Agile Coaching: the Key Skills
Agile coaching is a multi-faceted profession that brings together various competences and skills. "But which of those skills are essential?" asked one future SWAY coach who is currently enrolled in "SWAY for business" course.
To provide the most comprehensive answer to this question, we created a poll in our Facebook group "Agile outside IT". We suggested that members choose the skills they deem crucial for an Agile coach and rank those skills in order of importance. Then, together with Marina Alex, an Agile coach and the author of the SWAY system, we carefully reviewed each competence. As a result, we came up with a detailed list of Agile coaching skills that will certainly be useful for beginners in this field.
Key Agile coaching skills and competencies:
❏ coaching ❏ facilitation ❏ mentoring and supervision ❏ real-world business experience; understanding organizational structure and business processes ❏ consulting ❏ ability to conduct trainings ❏ management ❏ effective public speaking ❏ Marketing & SMM (brand promotion).
Coaching competence is essential for an Agile coach. Unlike in sports or business, an Agile coach will not point to the goal and say, "That's what you need, and I know how to reach it. You need to do this and that." The task of an Agile coach is to ask powerful questions and help the client find right answers, e.g. “What goals do you want to achieve? How can you do this? How will you know that your goal has been reached?” In a way, coaching becomes the art of asking questions.
Marina Alex: "In coaching, as in aviation, a professional qualification is usually determined by the number of "flight hours" - client coaching hours. One has to have at least 500 hours of coaching experience. My experience is significantly more extensive. Besides, I invested numerous hours in team coaching. In any case, to some extent, coaches are like pilots: even if you have accumulated plenty of simulator hours but your real flight time is zero, you cannot be trusted with a control wheel of the aircraft with hundreds of passengers behind your back. All in all, coaching is one of the key skills for an Agile expert, so I am constantly learning and attending coaching trainings all over the world."
Facilitation is a process based on a set of tools that helps make the work of the group and the interaction of its members easier, yet more effective. Through facilitation, people with opposite points of view can quickly come to an agreement or arrangement. Figuratively speaking, facilitation is an art to have every voice in the team heard. A facilitator helps guide the discussion in a way that ensures the balance of opinions.
Marina Alex: "Facilitation deals with managing the dynamics of the group. You conduct strategic sessions and organize various events, including planning sessions and retrospectives. Also, you are actively involved in conflict resolution processes. You must understand that facilitation is your actual "flying time" as well. During facilitation course, you study a lot of theory, and you feel like you understand everything. But when you go out to people, it feels very different. So, the more events you conduct, the faster you'll get the hang of it. Of course, it's great to become a certified facilitator and master all facilitation techniques. Still, you should rely on practice, you should go into the fields, deal with real people, and work with real teams."
Mentoring and supervision. There is an expression about "steering someone back onto the right path", which means that by using words, experience, and advice, one can influence a person and encourage them to change their behavior to the better. An Agile coach guides both the team and the company on the path of Agile changes. In this context, it's important to point out the differences between team mentoring and team supervision.
Marina Alex: "A supervisor, in my opinion, is an experienced Agile partner who shares practical experience, offers advice, cultivates Agile culture, and instills Agile values while providing psychological support to the team and its members. Supervision incorporates a lot of coaching aspects, for example, the desire to help, the ability to listen. A mentor also shares experience and knowledge, but psychological support is not necessarily a part of the mentoring routine. The mentor transmits Agile knowledge to the mentee as the mentee applies it in practice."
Real-world business experience. An Agile coach, who transforms the company and implements flexible management methods, should understand economic processes; have experience working in large organizations, preferably, in managerial positions, or be a business owner; be good with numbers; see through the company's structure and culture, and know firsthand what HR is. In other words, an Agile coach should come from a business background.
Consulting. An Agile coach who works at the organizational level, leads the Agile transformation, and helps the company change its structure and processes needs to be a skilled consultant. Here, the consultant shares their expertise while addressing certain problems of business.
Marina Alex: "Here, we are talking about giving expert advice and specific recommendations as well as taking responsibility for the result, because when companies change their structure, they face multi-million dollar risks. In this case, you become a consultant, not a coach, because coaches don't give advice. If you are a great coach, but a bad consultant and a bad facilitator, it will be difficult for you to achieve great heights in Agile profession.”
The ability to conduct trainings is important for an Agile coach, because at the start of the Agile transformation, or at any stage of it, for that matter, there is always a need to train the company's employees (not only associates but also executives). First, you need to present a new culture, introduce flexible methodology, and propose new tools. Then, you conduct your first training. Later on, if the knowledge is not sufficient to operate the company successfully, there arises a need to conduct another in-house team training. This way, the associates can quickly implement the acquired skills and increase profitability of the company.
Training is a short-term education process, so addressing operational tasks is a must. Yet, a corporate trainer does not lecture the team on a specific topic. A corporate trainer is an expert. Based on the needs of the team, the trainer concentrates on a set of techniques that will help the team solve the current problem (i.e. getting to know the Agile culture, assigning the roles, building the team, organizing inter-team communication, and so on).
Marina Alex: "I'd like to share some of my experience here. Not sure whether it's right or wrong, but I didn't formally learn how to be a corporate trainer. Once I was introduced to Elena Plyatsuk, a renowned expert with 20 years of experience in corporate training, and we started conducting trainings together. So, she taught me all the tricks right there, in the field. I was admiring her craft and I was learning from her, and then I would do something of my own. She was both my mentor and a supervisor, and that's how I learned how to be a good corporate trainer. I still don't know how to do it by the book; I just share my experience with teams, intuitively come up with some business simulation games, and create programs.”
Management. An Agile coach who does not possess management skills might find it impossible to teach the teams how to plan, prioritize, and set goals. Hence, the ability to define strategic and tactical goals, the ability to prioritize those goals, the ability to plan in the environment of uncertainty as well as self-organize and work in short iterations/Sprints constitute essential management skills for an Agile coach.
Effective public speaking. You need to learn how to speak to a wide variety of audiences, both at small company gigs and large-scale conferences. To say the least, your speech has to be delivered well. Fear of the audience, cameras, or microphones will inhibit your development as an Agile coach.
Marketing & SMM (i.e.the ability to promote your brand). The ability to present yourself and sell your services is very important, because unless you have clients, you cannot fully grow and develop as a coach. So, as you start working for yourself, you need to create your own brand. Therefore, it is very important to have a comprehensive marketing plan. You need to understand the intricacies of internet promotion, and, among other things, you need to be able to set the price for your time and for your service.
All things considered, an Agile coach is a PRACTITIONER who has extensive experience in implementing Agile methodology in various companies, whether IT, sales, or medicine. An agile transformation may take months or even years. Therefore, the main task the coach faces at the beginning of the Agile change deals with passing on knowledge, techniques, practices, tool, and principles, so that later on people can follow the chosen Agile path independently.
Finally, there are some competencies and skills that cannot be learned in any training course or borrowed from a textbook - empathy, energy, and love for people. You can only discover, develop, and strengthen those skills by yourself.
Empathy should come naturally, yet consciously, so when empathizing with the emotional state of another person, the coach does not lose touch with reality, remains objective and eager to help. The ability to feel the mood of the whole team and team members allows the coach to create the right team climate, where the happiness of people occupies the first place.
As the Servant-Leader is another name of an Agile coach, the energy generated in the process of the Agile transformation is crucial: on the one hand, an Agile coach is a leader who inspires and energizes thousands of people on their path to change, but at the same time the Agile coach fulfills the mission of serving people. Such an approach creates an inexhaustible source of positivity and determination.
Marina Alex: "You constantly give your energy to other people. You fill companies with your energy as you encourage Agile changes. I believe in an infinite love for people who feel this energy. For any company Agile transformation is a very difficult process, so it's important to charge people with positivity. At the beginning of the changes, an Agile coach releases that energy to fuel the company's take-off. Then it is turn for the company to generate their own energy and follow the chosen path."