A Research Paper By Edwin Hanegraaf, Agile Coach, NETHERLANDS
Agile Coaching Context
As an agile coach, it is not only important to be knowledgeable (or the expert) in the agile domain but to be able to apply appropriate “learning” techniques to transfer that knowledge to people, teams, and companies that want to enhance their agile skills. Often four basic approaches are mentioned here:
- Consultation and advice
Despite the used terminology as “agile coach”, these agilists use all these approaches to different degrees. Therefore, in this research paper, the application of the coaching approach within this context is explored.
For this paper, an interview was conducted with Cherie Silas, who is both an accredited guide within the Scrum Alliance, holder of both Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC) and Certified Team Coach (CTC) accreditation, and an accredited master within the coaching domain, holder of the International Coaching Federation Master Coach Competence (ICF-MCC) accreditation.
Agile Coaching Interview
The most important goal of this interview is about exploring the impact of professional coaching within the agile coaching industry. By asking Cherie, who is a subject expert in both areas, it is expected that an extended exploration has been done in her journey towards the accreditations. In both areas, these accreditations require a lot of hard work and additional experience in the field to get there.
Therefore after exploring the person Cherie and her story, the interview focuses on the competencies and their relations within the two domains and about the impact within the agile world.
The interview has been recorded to allow full focus on having a good conversation around the aimed topics. Explicit consent for the recording has been asked for at the beginning of the interview conversation. The conversation was held over Zoom using a webcam. Furthermore, it was agreed upfront that the reflection of the interview within this document is going to be reviewed by Cherie before publication.
So let’s start with the first question: who is Cherie?
I’m a coach. I’ve got experience in executive leadership and management and moved on from there over to a very brief sit in project management. That didn’t make sense and so I did what I wanted. Later on, I found out it was Scrum. Well, not exactly Scrum, but it was more like a more scrum like. I’m a professional coach, I coach a lot of executives. It is not that I don’t go looking for executives, I coach just about anybody. I’m not like a niche-type person. I think your niche more finds you than you find it. However, I mostly get executives in one on one coaching probably just because I have an executive background. So that attracts them to me. On a personal side, I’ve been married for over 30 years, and I have five adult children and eight grandchildren.
You look so proud when you’re talking about your children…
I am. We have five great adult children who have navigated life successfully. And they’ve got great kids. I love my grandkids. I enjoy being a parent to adult children more than I enjoyed being a parent to younger children just because of the amount of work I don’t think parents get to enjoy their kids. I think you’re too busy feeding them and raising them and educating them and disciplining them. They don’t get any of the fun. As a grandparent, I get to have fun. And I love my kids as adults because I have no responsibility for them. And we can just have fun.
What came first: (ICF pure) coaching or agile coaching, or at least the mastery in it?
Well, agile coaching came first. And as I took on my first really big engagement with an airline, I was the only coach in an organization. I guess it was 500 developers, product owners, and Scrum Masters plus their managers. And so it was about 50 Scrum teams. And what I learned very quickly is I had to figure out how to scale. So I did some experimentation and figured out how to kind of scale across the organization, rather than working with individual teams, because can’t do that. And then I started to realize I needed something stronger, as in the skills to be able to work with the leaders and the executives. A friend of mine, Allison Pollard, worked also at that same airline, but in a different division. She and I did some work together. And she told me about this coaching thing, she learned it from Jake Calibri and Lyssa Adkins. That’s how I learned that this is exactly what I needed. After I started applying that, not just in one on one conversations with leaders, but overall, with other clients, I realized the difference in the impact it was making for sustainability. I saw how other coaches were working with clients and what was happening with their organizations, I saw a huge difference in the impact that taking a coaching approach had.
You answered already a part of the next question: what inspired you to gain mastery in the second area, so in becoming an ICF-MCC professional coach?
Seeing the impact of in the coaching of professional coaching and what it was making on my agile coaching, I think what brought me into mastery in agile coaching was the professional coaching. So I wanted to be good at it because I don’t generally compete with other people. I’m like, where’s the bar? Let me compete with that thing. And just the more I learned, the more I fell in love with coaching and its effects of it. That’s kind of what may be pursuing mastery. It was interesting when I worked with my first mentor coach towards MCC. The first meeting we had, she said, well, I want to tell you that people in careers like yours, where you coach some, and then you do all these other things, they generally don’t get to MCC, because they don’t do real coaching. And that was interesting. That’s not going to be this way with me. Because then I had a challenge, I think it’s time to prove you wrong, that people in industries like mine, really can be master coaches.
How long do you already have these certifications?
I got the CEC in 2016. And then CTC came around. I got the CTC probably a year and a half or so later because I’m a part of the CTC review committee. I guess I should probably get the CTC since I don’t have it. I love that group and team coaching. So it felt natural. I mean, I’ve done both types of work and I like them both. And then, of course, the MCC, I also have EMCC. I’m an accredited supervisor for coaches. So it’s coaching supervision, not like I’m your boss, supervisor, and a master coach with them also.
Within ICF, we refer to clients as naturally creative, resourceful, and whole, and within the scrum Alliance, we stress you don’t need to fix the customer. How do these two things relate?
Well, I think they relate directly to one another, I add competently. I believe they’re creative, resourceful, and whole. But especially in the Agile space, you have to also believe they’re competent. So if they’re creative, resourceful, and whole and competent, then they don’t need you there to fix them. Your role as an Agile coach is not to fix the client. That’s a pretty arrogant thought. I mean, think about it. This client has been working at their company for however many years, they’ve got deep knowledge of it, but they’ve invited you to be a partner with them to take the next step in their journey. And then you go in there for 15 minutes and you think you can tell them how to do their job and run their company. That’s pretty arrogant. I don’t know their domain. Just because I did this somewhere else doesn’t mean it’s the same here. It might appear to be the same problem with a different system. Right? And so if you look at your clients, each one of them as creative, resourceful, whole, and competent, what happens is when you see things happening that are like, that’s interesting, instead of thinking“What are they doing? They don’t know what they’re doing. Let me let me fix them”. Instead of thinking what you think, I wonder what was happening that caused them to use this as a solution. So when you see them as competent, you realize that the decisions they make, just like any other human, do the best they can with what they have available to them at the time, the knowledge and resources they have available, and within the constraints that they have. And so it’s not that what people do is ridiculous, or they don’t know what they do, and they know exactly what they’re doing. They work within the constraints and the level of understanding and knowledge they had about the domain they were in at the time they made those decisions. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says that I’m gonna make some bad decisions today. And if people get hired into companies, and they’re competent at their jobs, well, then why can’t we see them as competent, they’re successful enough to earn to have enough business to pay you. Which tells me they know what they’re doing.
So if you look at the ICF coaching competencies, which one do you value most?
That’s a hard question. So the new competencies have this competency around the coaching mindset. And so I think in the past, I would have said coaching presence because everything starts with presence. Within I’m always saying is do things from a coaching approach, which is to have a coaching mindset. So I think with these new competencies, maybe I’m shifting over to a coaching mindset. So one thing that I’ve learned about mastery is, it’s not all contained in the coaching session. It’s when you get to the mastery level, it’s about who you have become as a coach, not what you do in a coaching session. Although because of who you become, or who you have become as a coach, what you do in a coaching session changes. So your level of presence, your level of connection with the client, your level of listening, all that changes and it becomes more intense and it becomes more of a partnership with the client. But it’s first you’ve got to have a coaching mindset.
How to get to that coaching mindset then?
So it’s a lot of self-work. It’s a lot of self-reflection, and it is knowing where your deficits are, and being willing to put in the works, so seeing people as competent and whole and resourceful. That came easily to me because I believe in treating humans like they’re human. Which, if that’s true, then you’re going to treat people with honor and respect and all that stuff. The part that was hard for me was curiosity. It took me about two and a half years to develop curiosity, true curiosity. And I worked on it constantly on being curious. And over time, I was able to develop that and now so with seeing people as competent and whole, and fascinating. So I’m curious. That gives me a whole different way of interacting with people and seeing people. So that curiosity is what enables you to see people with that fascination and instead of with the stance when we all think the world should be just like us because we’re perfect. When people don’t do things like us, we want to turn our nose up and be like“What are they doing? They’re not doing what I would do.” No, they’re fascinating. They’re doing something else. What can they learn? And what can you see in it? It’s seeing the beauty of humans and being fascinated at how incredibly diverse and creative, and talented people are.
Which of the coaching competencies is most present within the Agile Coach community? Which one the least?
I would say powerful questions because people think that’s what coaching is. It’s just questioning. When you can tell when someone has learned a little bit about coaching because you start hearing them talk about I ask powerful questions. Great. That’s one of a whole bucket of competencies. It’s just one. And so I think that we too easily think that if I ask questions, I’m coaching. All you’re doing is asking questions, you’re not coaching. You just ask them questions. What I’ve seen happen with Agile coaches – and I’ve been in some organizations – like where I’ve run coaching organization, so I had coaches reporting to me, and the number one complaint that I got from their organizations, their clients, and the executives was, every time I asked them a question, they say “What would you do?” Like if I knew what to do, I wouldn’t be asking you. Why won’t you give me an answer? That’s not coaching. It’s not as skillful as people think it is. I think people know questions, what they don’t know is things like coaching presence in partnership and actively listening and making observations. So direct communication and coaching agreements. So I think most known is powerful questions and probably action and accountability. I think the goal of coaching is to learn. So if you work with the client, for them to get greater awareness and learning, they will figure out what their action steps are, you don’t need to push the conversation towards action steps.
How can we enhance the coaching skills within the Agile community?
I think it’s learning more about or getting feedback from people who know to coach. So coaching competency is only gained by doing it, and by getting feedback from people who know what it’s supposed to look like. You can read about coaching, and you can watch videos about coaching in your mind, you can explain to me everything coaching is. And then when we sit down to do it, there’s a big gap between what you know and what you can do. Because that’s where the competency is built. And so as people scratch the surface, so often people hear they get their first introduction to coaching, often people walk away with we know we have to ask questions. And maybe listen, like there’s not a whole bunch. So it’s not deep enough. So I would say, get in a little bit deeper, learn more, practice more and get feedback. Because that’s going to help you gain competency. So and pay attention to yourself, when you when you’re done interacting with a group go reflect a bit, how did you interact with them? What were their reactions to you? What were your reactions to them? Where did you step into consulting, when you didn’t need to? Or were you triggered to do so because you wanted to share information? So watch it, look at yourself, most of the coaching is self-management. And so it’s learning to build that skill of self-management and knowing what to do. And the only way to grow and scale is to do it. There are no shortcuts. You can only do this by doing it and getting feedback because if you do the wrong thing for 400 hours, you just gonna have 400 hours of long stuff to undo. And so I say get feedback early and often in the beginning, so that you get started on the right track, and then you solidify good skills
So what would you say would be a good way forward to make sure that we do this more within our Agile community?
I think those of us who are leaders in the community that are, if we’re CECs or CTCs, then we should know something about the coaching, you know, that’s part of the requirements. And so we must bring that knowledge into the Agile space, we do a lot of community contributions. So we should still be doing that. And so for me, my main contribution to the Agile community is not agile, it’s coaching. It’s helping people learn to coach. So when I talk at conferences, I talk about coaching. When I do mentoring groups, I teach coaching, whenever anybody wants to work with me, as a mentor, we start at the coaching, because everything has a foundation there. I do public coaching circles, where anybody can join. It’s free, there’s no charge, they can come in and join, and they can watch and get feedback, or they can watch and listen to feedback on coaching, they might have an opportunity to coach and get feedback on your coaching. So there are a lot of coaching circles going on in the agile community, I’d say get involved in those. I think those are the type of things we can do. And I also think it is to stop the madness around if you’re an Agile Coach, you can’t provide answers or mentor or any of those other things. It’s all coaching, all you should do is ask questions, I think that’s foolish, it’s not true. And if someone hires you as an Agile coach, and you think that you’re supposed to forget all your experience and wisdom and knowledge and leave it because you’re a coach, well, then I don’t think you’re ready to be an Agile coach. Because it’s not true. If they didn’t need your agile, they would have hired a coach, they hired an Agile coach. And so part of what you do, probably 10% of what you do is going to be one on one coaching conversations, you’ll do more probably group in organic group coaching and 100% of what you do should come from a coaching approach. So you are obligated to do some consulting, if you’re an Agile Coach, you shouldn’t be doing that. And you should be doing it from a coaching approach. You should be teaching, you shouldn’t be mentoring, you should do that from a coaching approach. Doing it as a coach would back to that coaching mindset. Instead of being a consultant and saying this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong, do this, this, this, and this? Well, that’s not coaching. But if you ask questions, well, what’s happening? What is it you want to fix? What’s broken? What’s hurting you? Okay, what might work here? Here are some things that I’ve done in the past. How would something like that work here? What do you want to do with that? Allowing them to own the decisions? And I see this thing you’re doing in my professional opinion; this is what you need to do to solve it. And how do you think something like that would work here? Maybe they want to do it, maybe they don’t, it’s their company, they make the decision. But you owe them your professional opinion, they hired you as an agile expert, be one, just don’t be a loose cannon that has no self-management that thinks they need to tell everybody everything at all times, respect your client enough to understand that most of the stuff you teach them, they already know most of this stuff is common sense. So no, they don’t know the Scrum framework, that’s not common sense. They have to be taught that everything you do within that is all common sense. So they don’t need you to teach them common sense. Teach them a piece of that they don’t know, draw from them the stuff that they’ve got life experience, they know it, they just haven’t thought about it, because they haven’t been asked those questions.
If you look at the Agile coaching market, a lot of companies are looking for a coach, trainer consultant who can efficiently complete an agile transition, how do you sell“the coaching approach”?
I don’t know that it has to be sold. I’ve never sold the client coaching approach. So the way I interact with people, it’s just who I am. I have never had to ask permission to be a coach. Okay, so they hired me as a consultant and they’re gonna get a consultant who behaves like a coach. You don’t have to ask permission to be yourself. And so upfront, we discuss all here’s, here’s what an Agile coach does, here are all the pieces. And here are some constraints that I have, if you’re going to work with me, I’m not going to do it for you. It’s not my job, I can’t fix you. I’m not here to fix you. I can’t fix your agile, you have to do that. Because it’s your company. I’ll partner with you. But I’m not going to do it for you. If you want some employee to come here and fix it, then hire an employee to come in and fix it. But it’s not going to be me. Right? So there’s a difference. And so that’s the thing that has to be understood is you’re not going to sit over there and not do anything while I change your company. I don’t unless you’re going to give me your seat, Mr. CEO or Mrs. CEO, and I have power over you, then I can’t fix this, only you can. I might be able to bring compliance for a little while. But that’s a waste of my time and your money. Because when I leave, it’s all gonna rollback. So there’s no point.
Again, it goes back to that mastery. You have to understand what you’re doing to understand what you’re selling. And so be clear about what you’re doing, and be clear about what the client wants. So what I have seen happen that people say the client doesn’t want coaching is that the coach comes in with an agenda. And most of the time it’s transforming the company’s Agile transformation while all the client wants is process adaption. Sometimes they might want agile adoption. But most times they don’t want Agile transformation. So they hire you to be a multi-team level coach, so an Agile Coach, and want you to set up Scrum teams, right? So they want you to install a process and you want to change the whole structure of the entire company, and then you wonder why you can’t get that done? Well, because it’s not what they want. And you’re trying to push your agenda and you’re creating resistance. And then the other aspect of it is that, well, they want me to tell them what to do. So they want you to tell them what to do. So how do you interact with other humans? You decide what the, you need to tell them and you find out what they want. Even when I am giving training: you come to a class, because you want me to teach you things. Guess what, I’m not going to stand up at the front of the room and lecture and decide what you need to learn. I’m going to invite you to teach me and then I’ll fill in the gaps or better yet, I invite you to teach each other. And then I’ll fill in the gaps that I see haven’t been filled. I don’t have to ask permission to do that. It’s the way I teach. People love it and say they learned a ton more. When people leave my classes are like I’ve never learned so much in a class ever. And so again, it just goes back to the way you think.
So there are too many people in the space, who know a little bit about agile, and then they call themselves coaching, and they’re just telling people what to do. I think it creates a problem. And the problem is there’s a lot of compliance happening and a lot of rolling back happening. And some people don’t have a deep enough understanding of systems and the way systems operate, to understand how to do change, how to create change, and they don’t have a deep enough understanding of organizational change management. That’s what we’re doing here. It’s a cultural transformation, to know how to make this happen. So I know I went on a long tirade there. But, I think you’re making an excuse that the client doesn’t, that the client wants me to tell them what to do. I think it’s not the client’s fault. It’s never the client’s fault. There are no bad clients. Some coaches need more competence. And so why don’t we start there?
How do you handle clients who are consistently falling back to requesting agile advice after agreeing on being coached? After the ”Okay, let’s try this out. Let’s do this. Let’s try to have a one-to-one conversation talk”, and then they just say during that conversation “Okay. But I hired you to solve this problem.” So how do you handle that?
Well, I think first there’s the understanding that you can tell the client, all you want about when to do coaching, not whatever. They don’t know what that means. So it’s kind of irrelevant. You agreed to be coached. Okay. Well, they don’t know what that means. All they know is they want you to help them. And so when people ask me for advice, well, first, I need to understand the problem. I can’t just pop out advice. Let’s talk about what’s the problem you’re trying to solve? So we talked through it, and often they figure it out on their own, and then it’s irrelevant. And if there’s a piece of it that I can add, then I’ll add only I hold it lightly. Okay, well, so you want to know how to fix this thing? Let’s understand what’s happening because it’s your company. Let’s understand what’s there. You’ve come up with a few ideas. Here’s what I’ve seen, I’ve seen people do this and I’ve seen people do this, and I’ve seen other people do this. But I give it at a super high level, like one to two sentences, I don’t go into deep detail and explain to them how they’re going to do it. That would be ridiculous. Here are things that I’ve seen, here are things I’ve tried, here’s what I’ve seen work and not work. Now, you’ve got all that information, what out of all those things gives you an idea of what might work here? How might you adapt or modify some of that to make it fit into this space? Because this is a different space. And let’s talk through that. And so I’ve just given them advice. I’ve given them three, four, or five different things that they might that that we might try. And I don’t have the answer. It’s not my company, So I don’t find it very hard. There are times when I want to say, well, this is my professional opinion, I think this is what you need to do. And this is your company. So let’s talk about what you think you need to do, and what would work here. And sometimes they take my advice, and sometimes the business constraints they have to lead them to say, you’re right, I think we should do that. And if we can’t then what can we do? I’m going to walk with you through it and we’ll get so far down the road. Who am I to dictate what you do? I don’t think companies should let people who aren’t employees make business decisions for them. It’d be the same thing as hiring a contractor to be a product owner. Why would you do that? Why are you putting the hands of your company into someone who doesn’t care, and they’re just there for a paycheck? They’ll do that. And don’t hire any coach that treats you that way.
And as a final question, as a coach, you need to be curious about what is happening in the client’s space. So what question would you ask yourself in this interview?
I think it is about what can agile coaches do to make sure that they don’t spend all their time getting somewhere to some level (CTC, CEC) and then start sliding downhill from there because they got to the top of the game, they met their mark and then five years later, they’re back to where they were before. To me the answer to that is supervision. It’s a discipline in the professional coaching world but it’s also a discipline in the medical field and psychology and all that’s where it comes from. And I think it’s vital and critical in the Agile space. because we’re working with complicated systems, and often you’re the only one there and there’s nobody there who knows, like, most agile coaches can’t go to their boss and say, “Hey, let’s talk this through” because their boss doesn’t know what they do. Very few coaches get the opportunity to work for a coach, and for someone who’s an Agile coach and understands what they do, and understands professional coaching and all that. So you need someone to be able to bounce things off of, and you need a confidential space to do that because there is still confidentiality in agile coaching. While everybody might know you’re coaching all these different teams, they’re still an aspect of I’ve got this challenge with this team. And if I discuss it with you, you’re gonna know who it is. So I need to discuss it with someone external. And so I think coaching supervision is really important. And so I would say investigate in that. And for companies, it is something that it’s an investment, well worth making, to put that supervision number one because most companies tell me, they don’t know what coaches do. So get somebody who does know what they do to help them become stronger coaches. Because supervision is not about coaching competency. It’s about how you show up in the way you think and interact as a coach and your effectiveness. And so you want your coaches to be more effective.
Thank you so much for having this interview with me.
Exploring the Impact of Professional Coaching Within the Agile Coaching Industry
The most important goal of this interview is about exploring the impact of professional coaching within the agile coaching industry. In this interview that impact and its challenges have been addressed. To expedite the impact and the intensity of the interview, I have decided to keep the answers as full and uncut as possible, so that the reader may experience the same intensity and impact.
For me as an Agile Coach, many of the things Cherie has shared resonate with my mindset within my agile journey. Therefore they act as accelerators for my journey, even independent from reaching certain certification goals. Since I have been working on my coaching mindset at the beginning of the ICA journey more extensively, I am noticing the impact on my agile coaching styles when working with individuals and teams in the agile context.
Within the professional coaching context, I am now convinced of the value of learning and understanding the powerful impact of coaching, even within a blended coaching environment. And as with many things in life, learning is about practicing a lot and learning from the inevitable failures you have made, are making, and are going to make.