How does an Agile coach learn to work at the executive level?
There are many ways that agile coaches learn to work at the executive level, I can only speak to my own personal experiences and how I arrived at that point in my career.
As an agile coach, I started working with teams.
I started as a scrum master and then progressed to agile coach where I started working with many teams as opposed to a single team. It was a natural progression from single team scrum master to multi-team agile coach.
Some teams were doing scrum, others Kanban, and others were in the process of discovering the framework that best worked for them. This is how I became an agile coach rather than simply a scrum master because of the variety of frameworks and methodologies in play.
Progression to coaching at the executive level
I was quiet lucky. Because I worked for a small consultancy, my first agile coaching engagement involved working with everyone from the CEO right down to the most junior developer on the scrum team.
So, from the outset, leadership teams and executives were involved in my coaching practice.
It was a fairly informal organization with few layers between the CEO and the development teams, so it was a great first experience working with leadership as well as teams.
There were some really strong agilists throughout the consultancy environment, so there was heaps of support and mentorship, which also made my initial agile coaching experience that much easier.
But, you are probably more interested in how you work with an executive within a large organization such as a bank. How do you work with them?
My progression involved working with a team initially, which then grew to multiple teams, and before I knew it I was involved with programmes. Portfolios that included multiple layers of management and leadership and required me to have discussions with very senior people within the organization.
At the start, it was about helping those senior leaders understand how agile works and how agile values, principles and tools helped me approach problem solving at the individual and team level.
Agile is a very different approach to traditional line management and so it required teaching, coaching and mentoring leadership teams to understand the value of the agile approach and how they could shift their thinking to solve complex problems and help build valuable products.
It was about helping leadership and executives understand how we could harness the power of agile in what was then, a very traditional organization. Some of those organizations were hundreds of years old and deeply entrenched in legacy systems and ways of working.
Talking to senior leaders.
As you get involved in programmes, and work across multiple portfolios, you suddenly find yourself talking to Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, etc. and you begin to realise that they are no different to you.
They are great people who are intelligent, creative and committed to doing the best job they can.
They want initiatives to work, and they want the organization to achieve it’s goals and objectives so you find that very few people in the organization work against you. Instead, they are looking to you to provide insight and answers to complex problems.
They are looking to you, as the expert in Agile and Scrum, to help them make decisions which will help the teams move forward and produce products and services that truly delight customers.
Speaking truth to power.
I didn’t treat people any differently because of their title. I assumed they were normal people, just like you and me, and I gave them the benefit of my knowledge and honesty.
If something wasn’t a great idea, I would tell them. If a proposal didn’t make sense, I would tell them. I would also tell them why. I would provide them with the answers and insights that would help them make great decisions but also, learn at the same time.
Something interesting happened in the process.
I discovered that these executives and senior leaders really are normal people. They may be working on more complex problems than the majority of us and they may be responsible for budgets which are significantly higher than anything we would deal with, but at the end of the day, they are people trying to do the best job they can with the resources at their disposal.
It turned out that people valued my honesty. They valued my perspective. They valued the insights I shared with them and appreciated the coaching element of what I do.
I was always honest, transparent, and forthright with them. If I didn’t believe something would work, I would take the time to explain why I believed that and helped them explore alternatives which did have a greater potential to succeed.
I didn’t have the authority or the experience to tell an executive how to do their job. As a coach, fortunately, that isn’t required of me and so I could simply focus on bringing my knowledge and experience to the table and deploy coaching skills to help that executive discover the best answer or course of action based on their deep knowledge and expertise.
So, bring your knowledge, expertise and experience to the table and allow the executive or leadership team to do with that as they would. It isn’t your role to tell them what to do nor are you responsible for making decisions, but you can be honest, forthright and help them understand a problem or opportunity through the lens of agile.
Executive Level Coaching
In my work today, as a deeply experienced Agile coach and executive coach, I work with some of the most senior people in the largest organizations in the world.
Nothing has changed from those first early days as an agile coach.
I am still dealing with people who are looking for the best solution to the challenge they face and I am dealing with people who appreciate honesty, insight and expertise above all else.
Many of them tell me that they don’t get honesty and forthright communication enough.
Many of them are surrounded by people and consultants who are scared to lose their job or their contract, and as such, will blend into the environment without shaking things up or making waves.
I am not advocating that you make waves as an agile coach, I am however advocating that you offer these individuals the benefit of your knowledge, expertise and experience. Honestly and forthrightly.
They are relying on you to be honest. They are relying on you to tell them the truth. They are relying on you to guide them through a potential maze and your role is to help them navigate that as best as they can.
It is no different to helping a senior developer within a scrum team achieve the best outcome for the team. It is no different to helping a product owner, within a single scrum team, discover the best answers to the most compelling questions they face.
Executives and leadership teams simply work with a bigger picture and have a great deal more complexity to navigate than someone at the teams level.
So, in closing, I would reinforce the idea that you are more than capable and competent to deal with people at the senior leadership level. If you have worked with individuals within a team environment, you can bring those same skills to the executive table.
They also require teaching. They also require facilitation. They also require coaching. And they also require mentorship. It will stretch you, and it will take a bit of time to find your feet and deploy your practice in a different way, but you will absolutely find your feet and begin to deliver value as long as you have the courage to be transparent, honest and open.
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