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February 13, 2019
Mentoring a new Agile coach

During Agile 2018, host Chris Murman caught up with Agile coaches Allison Pollard and Noreen Emanuel to discuss their mentor-mentee relationship. Below is an excerpt from their discussion on recommendations for how coaches can sharpen their collaboration skills together. Conversation edited for brevity.

Chris: How were you to introduced to each other?

Allison: I don't know if we really had been introduced! We had been in the midst of a transformation and things weren't going well … my role was to observe [from an external perspective] and help make recommendations. We knew my role was going to evolve and become more detailed, and I sat near Noreen.

Chris: Noreen starts working internally in the organization in an [Agile] coaching role, and in the last year, you've started down this path?

Noreen: As Allison said, we were going through a transformation, meaning some of our old roles were no longer going to exist. I was a project lead and was told to try out this coach thing. I didn't know what it meant to be a coach or what was expected of me. Allison showing me the ropes made me think “Hey, this is something I actually want to do.”

Chris: How did your journey actually begin?

Noreen: I was looking for some direction—I reached out to her and she recognized what kind of coaching I needed. She had me do a strengths test to see what my skills were.

Allison: Yes, I had mentioned StrengthsFinder—it identifies your top five strengths, and it was interesting because I would mention certain books or certain ideas to Noreen one day, and the very next day she would come back with research on it. As it turns out, her number three strength is input, which happens to be my top strength. Knowing that, she was able to start making the connections and absorb them like a sponge.

Chris: What was the impact of learning those strengths? And what was the impact of where you were on your journey?

Noreen: It wasn't clear right away. We also had another internal coach—he's was not meant to be my coach, because he didn't put in the time and effort to learn how to coach me. And I reacted badly one day to some of his coaching. Allison—knowing that empathy is part of my strength –understood that. It was one of the impacts of her knowing why I react a certain way, and me knowing why she would react a certain way. It just helps a relationship.

Chris: It seems like she's useful at reframing those into “how can we move forward?” And, that Allison was able to hear the stories and hear your experiences, then turn it into more.

Noreen: What she says works, and that's why I trust her. She can make results happen.

Chris: Going back to the StrengthsFinder piece. If I'm coaching someone else, I can find a common language. It takes the pressure off you to have impact because you just reflect on whatever their strengths are, right?

Allison: I see this as a partnership. People heard the term “super coach” and thought was it a hierarchy, but it’s not. There is a “coach of coaches” kind of aspect, but for me it means that I have a new colleague who has different ideas and their brain works differently, and they all have these great skills. So, how do we tap into that together?

Chris: So, the first step, is establish trust, not by inserting your opinion, but by finding a common language that speaks to you both, to understand where you are. Once you did that, what came next and how did it get you to where you are now?

Noreen: We observed things together and slowly started making changes—for example, “that stand-up looks very dysfunctional.” So, let’s conquer that first. Allison asked for my feedback about what I liked and what was wrong. We would make a change and started having beautiful stand-ups. Just taking one thing at a time.

Allison: We would have side conversations, colleague to colleague, about what we were noticing what perhaps should be different. The next thing I know, Noreen is taking action. She's talking to people—her relationship skill—and she’s engaging with them. She's sharing some of the observations, getting their thoughts, and suddenly change is happening within a blink of an eye.

Compared to what my approach would be … let’s give it a little bit of time. Maybe until a retrospective! These are Noreen’s strengths being used in action to affect change.

Chris: What you're describing is everything that I would look for if I were going to be coaching someone. But how do you not have the impulse to do things your own way, and [let someone lead]?

Allison: I'll remind myself that it's important for the organization to be able to sustain the change. For that to be possible, it's important to have internal coaches, internal employees that are part of the change, because they practice it—they learn by doing and we're all alongside that. I've been focusing more on that the past year. I ask myself how can I help other people practice it immediately, rather than role model it first? I struggle with that because my style can be so different from what others need.

Chris: Enablement is not just about knowledge. Anybody can read, anybody can attend seminar training. But you then must focus on “how do I put someone into action of practice?”

Listen to the full podcast, “Mentoring a New Agile Coach,” and subscribe to Agile Amped for insights on DevOps, Agile, business agility, and more!

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