Coach – one of the most important roles in the 21st Century

We are almost halfway through the second decade of the 21st century and I’ve noticed a greater and building interest in role of a ‘Coach’ within an organisation.  It still coming from a low base and many companies still do not have such a role or aware that they may even need such a role maybe due to old fashioned ignorance, no time (like really) and a tacit assumption that the workers should come equipped ready for the workplace.  It’s still overlooked or worse lip service paid to it.  It’s important to draw focus on this.

The role of coach has come into vogue in the last decade or so in software development.  It’s a role that has it’s genesis in the ground breaking work of knowledge worker and systems thinking notaries such as Peter Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, Russell Ackoff.

Others like Robert Greenleaf wrote of Servant Leadership, Ricardo Semler wrote about empowerment (a related concept) in his book Maverick published in the early 1990s.  The list of more recent writers goes on with notary examples like Daniel Pink and his book Drive and David Marquet and his book Turn the Ship Around.  There are others I’ve missed for sure (please add you favourites).

We see today companies new and old practising empowerment as well – old companies like HandelsBank, the leading bank in Sweden and Spotify a startup that has grown in the space of 4 years to have 300 people over 3 locations working for it.  And of course the original was Toyota – employing the ‘Sensei’.  In the software world writers like Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister and a host of more recent Agile writers have written directly or in directly about concepts relating to coaching.

But why do we need a coach.   Well – the major reason so far has been to aid in the transition from traditional modes of work to more Agile and Lean modes of work – a change agent of sorts (but more than this – cares for people).  The newer ways of work challenge the old ideals of hierarchy and empowers everyone to be a leader.  This is a major cultural shift and we’ve learnt the hard way that change cannot be imposed.  A coach helps the people undergoing the change see the why and also how it can make their work lives more enjoyable and not just the latest improvement process de jour.

Coaches also develop other coaches because change is an ongoing exercise.  It never stops.  In the 21st Century the pace of change is ever more increasing.  A coach is required to help people navigate change with practices that focus on the the day to day tasks through to strategic planning with executives.  The drive for less command and control and more empowerment will see old roles disappear.  The coach will facilitate, be an unblocker and encourage activities that focus of the delivery of value.  The coach will encourage healthy debate, make it safe to be wrong and deal with conflict (which can be good) in sensible ways for the benefit of all parties.

We can see this change already occurring with the traditional project manager role changing into the Agile Project Manager with old traditional reporting and governance dropped for lightweight but hugely expressive ‘Radiators’ of information.  We’ve seen teams work with robust goals and vision without the direct supervision of a manager.  We are seeing managers turn into facilitators.  They are become even more valued by developing these people focused skills guided and driven by goals of delivering direct customer value.

The way forward

Develop skills directed to coaching people.  This will require a substantial paradigm shift from old thinking.  For a good story of a transition from a traditional Project Manager to an Agile Project Manager start with Michele Sliger’s and Stacia Broderick’s book – ‘The Software Project Manager’s Bridge to Agility‘.  Jean Tabaka’s ‘Collaboration Explained‘ and Lyssa Adkin’s ‘Coaching Agile Teams‘ are also great sources.  I have other books in the The Coaching Side of my bookshelf – scroll down to that part of list.  I particularly like Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with Their Challenges and Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (it’s still applicable to coaches).

The world is changing and if you don’t change you risk being left out.  It will take some practice to build the skills and you’ll no doubt stumble along the way.  Practice and perhaps get yourself a trusted mentor to help you out as well.

All the Best!  Feel Free to be in touch 🙂


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