How Actual Practice Informs Appreciation of the Complex Challenges in Effective Team Coaching by Sue Young

Introduction

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I am increasingly asked to do more team coaching, in addition to one to one coaching just by itself. I felt it would be an interesting time to take stock of my approach and review the underpinning principles / values I practice in my team coaching. 

  • In particular, working with the subtleties of how much communication in teams can be unspoken, directly. 
  • As well as covering such a range of different agendas, all at once!

I have also noticed that this is becoming a more general theme emerging in the field of coaching. Many terms such as action learning, peer groups etc. are already popular practices. I am especially interested in how team coaching can operate at the level more towards the scale of organisation development, involving a scale of issue involved, which can have wide implications around the organisation.


1. The natural opportunity for organisational Team Coaching, along with more dynamic challenges

For me, coaching organisational leadership teams is the most challenging form of coaching. This form of team coaching combines: 

  • The high quality individual attention of one to one coaching, with 
  • The highly dynamic, and open, interactive nature of working with a group of highly capable individuals on their challenges that requires the coach s to make judgement calls ‘on the hoof’. 

Being involved in this type of coaching has a scale of potential impact. Working with leadership teams, the whole system with its established dynamics and culture, lives in the room. 

I believe this form of coaching is a central part of organisation development for real. 

The potential value of a team coaching intervention lies in the likelihood of real organisational impact for this group of people both individually, and collectively. It will also have a major impact on the health and functioning of the whole organisation. 

I am going to review my approach here through a series of overview headline principles, along with some case illustrations. I hope in further blogs to explore some of the particular issues involved, in more detail. I have also taken the opportunity to review some of the writings in the field.


2. A sample of current, and popular, definitions of Team Coaching

A number of labels are thrown around in relation to working with teams – team building, team facilitation, team development – and now, team coaching. And in a similar fashion, there have been a number of attempts to define team coaching. Here are some examples:

2.1. Clutterbuck (2007) [1]  defines team coaching as “helping the team improve performance and the processes by which performance is achieved, through reflection and dialogue”
He introduces the term “performance” as task deliverables and also acknowledges attention to processes or ways of working. While at a general level, this all applies it does not reflect the organisational context that I see as such a fundamental underpinning of team coaching within organisations.

2.2. Kets de Vries (2005) [2]  ”Leadership team coaching is defined as leadership coaching in a group setting with the intention to establish a foundation of trust, develop the capacity to constructively resolve conflict and build accountability amongst its members in order to achieve better results for the organization”

De Vries brings in more organisation context through use of terms such as “leadership”, “constructively resolve conflict”, “accountability” and “results for the organization”.

What is missing from this for me is the interaction between the individual and the team, and how coaching addresses this.

2.3. Hawkins (2014) [3]  thought the title “systemic team coaching” to be more applicable to leadership teams in organisational settings, which he went on to define in more detail as follows:

“Systemic team coaching is a process by which a team coach works with a whole team, both when they are together and when they are apart, in order to help them improve both their collective performance and how they work together, and also how they develop their collective leadership to more effectively engage with all their key stakeholder groups to jointly transform the wider business”

I see this incorporating more explicitly the wider relational scope for team coaching, emphasising the individual more when he incorporates “when they are apart.”

In general terms this definition holds. In terms of my personal practice where it misses is on the quality of individual attention involved. At the end of the day if team coaching is going to have sustainable impact then it’s down to what each team member takes back into their part of the organisation.  

Each of these attempts of definitions still leaves me with a sense that more is needed. In my experience (and needs more attention) the reality of contracting and working as a Team Coach is highly variable, dynamic and responsive, and in line with the priorities and readiness of the client(s). 

The client is usually the Team Leader, formally, to start with, and then the team itself in a broader organisational context: 

  • Both in relation to the more tangible nature of the organisational Task
  • And the more intangible and usually unspoken aspects of the organisational culture. 

While in general terms the general definitions hold well they do not bring to life for me the organisational and people complexities involved.


3. Bringing Team Coaching to life, for me

So what are the features of how team coaching works, for me? 

I have had a number of different team leadership and team member roles in teams and worked as a consultant and coach with management teams in private and public sectors, both in the UK and internationally. 

Each principle have intuitively come to me but have been deeply embedded through my career. I run through a set of 12 key principles that’s guided my approach as headlines with a few comments.

  1. Are we a Team – what is our collective purpose? 
  2. The role of the team coach is an enabling one
  3. High quality of attention to individuals and their personal needs and contribution in their role.
  4. The Team leader as a crucial element, both enabler and blocker
  5. Working with differences more explicitly
  6. The need for continuous Contracting on several fronts
  7. Creating a climate of greater openness
  8. Bringing in external stakeholder perspectives
  9. Bringing in the big unspoken issues and hidden agendas
  10. Integrating personal feedback as part of the individual and collective learning process. 
  11. Designing in sustainability with team coaching interventions
  12. The essential value of an external professional sounding board / (supervision) in team coaching

While I draw from formal knowledge across a multidisciplinary field of theory, the most important ways I have learned is from my experience of working with teams and discussions with colleagues and clients, both on the job and in review afterwards. I see it as a continuous learning process, and this is a useful focus for me in checking out how it works, for me. 

1. ARE WE A TEAM – WHAT IS OUR COLLECTIVE PURPOSE? 

In my experience even the most capable and senior management teams struggle with (or even ignore) this one. 

Developing an effective leadership team requires focused investment of time and energy to establish common ground and a common team agenda to which everyone contributes.

In complex organisations individual’s area is a demanding, and of itself, is a complex and challenging leadership task. The senior team is also often geographically dispersed. In the day to day pace and thrust of organisational life individuals are often struggling with what they have on their plates - how are they going to cope with additional time /task commitment? Even time at team meetings often becomes a reporting ritual that adds little value and is just something to be got through

Much of the team coaching assignment is often around this; helping a team develop its own collective vision and common sense of purpose, and strategy in relation to the bigger organisational context. This thinking then informs individual focus and thinking,, for example what information do I hold from my area that the whole team needs to be aware of as it has an impact on our overall strategy? 

Strategy is a living thing that needs to be kept under continuous periodic review rather than something formally committed to paper then set aside while we get back to the real day-to-day business.

2. THE ROLE OF THE TEAM COACH IS AN ENABLING ONE

I see team coaching as an enabling role, rather than coming up with the solution.  The fundamental judgement calls about what to take forward in the organisation remain with the team. This links to the objectives for the coaching - around creating the conditions to enable the kinds of conversation needed to help the team find its own way forward. 

Of course the team coach is making the judgement call in collaboration with the client, around when to do what, in what sequence and identifying the kinds of stimulus or support needed. This, together with their credibility and the relationship they build with the team, are what they bring.

The role of Team Coach is multi-facetted – coach, mediator, facilitator, process provider, providing selective inputs around relevant frameworks, models, tools and ideas, observer, feedback giver and sometimes just to listen.

3. HIGH QUALITY OF ATTENTION TO INDIVIDUALS AND THEIR PERSONAL NEEDS AND CONTRIBUTION IN THEIR ROLE.

One of my aims is to help enable that individual to bring the best of themselves and their knowledge / experience into the team. I always aim, where possible to build in confidential individual sessions. 

Interestingly I tend not to name these sessions as ‘coaching’ as often that term is perceived as being remedial, implying some deficit, and can set up defensive barriers that would get in the way. 

The purpose of these individual sessions is to provide confidential space where team members can express ands develop their thinking about how they see the team’s objectives and their contribution to that. 

I usually aim to produce a compilation of anonymised answers to a few common cue questions around how they see a ‘bigger picture’ strategic perspective on the team’s Task, Processes and key relationships. For example how do they see priorities for the overall team, the main opportunities and challenges they see, and the scope they perceive for greater collaboration that would add greatest value to overall team objectives.

Often this very thinking process in itself is individually developmental in encouraging senior managers to take a more ‘whole-organisational’ and longer term strategic perspective

That then naturally leads into what they see as their current and potential contribution to the Department / Unit / whole-organisation overall objectives and an exploration of their leadership approach and engaging their people in the overall direction. How are they helping their mangers to develop and contribute to bigger organisational goals?

In my experience they often relish the luxury of that ‘space’ held by somebody else to think and reflect more than they would naturally otherwise do.

Of course the credibility, tone and style set by the Coach is critical. Do they trust and respect the Coach as a person sufficiently to be open to genuine exploration self-disclose? Do they believe their coach’s abilities to understand the nature of the business and leadership challenges they face?

4. THE TEAM LEADER AS A CRUCIAL ELEMENT, BOTH ENABLER AND BLOCKER

The tone and climate in a hierarchical world set by the team leader is critical. If people are going to open up to express whatever they really think, particularly if it is a different perspective or feedback that could be perceived as negative or difficult. They need to have the confidence that they will not be ‘punished’ or get a negative response.  
Usually the team leader leads / holds the formal contract. Even if the ‘paper’ contract is formally held elsewhere, e.g. by HR, then people will be looking to the formal leaders response. 

In my team coaching there are always individual sessions with the team leader.  I find usually they discount the inhibiting effect their formal position may be having on people’s willingness to share what they really think. 

The team leader can make a uniquely valuable contribution if they model the kinds of behaviour required to build trust and encourage collaborative ways of working. This often requires them to know how to be more open and self-disclosing with each of the individuals and the group as a collective. 

5. WORKING WITH DIFFERENCES MORE EXPLICITLY

In my experience the best teams comprise individuals with very different and complimentary strengths. I find selective use of psychometrics and profiling tools to help people make more sense of differences; some of them looks at personality style, others ways of working and ways of seeing the world. 

  • Instruments like Belbin’s Team Roles I particularly like in a team context as it is simple and people can relate easily to the needs of a team and different contributions required. 
  • The Strengths Deployment Inventory is another that I like with its specific focus on Strengths and different motivators and its ability to visualise a team and its dynamics around behaviour linked to personal values

Every coach has their preferred instruments. For me they are catalysts to helping people talk about personal differences in a way that is less threatening. It also provides fresh thinking about practical ways to improve working relationships

6. THE NEED FOR CONTINUOUS CONTRACTING ON SEVERAL FRONTS

Clear contracting is important in individual coaching. In team coaching managing boundaries through clear contracting is core to the on-going team coaching process. 

At the outset there is the need to contract, formally, with the commissioning client, most often the Team Leader. They usually have a clear picture of the felt need. In my experience this is often the symptom of a bigger need. There is also the need to contract – albeit less formally - with every individual team member, particularly around confidentiality. Unless individuals trust me not to feed back to the boss, that severely limits what the coaching is able to achieve. 

7. CREATING A CLIMATE OF GREATER OPENNESS

The coach has to demonstrate this, as well as facilitate it in others, to start with, but if trust is built right from the start, the ‘mature’ others, usually, quickly pick up on the lead in contributing as more open and ready team members pick up and start to build. 

In my experience, people feel the benefits it yields of more real and open conversations. For example the fact that everyone holds valuable information and perspectives that has a useful contribution to make to the way forward. Some hold information from the ‘front line’ with feed back and real perspectives from end users. These are often the source of fresh insights and innovative thinking. This kind of front line input is the lifeblood of keeping a strategy a living item under continuous review and enhancing abilities to respond more quickly

8. BRINGING IN EXTERNAL STAKEHOLDER PERSPECTIVES

Senior teams get caught up in being over-focused on day to day tasks and firefighting and internal matters. It’s very easy to become distant from end users and the eternal realities that services and products need to work with. 

9. BRINGING IN THE BIG UNSPOKEN ISSUES AND HIDDEN AGENDAS

In my experience it’s very typical for there to be areas in Leadership teams that never quite get on to the agenda for attention, let alone discussion.

These ‘unspoken’ issues are usually at the heart of team coaching. They are in the “too difficult” pending tray due to the different hidden agendas of individuals.

There are different “flavours” of the unspoken.  Some examples I have experienced are:

  • Issues where there is unresolved conflict. Nobody wants to offend and risk making it worse. The result is that people diplomatically avoid the subject and the tension lurks beneath the surface
  • Issues that are complex that carry a high degree of risk and uncertainty–they are in the “too difficult” box and people do not want to risk failure
  • Fear of losing power or control leads to people being cautious and holding back – “I do not want to upset the apple cart”. It means retaining a sense of control.
  • People in the team that are perceived as “difficult”. This may be personal style and / or they may be raising or representing difficult issues that others are avoiding. At worst that individual may become the scapegoat. Particularly if they have a strong style that can be used as a deflector “XX is so assertive/aggressive...”, by deflecting attention away from the issue they want to avoid.

10. INTEGRATING PERSONAL FEEDBACK AS PART OF THE INDIVIDUAL AND COLLECTIVE LEARNING PROCESS. 

I do this in a number of ways. In team sessions I offer selective observations, particularly on things I see happening – either behaviours I see or process issues. E.g. “I’m noticing a fall off in energy around this issue”

I also introduce feedback processes as part of our way of working. For example asking at the end of a session what people have found of greatest value and what they would want more / less of / differently at our next meeting.  In this I am seeking to introduce them ton approaches they can continue to use as part of their normal way of working, ensuring they are extracting explicitly key learning points from their team exchanges.

Finally I introduce personal feedback between team members to encourage greater openness and building of rapport and comfort around this deeper level of collective learning

11. DESIGNING IN SUSTAINABILITY WITH TEAM COACHING INTERVENTIONS

I define sustainability as demonstrating and working with approaches and ways of managing themselves that will enable the team to better manage their working processes and relationships going forwards, that will enhance their effectiveness as a working team.

I believe it is important to develop team members’ capabilities to take these ways of working down into their teams and staff

12. THE ESSENTIAL VALUE OF AN EXTERNAL PROFESSIONAL SOUNDING BOARD / ( SUPERVISION ) IN TEAM COACHING

Finally in a very demanding and complex area of work as team coaching I find it essential to have a number of sources of coaching supervision:

  • Self-supervision – writing this piece has stimulated higher levels of awareness and reflection than might otherwise have taken place. It’s a rich learning process in its own right.
  • Supervisory conversations with my formal peer supervisor(s) and trusted colleagues.

4. Some Cases that bring Team Coaching to life, for me

I outline briefly here the sorts of cases that, for me, help to show how these principles can apply – in different ways, and to different extents. Team coaching is more complex and ‘messy’ than the text books would have us believe! The examples I share are intended as ‘snapshots’ to illustrate the diversity of needs that team coaching can involve.

CASE 1:  THE TEAM THAT WAS HAVING ISSUES IN ENGAGING WITH THE WIDER ORGANISATIONAL TEAM AND EXTERNAL STAKEHOLDERS.

A series of customer service errors had received much negative publicity for this organisation. A formal review and report had come out with a key recommendation being to develop more collaborative ways of working across the technical expertise and functional silos.  My brief was to work with the SMT on this overall objective. 

As I had individual conversations with team members and observed their quarterly SMT Review Meeting it became clear that there was  a strong focus on immediate task focus  with absence of attention to external parties and absence of real intelligence from customer and users.

The challenge became more one of working with the senior team on :

  • considering the impact of decisions and actions in their area on other areas as well as what they needed from other
  • developing more external focus, developing closer relationships with key external stakeholders
  • how they shared information and market intelligence  with each other,
  • holding a longer term perspective on the whole business that each SMT member felt able to take on board and pass on to their area
  • how they were going to engage their managers

It took some time, and process, inside the senior team to get a constructive, collective focus on these more external facing opportunities, as well as build a more open dialogue process to bring in the diversity of perspectives required for better quality thinking and decisions compared to the typical more internal short term task focus in their meetings.

Energy in the team coaching on an Away Day was focused on exposing the team to hearing first hand end users experiences, and hearing from leaders facing similar issues in completely differently sectors. The stimulus from this was then brought in to their team idea generation. This opened up discussions on how they could practically adjust day to day ways of working to bring in greater end user focus and responsiveness to external stakeholders. There was a generation of fresh thinking and approaches. The idea was also to generate excitement, motivation, even to have an enjoyable experience and to stimulate change the largely internally focused agenda at SMT meetings

Part of the coaching also involved working with senior team members on getting their own separate teams engaged through review of day to day ways of working and involving them   to generate the thinking about improvements.

CASE 2.  THE TEAM DEALING WITH CHALLENGES OF PHYSICAL DISTANCE, AND UNFAMILIARITY WITH EACH OTHER’S ROLES.

This group was called together to form a Project Team, and their outcomes would have important contributions to make to the strategic opportunities the organisation was facing. This was a very large and complex internationally spread organisation. 

The members of the group had considerable challenges in becoming a team! Their current everyday management roles were very demanding and they were geographically dispersed.

Practical ways of slowly building the attitudes and skills needed to work as a highly integrated team took time, and a lot of learning about each other, let alone the task given to them.
I had individual coaching sessions with them as well as 4 team sessions over the course of a year.

I used Tuckman  (forming, storming, norming, performing) Myers Briggs (MBTI) and the Belbin framework to raise awareness of the typical stages teams go through and used the Belbin and MBTI instruments to raise awareness of different styles in the team and got them thinking about how they could make best use of them in how they worked. This accelerated their abilities and bring greater focus on process and relationship aspects of managing their internal client.

As they developed their cohesion and the project got well underway my role evolved to observing and asking occasional questions, encouraging them to review their way of working, both within the team and with their internal client, and provide feedback to each other. By the end of the year they were truly self managing.

The project helped what was a highly structured and hierarchical organisation learn and build confidence in the idea of building project teams to drive and pilot innovation. This became a major strategic benefit, in itself, apart from what the team eventually achieved. 

One of the team members (on the basis of the personal credibility they achieved) was invited to continue on a part time basis to extend the project into exploring how it could be more embedded into an on-going change organisation-wide initiative

CASE 3. A TEAM OF COACHES – LAYING OUT STANDARDS FOR EXECUTIVE TEAM COACHING FOR A PROFESSIONAL ACCREDITATION BODY.

There is nothing quite like working with a group of experts on a subject! I was a team member, rather than holding a separate role from others. However, of course, as team coaching experts we were all facilitating the team!

Again, the biggest challenge involved was about the range of practice models involved in each team member’s highly successful team coaching practice. Integrating these approaches, as well as integrating any standards framework to encompass others approaches not directly involved became one of the longest, and most informative projects about team coaching I have enjoyed.


5.  Conclusions and next steps

This has been a powerful exercise for me in reviewing all the files of experience I hold about my team coaching practice.

A major area that stands out for me from this review is just how much the Team Coach’s role is concerned with drawing out and normalising the “unspoken” issues and tensions around them. Helping the team navigate and discover ways to manage the more difficult conversations and identify and realise the true opportunities they have.

It has also made me aware of just how much more there is to some of these projects than could be explained, simply. I could write a book about each of these cases; and even then I suspect there would still be so much left unsaid about what and why the team coaching worked as well as it did.

In doing this overview it has raised my level of interest in exploring some of these themes in more depth. I’d be really interested to hear about others approaches and their key learning points about the multi-faceted and challenging area of team coaching.

To connect with Sue Young


References:
[1] Clutterbuck D (2007) Coaching the Team at Work, Nicholas Brearley, London
[2] Kets de Vries, M F R Leadership group coaching in action: The Zen of creating high performance teams, Academy of Management
[3] Hawkins P (2014) Leadership Team Coaching; Developing Collective Transforrnational Leadershipn (2nd ed.) Kogan Page