What makes a good coach?

Agile coaching is not for the faint hearted. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very rewarding, but sometimes it’s difficult when there is a lot of organisational and individual resistance.  

A common frustration I hear among my agile coaching peers is that their teams aren’t listening to them. The coach says they have been pretty clear about exactly what the team should be doing, told them the basic framework , but for whatever reason, the team doesn’t do it or ignores the advice.  “If only” the coach thinks,  “I could really save them from pain or waste as I can see what’s going to go wrong if they don’t take my advice”.

It’s not surprising that teams and managers new to agile are often not keen to take on agile and advice from the coach as every person has a certain set of experiences, education, beliefs and expectations about how the world works and make decisions from that mindset. The people we are coaching are invested in that mindset and credit it with the previous success they have had up to this point so why would they change? It can be very threatening to change or to try something different and therefore the most common reaction is to resist or defend and shutout any further coaching.

I was recently working with a large organisation at scale and getting a lot of resistance, I found myself getting frustrated as I wasn’t getting through to them. Afterall, couldn’t they see all I was trying to do was help them? I realised I was making it all about me telling them what they needed to change should have been more about working out what the team needed and how I could support, mentor and coach them to be successful as a team. 

To get inspiration, I started to look at what made agile coaches successful but soon found that what I really needed to understand was what made a great coach as whilst Business Agility is not a sport, great coaching is great coaching and is just as important to success to teams in an office as it is on the field.

Here are some lessons from the greats that really resonated with the Agile principles of setting goals for small incremental improvements, empowering the individuals in the team, promoting team collaboration and allowing them to be innovative and have the skills and  ability to adapt when context changes.


Sir Alex Ferguson
Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary coach of the Manchester United football has some considered thoughts on criticism: “Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. So I tried to give encouragement when I could. For a player — for any human being — there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done.’ Those are the two best words ever invented. You don’t need to use superlatives.” But if someone has failed to meet expectations, don’t wait to correct them. “I would do it right after the game. I wouldn’t wait until Monday. I’d do it, and it was finished. I was on to the next match.” The feedback would be Radical Candor – Challenging Directly and showing you Care Personally at the same time.
Bill Parcells

Bill Parcells, a football coach famous for turning around underperforming team. His approach was to “set small goals and hit them.” “When you set small, visible goals, and people achieve them, they start to get it into their heads that they can succeed. They break the habit of losing and begin to get into the habit of winning. It’s extremely satisfying to see that kind of shift take place.”

Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh, the businesslike coach of three Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49ers football team. “You are actually striving for two things at the same time: an organization where people understand the importance of their jobs and are committed to living within the confines of those jobs and to taking direction,” he told us, “ And an organization where people feel creative and adaptive and are willing to change their minds without feeling threatened. It is a tough combination to achieve. But it’s also the ultimate in management.”


What made them stand out?

The key lessons that stand out from these great coaches are:

  • Be prepared and expect the same of your team.
  • Adjust your style to each of your peoples’ needs. What works for one person could be detrimental to another. Figure out the best approach for each by watching your people in action
  • Choose encouragement over criticism; but when you must provide feedback, give it as soon after the event as possible. Be honest but compassionate, then move on.
  • Have high expectations. Believe in your team.
  • Don’t ignore or sideline underperformers — your team is only as good as your weakest member. Instead, help them improve.
  • Make progress tangible. Set clear goals and milestones, and celebrate when you achieve them.

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