Four lessons learnt while coaching leaders

I have been working with leaders in the last few years as an agile coach. When I say ‘leaders’, these are people in middle management roles in large corporates. Intent of this blog is to share some of the lessons I learnt in the process.

In the agile world, it is commonly felt that middle managers struggle with agile transformation. Roles become nebulous and uncertainty sets in their minds. In many cases, organizational restructure as part of the transformation adds to their challenges. Coaches perceive middle managers as a group that is resistant to change and a hurdle to transformation efforts.

As a coach, first thing I had to do was to clear my head of any biases towards middle managers. For me, the best way to remove an idea is to replace it with something else. In this case, I replaced the bias towards the middle managers with deep respect for what they have already achieved in their career. They certainly did not reach where they are by accident. I have found that right mindset sends the right vibes and that is a great starting point for any coach.

Know my place

First lesson I learnt was about ‘knowing my place’. In a large-scale transformation, there are coaches or consultants working at various levels – with teams, with middle managers and with senior managers. There is also the organizational hierarchy and internal transformation experts and coaches. I had to get clarity on my scope and span of work and the results that I am expected to enable as a coach. I also found it useful to share that understanding with the leadership group. It helps to stay focused and not get tangled in any organizational dynamics.

Coach to role

Second lesson is an interesting one. When we coach teams, roles are well documented – team member, PO, SM. When I started engaging with middle managers, I realized I needed a lot of clarity in my head on what each role is expected to do. If I do not have that clarity, how can I guide them to act in their roles? Sometimes, I found that clarity emerges gradually as we get into motion.

I also found it does not really help to define their roles in detail because there are things they are expected to work together with other middle managers. There are grey areas and we do not want silos created by detailed role definition. Teamwork and collaboration become crucial at this level just as important as for scrum teams if not more.

Help them define new operating rhythm

Collaboration is vital for middle managers. Having said that, they also need processes to help them work together. Practices for scrum teams are well-defined but not so for middle managers. If we do not help define the right processes, they would come together periodically and not know what to do. Processes at middle management level that support agility are about orchestrating flow of value, removing impediments for teams, removing systemic waste and developing the capability of the teams.

Obviously, it is best that these processes are created by them with your support. However, I learnt that they need a starting point or something skeletal. They are the best at elaborating and fitting these processes to the organizational context. This approach helps the middle managers take ownership for sustaining and improving the processes over time.

Make them look great

As a coach, our role is temporary. Who would be able to guide teams after we leave? I found it is not only important to equip the managers on the principles of lean and agile but it is also important to make them look great. This is actually amazingly easy – I found that most managers are keen on learning the right principles and are good at applying that knowledge in their context. Most of the managers have great people skills and are particularly good at execution. It is important to point out the right things they are doing to the teams, whenever possible.

It is also important to help them look great in front of their managers – not by show but by performance. As a coach, I had to understand what the expectations of manager’s manager are and guide them in fulfilling some of those expectations.

Let me conclude by saying these lessons are based on my experience. Yours could be different and over the next few years I may also learn different lessons. I believe one thing that will remain constant is the mindset that I talked about in the beginning of this post. Start with respect for the middle managers rather than seeing them as a group resistant to change.


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