practical activity in a complex setting’. It includes setting direction, creating shared meaning, shared goals and shared plans, cultivating the right team culture, empowering agile execution and motivating people to stretch themselves. A team leader has power in the team but also the potential to feel isolated and exposed. A team coach’s relationship with the leader of the team is crucial. I believe the team coach is there to support leadership and followership in the team. A team coach ignores power dynamics and hierarchy at her peril.

5 Team Task Processes

Teams engage in tasks such as information-sharing, problem-solving and decision-making. Team coaches benefit hugely from an awareness of how such processes can run smoothly in teams. I have a background as a facilitator and am familiar with many tools to support teams to do work together. However, my role as a team coach goes further. I’m interested in the team’s capacity to become aware of how they go about their work in order that they can manage and improve these processes for themselves.

6 Team Relational Processes

In order to engage in task processes, teams need to converse, discuss, give, take and share space. A team’s ability to use a range of relational approaches depending on the task in hand is key to their effectiveness. As a team coach I am aware of the way the team relate to one another, their pace, their body language, their patterns of conversation. The more range a team has to agree, disagree, converge, diverge etc the more agility they have in their tasks together. It is part of my role to raise the group’s awareness of their habits of relating to each other in order that they can be agile in the face of their challenges.

7 Diversity and difference

Diversity in a team brings the possibility of creativity.  Diversity is about visible diversity such as gender, but it is also about more hidden diversity – personality, function, knowledge fields, assumptions and mental models. A diverse team holds the potential to solve complex problems creatively by bringing different knowledge and perspectives. However, research has shown that the fact of diversity is not enough – the conditions have to be right for members to navigate their differences. Diversity brings the risk of misunderstandings and miscommunication and a team coach can help those who are different to find enough common ground to be able to influence one another. She can also help the leader to create inclusiveness and increase safety.

8 Psychological Safety

Much has been written about Psychological Safety and I’d recommend Amy Edmondson’s work highly to those who are interested. Psychological Safety enables team members to bring their best selves to the challenges of the team without fear of being shamed or humiliated. Leaders have a role in creating this psychological safety and team coaches can be a huge support in this endeavour. We can do this by seeking out all the voices in the team and by welcoming contributions as well-intended. We can help team members communicate about their impact on one another. We can normalise the sense of jeopardy that people feel in interpersonal relationships and encourage team members to be brave in the face of these risks. A team coach’s presence can encourage the leader and the group to be more safely vulnerable, more safely bold, more safely themselves.

9 Danger!

A team coach knows that a pre-planned agenda for any work with a team is sorely tested the minute it meets reality! Being a team coach can be a white knuckle ride. There is an ever-present danger that I will be hooked into the team’s dynamic, floored by their uncertainties and confusions, triggered by their emotions or pulled to step into a role that is not mine to fulfil.  Sometimes the hardest work for a team coach is to keep grounded, remain self-aware and to self-manage. I will always make mistakes when I am team coaching.  A team coach must practice sitting with their own discomfort in teams and learn to get back on track when they get hooked by their own anxiety.

*Lencioni, Katzenbach, Smith, Hawkins, Leary-Joyce, Nevis and Edmondson are thought leaders I often to refer to.


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