On Becoming A Coach

June 29, 2007 — Posted by Al Shalloway

I am always being asked by people how they can become a coach. I thought maybe it was time to write a blog about this then. I'd like to start out by cautioning people that being a coach doesn't mean that you'll be listened to anymore than before you were a coach. I have found I have to earn my credibility every time I start an engagement.

I am clear that I can't speak about the best way to become a coach. I believe different people will have different paths. I can say that I have found that good managers tend to take less time becoming good coaches than most others. I think this is because good managers have learned how to give up control issues and have learned how to take advantage of the strengths of the people they are coaching. Actually, a good manager is already a good coach.

For me, the transition to being a coach was not that simple. When I started coaching, I was neither a good manager, nor a good coach. Prior to becoming a coach, my approach in management had been to try to get people to do things for me. A completely different perspective than where good coaching must come from. A good coach must come from service. The coach is there to serve the person he/she is coaching. That doesn't mean the coach doesn't tell the person what to do at times. It means that they are always acting in the best interest of the person being coached.

Anyway, once I started coaching (around 1996) I started getting more and more in touch with my commitment to serve people. That was good. But sometimes people wouldn't learn as fast as I would like. I can remember one woman I was coaching a fair amount would not pick up on things as quickly as I thought she should. I'd sometimes add some tone to my voice as if she was doing something wrong. There was a bit of anger in my voice. Each day I'd do this, I'd reflect on why I was upset with her. She was reasonably smart, so her progress probably had as much to do with me as her. But knowing that didn't help. After a few days of trying to figure out what was making me upset, I finally realized what it was. My insight started when I realized that under upset/anger is always fear. So I looked to see what I was afraid of. I saw that I was afraid that her not making progress would reflect adversely on me. Her poor progress was a reflection of my poor coaching. I was afraid that her poor progress would diminish my value to the client and perhaps I'd lose my contracting job. Of course, getting upset with her was diminishing it even more but whoever said emotions were logical?

Once I started to think about this, I realized that I could not coach anyone if I felt their rate of progress was a direct measure of my ability. The pressure of getting results would be just too great. At some point, the person being coached has to take some responsibility for their progress. But I had some responsibility as well. What was that? I came to the conclusion that, at least for me, the best attitude was that as long as I was showing the person being coached a way to improve, as long as some progress was being made, I shouldn't let the speed at which the progress was being made reflect on me. I could come totally from my commitment to assist the person but realize it was their responsibility to make the movement.

After a while I found that keeping this perspective enabled me to totally concentrate on the person being coached, with no attention on myself. Now, I won't say this happens all the time, but it is an essential place to come back to whenever you leave it. Remember, coaching is about the other person - not yourself. Something else you might consider useful is an article on what to figure out what to teach in an ezine I wrote a ways back. It's called Trim Tabs and Pick Up Sticks.

I believe coaching requires a strong commitment to service, continual introspection, and, some knowledge about what coaching is. I've added a section to our bibliography containing books I consider essential for people who want to coach others. Good luck for anyone committed to being a coach. I can tell you from personal experience that there are few greater rewards or challenges.

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


Hi Alan,
My experience as a learning coach began about 1995, when I thought knowing a little about iterative development, self-organizing teams, simplicity, and transparency would cause great changes. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Most didn't really know or care about those things. They were too busy trying to get their code into a repository, where someone else (QA) would work out the bugs, while they wrote more code. I was never forceful with people. I observed and didn't bring up mistakes very often, because I thought they would eventually realize their mistakes and correct them. That's when I realized that as a coach and mentor, that was my job. Over the years, my style hasn't changed that much, but I talk to people a lot more often and when coaching new teams, I like to observe a little - provide a little feedback - observe some more - and provide a little more feedback. Using this technique creates a warmer relationship with teams, which in turn gives me more credibility among teams and management. Bottom line, I've learned to be a lot more patient with people by allowing them to make mistakes, reminding them of their mistakes at retrospectives, and eliciting from them what they should do to improve. I check my techniques periodically to see how I can improve how I coach others, and I distribute coaching tips once a week to all teams on things that I observe that could use improvement and suggest ways to correct those mistakes. Of course, not all are mistakes. Sometimes people try different ways to see how they work for their teams, and that's okay. This is a key part of the "inspect" and "adapt" principle - trying different techniques with a goal of improving their productivity and team synergy.

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