Teamwork : Coaching The Team

Professor David Clutterbuck is one of Europe's most prolific and well-known management writers and thinkers. He has written more than 40 books and hundreds of articles on cutting edge management themes. Co-founder of The European Mentoring Centre and of The item Group (a leading provider of internal communication solutions), David also runs a thriving international consultancy, Clutterbuck Associates, which specialises in helping people in organisations develop the skills to help others. David is perhaps best-known in recent years for his work on mentoring and coaching, on which he consults around the world. His books on mentoring are numerous, and 'Everyone needs a mentor' has become a classic piece of management literature since it was first published in 1985.

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One of CA’s key projects next year is to produce the first substantive book on coaching teams at work. While there is a lot written about teams in general and about coaching in general, outside the world of sport there has been very little research and writing about the combination of the two.

The role of the team coach is very different to that of the one-to-one coach. While the latter may help bring into focus the network of intra-team relationships – line manager, colleagues and key stakeholders outside the team – the team coach has to facilitate the open and often simultaneous interaction between all of these parties, often against a background of open or hidden conflict.

Where the team coach is also the team leader, it can be very difficult to rise above these interconnections. The coach in this situation has to rise above the team, taking an independent and objective perspective, while at the same time recognising his or her own needs for personal change and his or her own direct and indirect influence on the issues the team faces. If the team regards the leader as a major part of the problem, then his or her capacity to resolve the problem in a coaching style may be significantly reduced. It is, in some ways, like being both a catalyst and a reagent at the same time.

In a team where everyone adopts a coaching style towards their colleagues, it’s a lot easier. Issues come to the surface and can be discussed openly, in a manner where mutual responsibility is both implicit and explicit. But getting to that point usually takes a great deal of learning and behaviour change on the part of both the leader and the other team members. Coaches external to the team are often essential in building such a level of intra-team coaching capability. Although the goal for such coaches is normally expressed in specific performance-based outputs, there is a very strong argument for defining the aim of team coaching in terms of bringing the team to the point where it is largely self-sufficient in coaching itself.

The team coach’s role – whether internal or external to the team -- is also made more complex by the fact that teams are not all the same. As previous CA research has demonstrated, there are at least six different types of team people can be members of – sometimes all at the same time. These vary in terms of their stability of membership, stability of task, degree of interdependence and clarity of structure, reporting lines and purpose. Each team also has its own idiosyncrasies, which come from historical baggage, personality mix, reputation within the organisation and prevailing beliefs (micro-culture), all of which influence its ability to perform.

The key roles of the team coach

Our initial research identifies several core roles for the external team coach, helping the team to:
1. define its purpose and priorities
2. understand its environment
3. identify and tackle barriers to performance
4. build the team learning plan
5. grow confidence in themselves and their leader
6. develop the systems, skills and behaviours to internalise coaching

Taking these in turn:

Defining the purpose and priorities

Like individuals, teams need to know what they are trying to achieve and why before they can focus full attention and effort where it is needed. The fad for anodyne mission statements has (thankfully) passed its peak, with at least part of the decline being the result of disillusionment with the impact of broad statements of purpose that achieved little in motivating people at the enterprise level and probably even less at the team level. In its place, we are seeing more and more reasoned dialogue around what the team is there for. What wouldn’t happen if we stopped work? How much would it matter? How can we maximise our team contribution to the overall objectives of the organisation? – these are all questions that stimulate insight for individuals and teams alike.

Understanding the environment

Teams exist by consent of external social environment (the organisation) and their own members. Where the expectations, purposes, or beliefs of these two forces conflict, the coach can help identify the source and impact of the conflicts and help the team establish practical ways to resolve or defuse them.

In recent work with key account managers, one of the most useful interventions by the coach was to provide tools and concepts, by which they could map and manage the four different networks, each needed to operate effectively. Two of these networks related to information gathering, in the client companies and in their own organisation; two related to getting things done (influencing) in the same two environments. A key realisation was that both of the influence networks were in effect virtual teams, and needed to be managed as such.  One of the key account manager’s priority had to be turning these from dysfunctional to effective teams.

Identifying and tackling barriers to performance

In principle, it’s simple. Knowing what the team is supposed to achieve and what it is achieving, you identify and work on the reasons for the gaps. In practice, it takes a great deal of reflective time, gathering of data and analysis of feedback to establish what the barriers are, whether they are external or internal to the team, whether they reside within the team as a whole or within specific individuals (for example, a skills deficiency), whether they relate to structures, systems, know-how, or behaviour. The coach’s role is to facilitate the learning dialogue that explores these issues and ensures that “elephants in the room” are acknowledged and dealt with openly. It is also about helping the team recognise and avoid group think.

Building the team learning plan

The team learning plan defines what the team and its individual members need and want to learn, how this will contribute to the business purpose and the responsibilities, each holds to the others in helping achieve the learning goals. It is as important a document as the business plan, because it underpins targets and goals with practical ways of developing capability and capacity.

Growing in confidence

A frequent role for the team coach is to work one-to-one with the team leader and separately with the team members (without the team leader) as well as bringing them all together. Crucial here are building the competence to accept and value different contributions, to understand the different pressures the team leader is under compared with the team members (and his or her role in protecting the team from some of those external pressures) and to develop the feedback processes that recognise day to day achievements.

Developing the systems, skills and behaviours to internalise coaching

For the team to achieve the level of learning maturity, where it can do for itself most or all of what a good external coach can do, it needs to develop a quality of dialogue well beyond the norm.  To achieve this, the coach has to make sure that the team does not become dependent on the external facilitation. Setting a deadline, by which the team will have achieved this level of internal sophistication and expertise is helpful, as is building these competencies into the team learning plan.

Maintaining the balance

The team coach has a multifaceted role that is neither fully inside, nor fully outside the team. He or she must be a non-partisan confidant for all the stakeholders within the team, yet able to give sometimes highly challenging feedback; encourage the team to think more broadly, yet to maintain focus on the practical; help it balance the need for short term performance versus building capability for the medium term; and support the team leader without duplicating or supplanting the line role. Maintaining an appropriate balance is difficult but essential – which is one of the reasons why professional supervision (in the sense of frequent reflection on practice with another experienced coach) should always be part of the deal.

The growth of one-to-one coaching has been much faster than team coaching, not least because the latter is more difficult, less clearly scoped and a less well understood concept in business. In the next five years, we expect to see a lot more employers using team coaching and more coaches expanding their portfolio to include work with teams – and increasing attention to measuring the impact of these interventions.

Coaching v facilitation

It’s noticeable, (and I have done it in this short article) that team coaching and facilitation are often used synonymously. There is, in my view, a distinction between the two. Facilitation focuses on creating the environment for dialogue. It does not require specific expertise by the facilitator in the topic under discussion. It focuses on processes for clarifying and making decisions. Coaching adds extra dimensions of creating and analysing feedback, sometimes giving specific advice, and focusing on performance. These distinctions are currently explorative – as part of the research, we expect to gather a wide range of views and perspectives.

© Clutterbuck Associates 2004

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