The Organisational Coach
9 March 2023
This is the third episode of a series of articles aimed to reflect on the role of an Agile Coach and to propose some different angles on the role.
We have a hypothesis we want to test: each Agile coach, in order to be able to speak the client’s language, depending on the hierarchy level they are working on within the company, needs a specific competence and expertise to maximise their impact and be more effective.
We believe that having specific expertise is way more than desirable. The wider and more complex the system to coach, the more specific and deeper the necessary expertise: without that, you will struggle to coach an organisation.
The topic presented in this article, the Organisational Coach, is wide in scope and areas of intervention. This post is an introduction and will be expanded upon in further articles.
A way we use to define the role profile of an Organisational Coach
We will be using a lot of terms in this article, we intend to use them as follows:
- OC = Organisational Coach
- Team = Team of coaches
- System = The whole organisation
- Organisation = A company
- Coachee = the person being coached
- Client = the organisation being coached/served
What is commonly said on the topic
Let’s start with the two most respected and influential institutions of coaching.
EMCC doesn’t appear to have a formal definition for an Organisational Coach, despite starting a focal point on the role (Italian only at the moment). They are focusing on defining an OC by leveraging the work of Edgar Schein (amongst others) and his approaches on socio-technical systems and system behaviours. (some references here).
ICF has a section on coaching in organisations that reflects differently on the role of an OC. They see it more of a commercial offering for companies that need coaching, with services and market insight provided by the ICF.
Googling “Organisational Coaching” or similar, returns many offerings and definitions of various types of coaching.In general, a coach is considered to be working with an organisation at different levels or sub categories, such as:
- executive coaching
- team coaching
- you name it coaching
All have a focus on the system. You may also find specific training on systemic coaching. Having such categories and levels of focus makes sense and it is respectful to the many different topics a coach could face when working with an organisation.
Extending the research further to include Agile-ish definitions, we discover the concept of an Agile Coach adding business/transformation or technical mastery to the list of competencies (as covered in the Adkins’ framework and it’s evolutions, previously mentioned). A de facto way of reading the competence model is that you might call yourself an Enterprise Coach if you are certified at ICF-PCC level or equivalent and have extensive skills in transformation or business domains.
Still, clients struggle to understand what coaches do.. We believe such categories are useful to clarify roles internally within the Agile and coaching communities, yet they leave the client’s typical questions unattended:
- How do we start?
- How do we get everyone onboard?
- When will this be finished – and how do we do it?
And, at the end of day, what does the coach do to help a company?
A different approach is needed, aimed to answer the client’s needs as described in our intro article. Such an approach should favour concrete answers which value a specific expertise of the coach in relation to the client’s business or transformational ambitions.
We intend to help define an OC by defining what they do, as a fundamental addition to the definition of what they know (the competence model).
Who the OC is and what they do
To understand the definition of the OC role, it’s important to clarify who the coachee is; for the OC, this is a whole organisation (not just an individual).
In practical terms an organisation could be as large as hundreds (or thousands) of people. Needless to say, a single person will be unable to coach an entire organisation at individual (or even team) level due to a lack of time, focus, expertise and competence.
Coaching an organization is not coaching hundreds of people
The gap between coach and coachee becomes especially evident when the focus of coaching is not just on mental and behavioural aspects, but also business content and/or impacts at organisational level.
The very concept of an organisation as coachee is a bit weak. At the same time, the belief that the coachee has all the skills and knowledge to improve needs a review.
An organisation as coachee
Organisations are complex and very few people can say they know all of it. It’s not only unlikely, it’s impossible. Only long serving employees may claim to know all of it, if it’s not too big.
So, an OC isn’t expected to bring knowledge of the organisation but like all coaches, they do need to bring some expertise from the market. The consulting pillar of the role is strong in the OC. This is because companies need some advice at the beginning of their journey or even some reassurance on what they are doing.
An OC must know how companies run. They need to know what a process is, how to design a structure, how to implement a change program. They must know the stuff usually expected of a change management consultant. They need this to establish trust from the client. Not just the same language or words but empathy, real understanding and possibly, relevant previous experience.
The OC should be experienced, although the required number of years is difficult to assess. They should have worked for a while as a business consultant maybe, f or have experienced high responsibility roles in medium to large organisations.
An OC should be an expert in working with suppliers, and/or growth and competency, and/or portfolio’s strategy for example.
Moreover, an OC is someone who can enable integrated action at all levels of the organisation. Integrated means organised, supervised and orchestrated. An OC is, first of all, someone who can be the reference point in a team of coaches. Like a conductor in a string orchestra.
A team of coaches orchestrated by an OC
What problems do OCs address?
Organisational level problems, usually.
A trusted OC can:
- Increase awareness by creating waves (challenges) in the organisation and by using transparency
- take confidence into the system by leveraging previous learnings and examples
An OC may help in at least three different ways:
- By providing market examples (from personal experience) and creating the space in the organisation to highlight differences or useful tips
- By explaining and teaching an incremental approach to organisational transformation
- By defining steps (yes, a plan) on how transformational change might be tackled. Not a fixed or pre-determined plan as classic consultancies tend to impress, but a path to get there. This is not so different from what you should expect from a change consultant.
The OC in our three-levels approach
Our approach is shifting in order to provide more specialised roles, fit for market needs and the job that needs to be done. We serve a client through 3 levels of focus, derived from Leopold’s flight levels. The OC is mainly focussed on the Airplane level. You might find them working on transformation strategy and roadmapping.
The impact of an OC
This is always by measurement of a whole team orchestrated or led by an OC. Such a team has visibility and impact across the organisation. A team of coaches will not substitute your people. The client will be asked to provide time and support for initiatives. Remaining in the field of agility, good technical measures might be linked to Business Agility pillars:
- Speed of change (ie. from Idea to Market), usually helped by proxy initiatives such as quarterly budgeting (or no budgeting at all), transparent portfolio, dynamic allocation
- Turnover (low), people are happy to stay, usually helped by proxy initiatives on reward, careers, purpose and autonomy
How an OC is different from other coaches and consultants
Expertise and skills
We expect an OC, beyond certifications, to have been involved in the design and roll out of business transformations, Agile or not. For example, experience of:
- Defining the reason for change
- Designing and implementing a communication plan
- Organisational design
- Designing of career paths, reward systems and HR related practices
One of the best ways to explain to a client how an OC is different from other coaches or consultants is by highlighting the different outputs and activities:
Client’s question or need
|“How do we start the change”?||It depends.|
Assessment phase (usually survey) and gathering of data through measurements.
Then a detailed plan with intended delivery and final design with all the steps to get there.
Assessment phase (usually one2ones) and gathering of data through measurements.
Then a first draft to get things started, with a pretty detailed plan on how to evolve from draft design.
|When will this be finished?||It depends on your goals and willingness to pursue them.||Detailed milestones with due dates based on presumed people capacity, prescribed team structures, previous experiences and organisation needs.||When the organisation sees business results and has embedded its own transformation practices.|
|Examples from similar environment||Not an expectation of the role. If the coach has relevant experience and the client requests examples, the coach can share examples for client’s awareness.||Yes, as best practices to apply. Expected from the role.||Yes as a starting reference to evolve from. Expected from the role.|
|How do we get everyone onboard?||Not really in scope. The coach would help explore options to get others on board. If no option is available, and with explicit permission, the coach would share his/her previous experience to address that situation.||Communication plan. Team of experts in place. Communication on behalf of the organisation. “Tell & Feedback” mode.||Engagement plan. Team of coaches in place. Manages the process but let the organisation tell. Takes care of the co-creation steps.|
We expect to produce even more detailed articles for each of the topics above.
An OC is, more than others, the one that should be able to find a balance between being a consultant versus being a coach. That balance is necessary because of the very nature of the coachee being a system, not a person.
A coach needs to believe that the coachee has everything needed to pursue their own improvement through personal means and steps. This is generally true but, organisations expect OCs to provide examples, best practices and references to start working from.
Why is that? Because of the scale of a decision for change.
When individuals decide to pursue a change, it typically affects themselves first and then others. Even executive coaching focuses on the person, the CEO or similar, and their growth as a leader, as an example.
When organisations decide to change, this has the potential to be much more impactful on others’ lives and carries greater risk. Such decisions might need approvals, onboarding from others and even a certain amount of “skin in the game” regarding associated risks.
An OC is an expert in navigating emerging structures and processes. What does that mean in practice?
The OC will create a first draft of a structure to get things started, to create waves and common actions. What you might expect from an OC is a concrete plan on how to:
- get to the definition of a new, emerging structure
- challenge whatever structure and process is created by testing and probing
The concrete plan should look like…. a plan: deliverables and milestones. The main difference from a plan made by a consultant is that the OC will manage the process while people in the organisation will produce the deliverables (incremental updates of the structure and experiments of change) and apply the change steps. The OC will be there to make sense of what emerges through expertise and previous experience.
An OC might be hired by a CEO or high level representatives of a organisation such as an HR Director or General Manager, to help the organisation move forward and will usually take care of the job by leveraging on a wise balance of transparency and confidentiality.
Unlike a coach, the OC clarifies at the beginning of their assignment that every word, every whisper, if useful to the overall change, is made transparent.
Why this? Well, you might be used to seeing consultants working hard across an organisation, reporting back to the CEO. However to involve only the CEO and/or C-suite, is not even close to being enough for sustainable change; the whole organisation must be involved.
Confidentiality and transparency need to be balanced
What will remain confidential is anything personal and not related to the system. The OC will take care to disclose information without jeopardising the psychological safety of people and teams, whilst at the same time taking into account potential systemic issues that may arise by such disclosure.
Perception of the professional
An OC knows that perception is crucial, as is respecting existing hierarchical structures. The OC will therefore ensure that relevant relationships are established at the right levels. For example, an OC wouldn’t run a team level retrospective and a team coach wouldn’t coach executives on leadership – even if they both have the necessary skills to do so. It’s a matter of creating a team that the client can relate to, has respect for and feels safe working with transparently.
That’s to address the myth that an Agile Coach can work at all levels. They could, but their effectiveness depends on the coaching team composition and needs, the coach’s specific competence and expertise plus of course, the level of hierarchy they are working with inside the organisation.
This article, alongside previous ones (and more following), aimed to question the role of an Agile Coach by adding definitions and concrete examples that could make it more relatable to clients. By doing this, we are saying that Agile Coaches should be able to blend their expertise with a more consultant one. More than that, we want to say that the Agile Coach for the organisations (so an Organisational Coach) shouldn’t be afraid to offer advice and solutions to the client. More, they should advise the client with examples and then be ready to manage what emerges.