Author: Phil Hartwick
First Published: 2020
Phil’s Story: Shifting to ‘team coaching’ – am I ready and are they ready?
You may have read my colleague Belinda’s previous blog on [Team Development – Can a ‘team facilitator’ harm a team’s progress?]. The story below follows on from that piece with some introspection about my journey of shifting to more team coaching, and less team facilitating.
I am an experienced and competent facilitator. This may come across as arrogant, but I’ve been crafting my trade for a very long time and I’ve developed a confidence in myself and how I work. That doesn’t mean I do it all perfectly or that there is no room for improvement – I do have all this grey hair for a reason! But I do back myself in my ability to thoroughly plan, anticipate potential trouble areas and then flex and adjust to most situations on the day when it comes to working with teams or groups.
And inevitably a strong facilitator will have a strong influence on the system they are working with. I invariably influence the ‘system’ of the groups I work with by constructing a plan for the group session and then ‘controlling’ discussions in the room to keep the group on track.
Having someone come in and exert this influence has a significant impact on the dynamic and the people in the room. Generally they are quite happy about that, because the team achieves the objectives they are trying to achieve, and people feel like they are making progress.
But what happens when we walk out of the room? Things seem to go back to the way they were and often few or none of the approaches adopted on the day are carried on when the team meets again on its own. So perhaps being a strong facilitator is not all it’s cracked up to be.
In the end what is happening is that as a strong facilitator, I am not only doing the fishing for the team, but I am cooking the dinner and serving it up on a platter. What I need to be doing is teaching the team how to fish, and how to cook and serve for themselves.
Ahh, herein lies the difference between a strong facilitator and a strong coach.
My recent story
I would like to share the story of a team that I have been working with for well over a year. The team has about 10 members, so is quite large. The leader has quite a strong presence, and might perhaps be a little intimidating to some team members. She has at times communicated with me and with the team about her frustration about the fact that the team is not where she wants them to be.
My role – Initially I did a lot of team teaching and then have been mostly a meeting planner and facilitator. Looking back I see that in my first year of working with the team I did not really do a lot of coaching of either the leader or the team.
Leap forward a year plus – They have come a long way. In fact, I think that they are one of the best teams I have worked with… but they are at a stage where they need something different to get to the next level. The leader is also expecting more from the team than before.
So, I conveyed to the leader that the role I was fulfilling of meeting planner and facilitator was no longer helping the team grow or advance. I felt that I needed to shift into more of a coaching role to get the team to own their own meetings and meet their own objectives. Somewhat surprisingly, I discovered the leader had been coming to the same conclusion.
The next team session was very different from the start. The leader began the session by describing her own experience with the leadership team of which she is a member of. She spoke of how the team had gone through a journey in which everyone had initially deferred to the leader but was now having really robust discussions and members were challenging each other.
The team listened while the leader spoke and when she asked questions no-one answered for quite a while leaving almost awkward silences. In my new role, I sat back and let it roll, not prompting questions or contributing in any way. Occasionally people would look to me, but I held back and did a lot of observing. Eventually people started speaking more and the focus was more on them and their leader.
We then introduced the concept of the three development roles (Team teacher, team facilitator and team coach) and how it was time I shift to do more coaching and less facilitation.
I’m ready! Contracting the coach role with the team
Following this set-up discussion I asked the team what they wanted from me as a team coach. They were clear about wanting me to observe and call things out that I notice – in the interest of them getting better. This gave me license to take a different role, which I signaled straight away by moving to sit outside of the team.
As the workshop unfolded, it was a very interesting to become a true observer that wasn’t controlling or impacting the discussion. After a few hours, I began to notice that there was a typical pattern emerging from the discussion between the members of the team. Some would hardly ever contribute, while others would tend to contribute their thoughts early, followed by one or two others who would have a different or a supportive point of view. Often no clear agreement or progress was being made until the leader spoke. When the leader then contributed her point of view, the dynamic would suddenly change to one of supportive agreement while some members would fall silent.
Making an observation
So, I took the opportunity to intervene at a suitable point, asking the group if they were noticing a pattern to how they contributed to discussions. No one responded.
At this point I relied on their earlier request that I call out things that I noticed about the way that the team operates. I explained what I had noticed about how individuals were falling into predictable roles and how they were immediately deferring to the leader once her position was known.
This team had, in both my view and the view of the leader, struggled to get beyond being nice all the time and to feel comfortable to challenge or debate the leader’s point of view. Calling out the pattern that I saw became a powerful moment where they were able to observe how this had been playing out.
The response from the team was largely one of quiet. It was a little uncomfortable to discuss something I think they all knew but didn’t want to acknowledge. The leader eventually suggested that she had been trying very hard to withhold her views for fear of shutting down or influencing the discussion. Others were reflecting on their typical roles in the discussion; either as frequent initiators, supporters, resistors or passengers.
So were they ready?
Well an interesting thing happened. The team leader (and maybe after discussion with the team?) decided they no longer required my services and wanted to proceed without me.
Is this a good or a bad thing? Well my ego is a little hurt, but is that bad? ‘Probably not’ I hear you mutter! After all, my ego is fed from getting positive feedback as a facilitator, where I have been in control of getting the group to achieve tangible and agreed deliverables. Maybe it IS A SIGN that they have, as a team become less dependent on a facilitator. It’s even possible that they have cracked the nut of being open and getting beyond ‘nice’.
We recently caught up with the leader of the team to find out how things progressed from there.
Interestingly the facilitator’s baton has been picked up by a member of the team who has a real strength in this area (and who I had been encouraging to take on more of the facilitation while we were working together). This outcome is very gratifying – they are getting all the value of having team time well planned and run without depending on an external facilitator or the leader for this. But I suspect there may be still scope for them to get some value from the observations a team coach can bring from time to time.