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  • Toby Sinclair

Agile Coaching v Professional Coaching

In 2016, I was happily performing the role of an Agile Coach. Then one evening I attended a Meetup on the topic of Professional Coaching.

What I realized from this meetup is that I had a good understanding of Agile, but a very shallow understanding of Coaching. A realization very common amongst Agile Coaches. It's easy to make assumptions about what coaching is and isn't. This is partly due to a problematic definition of coaching in the dictionary.

Many Agile Coaches have a good understanding of the values, frameworks and approaches of agile. When it comes to the values, frameworks and approaches of professional coaching it's often not as deep.

This means that many Agile Coaches focus on the mentoring part of the role. They teach and advise teams on how to improve. Whilst this does add value its success can be limited in the long term. Becoming a better leader, in particular, requires the development of the whole person both their internal and external world.

What is Coaching?

Coaching is it's a very misunderstood term. It tends to be associated with telling people telling others what to do. It's also associated with fixing people. This is driven by many factors in our society including a problematic dictionary definition.

Advising and teaching can be very helpful in developing people. However, I found the most effective coaching also includes a less directive approach. One focused on self-discovery rather than direction.

I define coaching as:

An activity that has three observable skills. The coaching activity tends to be a conversation that aims to help unlock another person's potential. The three skills you can master to create great coaching conversations are active listening, asking powerful questions, and self-awareness.

Great coaches in all industries and contexts have mastery of these three core coaching skills. This includes agile coaches, professional coaches, sports coaches and life coaches.

However, there are some differences that we'll start to take a look at now.

What is Agile Coaching?

To define Agile Coaching I typically draw upon the work of Lyssa Adkins. She has pursued mastery in the core coaching skills and applied them in many contexts.

In her book Coaching Agile Teams, she defines coaching as:

In the context of agile teams, coaching takes on the dual flavor of coaching and mentoring. Yes, you are coaching to help someone reach for the next goal in their life. You are also sharing your agile experiences and ideas as you mentor them, guiding them to use agile well. Coaching and mentoring are entwined for the sake of developing talented agilists so that more and better business results arise through agile.

What you'll notice in this definition is that the combination of both coaching and mentoring is key to a successful agile coach. Many agile coaches have experience and knowledge of working in the area where they're helping people teams. For example, they may have previously been a software developer or product owner and been involved in the development of products and software. As a result, it's common that people will seek out their advice and experience to help them with certain challenges. This advice can be very helpful, however, in many cases, our advice isn't as good as we think it is.

Great Agile Coaches don't just advise they also coach. They master the core coaching skills of active listening, asking powerful questions and self-awareness. This is where professional coaching skills can increase your ability to help people change.

What is Professional Coaching?

The best definition for professional coaching comes from the International Coaching Federation, a professional body that upholds the ethics and standards of the professional coaching industry.

Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment. Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole.

What do you notice about the difference between this definition of coaching?

There are two contrasts that I'd like to highlight.

One is that within this definition, there's no mention of mentoring. Professional Coaching tends to be less about advice-giving. The coach tends to not have direct experience of the person or teams work.

Second, Professional Coaches focus on the whole person, both their personal and professional lives. This is based on the belief that to unlock our potential, we need to work with a person as an integrated whole.

There are 8 competencies that the ICF define for Professional Coaches:

How to become a Certified Professional Coach?

The journey that I took to become a qualified accredited professional coach was with the International Coaching Federation. They offer a training pathway to develop coaching skills. Typically this is around 12 days of classroom-based training that teaches you the foundational skills, theory, and knowledge.

To obtain the first credential level, Associate Coach Credential, you'll need to complete 100 hours of coaching. The next level is Professional Coach Credential, which requires 500 hours of coaching.

The journey is not easy. You don't turn up to a two-day course and then suddenly get a certification. It requires high time and energy investment. You'll examine your values and beliefs so that you can become a better coach.

You can learn more about my journey to gain Professional Coach Credential here

What's next for you?

It's likely you are an Agile Coach who wants to develop more professional coaching skills. I've got three ways you can start to do that now.

The first thing you can do to become a better agile coach is to start developing coaching skills: active listening, asking powerful questions and self-awareness.

You can start to build these now, without a professional coaching training course. I created Switch, a free 5-day program to help you develop these skills. In just 5 minutes a day, you'll start to develop the habits of coaching. Join here.

The second thing you can do is get help from a professional coach. A great way to learn about coaching is to simply be coached to experience the power of coaching firsthand. So if you don't currently have a coach today, I'd recommend finding a professional coach. They will help you explore your values, beliefs, and really help unlock your potential.

Thirdly, once you've started to develop active listening, asking powerful questions and self-awareness skills and you've got a professional coach, this may be a good time to start an ICF course. A professional coaching course from the International Coaching Federation will teach you the foundations, the theory and the practice are professional coaching. So you can confidently build those skills and start to integrate them more into your agile coaching practice.


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