A Tale of Two Coaching Sessions

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A Tale of Two Coaching Sessions

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In a recent Agile Moose Herd group chat we explored a coaching dojo session. My friend Rob Walsh showed familiarity and vulnerability by playing the ill-behaved leadership role. I might add that he did a terrific job. As did the coaches, Rich Brents and Dan Puckett. Afterwards, I asked him to write up an account of his experience and he was kind enough to do so. Here’s the synopsis—

At a recent meeting of the Agile Moose Herd, Bob Galen (aka Chief Moose) suggested that the group do a dojo session where we would role-play a coaching session.  I volunteered to be the client, and Bob suggested a scenario involving a senior executive of a tech company with a tendency to “swoop” into the details of the development efforts.  He explained that this exec would jump into team meetings and dev sessions with ideas that he felt could make the product better.  However, his actions served to demoralize the team and strip from them any sense of ownership of the product.  The team saw them as mandates, not suggestions or helpful tips.  Recognizing that something was wrong in the team, the company had hired an Agile coach to help set things right.

This was an easy role for me to play because many years ago I found myself in a similar situation.  I was that senior executive in a tech company.  I had not, though, always been in management.  I was once a developer, and I had worked alongside two of the current team members, even sharing an office with each of them at one time or another.  And that was how I continued to see myself – as a dev and a team member, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help make our product better.  However, except for the two with whom I had once worked as a peer, the team saw me as the boss.

The Moose Herd ran through the scenario twice.  The first time, the coach took a very measured, professional approach.  He asked for a meeting and explained that he had recognized my tendency to swoop.  Playing the role of the client, I acknowledged that he was correct, and I explained that I was trying to prevent the team from making bad decisions.  I explained, too, that I didn’t see much drive in the team members to improve their professional skills.  Therefore, I needed to be the one to help them improve both the structure of the code and their own practices.

The second time role-playing the scenario, we chose a different coach (just to mix things up; not because there was anything wrong with the first coach).  Bob suggested that this time the coach takes a firmer, more direct approach.  Again, the coach asked me for a meeting, but instead of trying to gently introduce the topic, he confronted me, explaining that my swooping was creating a real problem for the team.  The resulting conversation went quite differently than in the first scenario.

In the first session, the coach presented the issue without really describing the impact.  As the client, this gave me the opportunity to explain why I was behaving as I was.  As we continued to discuss, the coach talked about the effect my actions had on the team.  I was able, too, to express that by trusting the coach to make positive changes in the team, I was making myself vulnerable to those to whom I report.  In short, if he failed, then I failed.

In the second session, the coach came right to the point – my interference was a problem for the team.  This immediately put me on the defensive, and I retreated.  I expressed my surprise, saying that the team had always thanked me for my input and seemed pleased when I contributed.  The coach, though, explained that was because they saw me as an authority figure; how else could they respond?  We continued to talk about ways I could more positively engage with the team (like as a mentor or to provide training on occasion), but the focus of the conversation was on how to fix me.

It is important as a coach to recognize how the person or team you are coaching will respond to your message and the way it is delivered.  In the first session, the gentle approach allowed me to remain in my position of authority (what one might expect for a senior executive).  From there, the coach and I came to an understanding that I would try to stay out of the way and go to him, rather than injecting myself directly, if there were issues that I felt should be addressed.  At the same time, I asked that he provide me with regular progress so that I could reassure those to whom I was answerable.  I felt that we came to a shared understanding, and, as a result, we shared the responsibility for the outcomes.

In the second session, the firmer approach shocked me a bit, and I felt that I was forced to give ground.  The discussion became all about changing the way I engaged with the team; I was at the mercy of the coach and did not feel we were on equal footing.  We still came to an understanding of how to try to make things better, but I felt as if I was the only one having to change.  In fact, I was so taken aback that I didn’t think much if at all about the fact that I was still responsible to my bosses.

I’m not saying that one approach was better than the other; they were just different.  Some situations may call for one, while others may be more appropriately handled by the other.  The choice, though, should be intentional and with realistic expectations about the consequences.  If, as a coach, I go in with guns blazing, I need to realize that my client is likely to respond very differently than if I take a softer tack.

From my perspective, I want to echo Rob’s observation. We have choices as coaches as to how we “enter” our coaching conversations. Sometimes we want to be more measured and other times a bit bolder.

In this case, Rob gives you some really neat insights into how the client (leader in this case) reacts to the different strategies.

And finally, I’d encourage you to experiment a bit with more boldness. Or to—Boldly go where no coach has gone before 😉

Many thanks to Rob, Rich, and Dan!

Stay agile my friends,


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