Talking to coaches recently about what team coaching is, I was struck by the differences of opinion among us. This chimes with recent research from Henley Business School which has identified 15 different definitions of team coaching by leaders in this field. There are also blurred lines between what we understand to be team coaching compared with team facilitation, team building, team development, systemic team coaching, constellations, and so on… Despite these variations in understanding about what we are doing, team coaching is described by many of the coach accreditation bodies to be an important growth area in this field over the next 10 years.
However, I suggest that what has made coaching so successful over the last decade will not make team coaching so successful in the next 10 years. The underpinning assumption about team coaching is that it should contribute to heightened team performance. After all, the raison d’etre of creating a ‘team’ is that synergies between members, when harnessed, contribute to getting results more quickly, easily and harmoniously. Yet the big idea that I want to discuss, is that this purpose – of performance improvement – is insufficient, and sometimes distracting.
The nature of teams is changing and therefore the focus of coaching needs to keep pace. For example, scrum and agile methodologies are shortening the lifecycle of teams and de-emphasising the need for cosy team interactions; working with virtual teams across different time zones, geographies and cultures; and the advent of contingent workers places greater emphasis on the need for looser team boundaries, greater inclusiveness and different approaches to performance management; downsizing requires people to work across traditional corporate boundaries and so the same person can be a part of two or three teams simultaneously, leading to divided loyalties and an inevitable pressure on belonging.
The work of the coach is to choreograph the opportunities for connection between different groups who need to collaborate on a shared purpose or towards a shared outcome.
Perhaps it is time to shift our focus as team coaches upstream, from developing high performance to developing the capacity to create value with stakeholders throughout the value-chain? Peter Hawkins, a leading systemic team coaching guru, describes this as ‘coaching for connection’. This is not about developing leaders or teams per se, but about developing the capacity of teams to relate beyond their own team and organisational boundaries. This is a radical idea. How do we coaches persuade leaders to be concerned less about ‘my team’ and ‘my business’ and more about ‘our whole commercial and social ecosystem’? Systemic team coaching has to include people who are on and off the organisation’s payroll.
There are different framings about team coaching. At one level it focuses on increasing individuals’ capacity to collaborate – coaches work on relationships between the team members, on people ‘playing to their strengths’, on personal role clarification, sometimes even on knowledge and skills development. At the next level, contemporary team coaching focuses on increasing the team’s capacity to perform as a single entity – raising questions about how we have more effective meetings, how we agree on our priorities, how we manage our reputation internally and externally, how we adapt and learn… Echoing Hawkins, John Leary-Joyce and Hilary Lines describe this shift in attention as a shift ‘from me to we.’ Yet still, the team is treated as though it is a hermetically sealed unit or silo.
The next step up the evolutionary team coaching ladder involves adopting a more systemic perspective – it is about how teams in an organisation collaborate with one another. At this level of systemic work, team performance may still be on the agenda but there is more emphasis on coaching in the space between teams. In the most exciting (for me) development of systemic coaching, there is much more attention paid to the organisational context and stakeholder eco-system. Coaching here is in service of ‘the greater whole’ beyond any individual team and organisation. The work of the coach is to choreograph the opportunities for connection between different groups who need to collaborate towards a shared purpose or outcome. In my own experience of this form of systemic team coaching, it can be truly transformational.
Working in this way requires different things of us as coaches
However, working in this way requires different things of us as coaches. We are not coaching at awaydays before or after action, but coaching in the moment of the client encounter. This requires presence and creativity. In fact, we might have to use methodologies that have not traditionally been regarded as part of the coach’s kitbag – I use film-making increasingly, in this context, and also Constellations work. It is a hybrid approach that incorporates the best of coaching but also consulting, facilitating, teaching…
What are the barriers and blockers of this work? Many! Systemic team coaching requires a fundamental mindset shift for coach and client alike – this work is co-creative and not remedial (sadly many clients are sent to coaches for us to ‘fix’ something). Also, rather than focusing on high performance the focus is on outcomes with and forthe whole value-chain of the business and this adds a great degree of complexity and possibly cost too. Clients can give up too soon. And the coach’s skillsets, competencies and capacities might not be suited to this way of working without considerable training and supervision.
Yet still, the effort is worth it when I have taken in clients’ delight in achieving outcomes that they have striven for differently, and finally achieved!
1. Jones, R. et al (2019), ‘Conceptualising the distinctiveness of team coaching’ in Journal of Managerial Psychology.
2. Hawkins, P. (2017)Leadership Team Coaching. Kogan Page. London.
3. Leary-Joyce J. & Lines, H. (2018)Systemic Team Coaching. AoEC Press. London.