Coaching: It’s a team game pt1

In successful businesses team coaching is on the rise, says Tom Marsden. 

Team coaching has grown extensively over recent years. It started in the sporting world and there are now signs of significant growth in the world of work. So, what further lessons can we learn from the sporting approach to coaching teams.

Team coaching works 

In Atul Gawande’s TED talk on the importance of coaching, he recounts the origin of coaching in sports: “In 1875, Harvard and Yale played one of the very first American-rules football games. Yale hired a head coach; Harvard did not. The result? Over the next three decades, Harvard won just four times. Harvard then hired a coach.”

It’s impossible now to imagine any serious sports team without a coach.

The requirements to collaborate are increasing. Mckinsey found that almost half of the world’s jobs require significant collaboration. Pew research also found that the growth in jobs requiring a high degree of collaboration is double that of occupations requiring average levels of collaboration. Yet team coaching hasn’t penetrated as deep as it has in sports. Might that change?

There are certainly a lot of coaches. Estimates by PWC and ICF are that there are in excess of 53,000 coaches in the world. However, only a small minority, perhaps less than 5%, coach teams or groups – though there are signs that this will change.

If a team can co-create their own goals, they are much more likely to achieve them. 

Agile team coaches have demonstrated that team coaching principles can be adopted at scale in the digital and technology sector. One influential report indicates that team coaching is on the agenda for 47% of organisations.

We are likely to see an increase in team coaching in particular as meta-studies have found it’s one of the most effective interventions that you can make to improve financial performance.

The principles of team coaching are well established

A team needs to have clear foundations. This means being able to answer questions such as: Why do we exist as a team? Where do we need to work collectively to achieve goals? How do we measure success? 

A team also needs to reflect regularly on performance and team dynamics. What behaviours should we expect from one another? What’s working well or might be improved? What experiments can we undertake to improve performance?  

Defining clearer common goals may be critical. In a sports team goals are often quite clear; chasing a trophy or avoiding relegation. But setting the right level of stretch may be important. However, in a work environment, outside of sales, defining team goals is often a challenge.

Many team members have individual goals but if the work is being undertaken together that’s not enough. Even if a team has clear targets these targets are often mandated from above. If a team can co-create their own goals, they are much more likely to achieve them.

This work is hard.

The venture capitalist John Doerr, who is a major advocate of goals setting, has written: “It often takes teams several quarters to get goal setting right.”

I’ve heard many sports coaches also discuss the need for teams to set their own behavioural standards or ground-rules. Lord Chris Holmes did exactly this when he was captain of the UK Paralympic team in Barcelona. “I was the youngest person in the team and the captain. The only way I could get their buy-in was to ask them to make the rules.”

Clive Woodward did the same with his world cup squad. “No one was ever late because they didn’t want to break their own rules.” We’ve watched this simple intervention work with countless teams at work too. If the teams make the rules they are quite simply less likely to break them.

Another common theme is the importance of taking regular time out to learn and improve. The idea of continual learning is common to sports and at work coaching. Clive Woodward said to his players: “You are either a rock or a sponge. I want sponges. People that learn.”

This mantra is consistent with the concept of a ‘growth mindset’ advocated by many coaches and business leaders. For example, Satya Nandella, who is establishing a more collaborative and open environment at Microsoft.

Many of the principles of team coaching are well established. Defining purpose and goals, developing trust in the team and the ground rules of how the team will behave. Embracing a culture of continuous learning and regular reflection.

Making it happen remains the challenge.

This piece will be concluded next week.


About the author

Tom Marsden is CEO at Saberr.



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