Trusting the process of emergent team coaching

Trusting the process of emergent team coaching

team of climbers ascending the side of a mountain wall

Georgina Woudstra, founder and principal of Team Coaching Studio, is a passionate advocate of team coaching. ‘My whole-hearted aim is to support practitioners in developing their capacity to be the best they can be,’ she says. She argues that becoming a masterful team coach goes way beyond the art of individual or group coaching, and in this short blog she illustrates how.

When I started out as a team coach nearly 15 years ago, I went on a few early courses but found little that actually helped me do meaningful work beyond the initial facilitation of a team launch. I gained plenty of tools, but over thousands of hours of practice I learned that real team coaching – where change work happens – occurs when we stop trying to control the process and trust the process that will emerge. We must learn to get out of our own and the team’s way!

Classical team coaching approaches often rely on learning from models and tools, such as personality assessments and sharing personal preferences; measuring team effectiveness and discussing it and agreeing some development goals; and by establishing ground rules for how the team will work together in the future.

This can be very helpful for getting a team off to a good start. However, most teams I am invited to coach are way beyond forming and are experiencing some difficulty in functioning as a high performing team. This calls on us as team coaches to create a more intentional, evolutionary and emergent approach, using the team’s real work as the experimental field for learning and growth. I call this ‘emergent team coaching’, and it can produce new and transformational learning to organisational success.

What does emergent team coaching look like in practice? Here’s an example based on a team’s real needs. The executive team of a private equity backed post-merger organisation were struggling. Nine months post-merger, the PE investors were openly questioning the team’s credibility in terms of delivering on their promise of doubling the size of the organisation in three years, and they were threatening to ‘make changes if the team can’t get on track by the end of the first year’.

The team had worked with a team coach at the launch, who had facilitated a two-day high-performing teams workshop, helping the team to get to know each other, define their purpose, and establish team values and ground rules for working together. Nine months later, team members described this as ‘really useful’ – however, when asked to share the purpose or ground rules, they recalled little and relied on digging out a set of slides from the workshop to jog their memories.

During my first coaching session with the team, they identified an area on which to focus: its growth plans. I asked a simple question: ‘How do you intended to achieve the growth required as a team?’ In their attempt to respond to my question, it quickly became apparent that there was little clarity or alignment with answers varying from ‘acquisition’ to ‘organic growth’ to ‘cost management’. In less than five minutes, the team’s dynamic had emerged!

Instead of diving into the content, I named the pattern: ‘I notice you have very different views on how you are going to achieve growth’, and then asked a powerful question: ‘How do you get aligned as a team?’ They looked around at each other, and there was a long silence. The CEO spoke saying he assumed they were all aligned as they had their annual plan. I used direct communication: ‘Often teams assume they are aligned, and they aren’t! Now is your opportunity to change this.’

Another silence, with the team looking at me expectantly, I held my nerve, waiting for someone to speak. Eventually a team member piped up: ‘I don’t think we know how to do that as a team. In our team meetings, generally people are willing to offer a point of view, but I don’t think we actually make a clear decision, we leave it to the CEO.’ Again, the team’s pattern around decision-making had emerged – the team’s dance!

I then followed with a little active listening: ‘I hear you say that the team needs to learn how to make decisions and align around them’ and an invitation to the team to new learning in the here-and-now through active experimentation: ‘I invite you to try something; in the next 15 minutes I want to discuss and agree a process for making and aligning around decisions.’

The team went to task and designed a process, which I invited them to put to the test in aligning around their growth strategy. This time the process took longer. I intervened periodically, observing patterns and inviting micro experiments: ‘I notice people are offering diverse opinions, see if you can work out how to build these individual opinions into one which people can align around.’ After one hour they were aligned.

While it was material to the team’s success to have a common strategy for growth, the significant learning was around the process of executive debate, decision and alignment, a new capability which the team were able to employ repeatedly in their work together. My work as a team coach involved working emergently with intentional interventions.

I used the TCS Team Coaching Competencies© throughout and trusted the process. I didn’t teach the team a pre-determined model for decision-making or a process for alignment, but let them do the work which created much more buy-in and ownership of the process. In reality, much more upfront work was done around establishing the coaching contract and building a container for the work, however I have zoomed in on the real emergent change work in this blog to hopefully share the difference between emergent team coaching and the more facilitative, pre-determined approaches more commonly used.

Georgina Woudstra MCC is the founder and principal of Team Coaching Studio, an organisation dedicated to the training and development of masterful team coaches. Her regular column in Coaching at Work, ‘Talking Teams’, speaks directly to coaches as artful practitioners. She also runs her own successful CEO and Senior Team coaching practice. Email Georgina here.

Photo: Frantisek Duris/Unsplash