The Business Case for Team Coaching

By Phillip Sandahl


For quite a while now there’s been a buzz around the subject of “team coaching” similar to what we saw with individual coaching 10 or 15 years ago.

Team leaders, concerned about their own team’s performance, are asking for help and hearing for the first time about team coaching.

Internal HR business partners and OD specialists are inquiring in their networks and attending breakout sessions on the topic at conferences.

Team coaching was a small fragment of the coaching profession when we started working with business teams more than 12 years ago.

Today it’s a rapidly growing practice and it’s heartening to know that team coaches are now fielding fewer questions like “What sports do you specialize in?”

The purpose of this post is to focus on the benefits teams and organizations can expect from team coaching when delivered into the hands of competent, experienced professionals.

The Pressure is On

For years, organizations have focused on improving productivity by focusing on the individual employee.

Vast sums of money have been spent on performance management options with a general consensus that the return on that investment has been widely disappointing.

In the hunt for better and more consistent performance, organizations turned to teams as the means to deliver better business results.

And not just more teams and new forms of teams. Not just a growing proliferation of self-directed, agile, matrix, and virtual teams.

But also team function that’s more distributed and horizontal, with more responsibility and authority granted to teams and team members.

From our perspective at Team Coaching International (TCI), the shift makes sense because teams, working together, can accomplish what individuals simply can’t acting alone.

That’s a rather bold generalization and of course, there are exceptions. There are times when a workgroup is perfectly sufficient to achieve a certain goal.

But as an organizational strategy, there are clear advantages when teams excel.

There is enormous power in collaboration and organizations are eager to take advantage of that power in a rapidly evolving, highly competitive global marketplace.

Today, teams are forming, performing and reforming faster than ever. There’s an inherent flaw in this enthusiastic shift from individual performers to team performance.  

This flaw in logic is based on the assumption that team members naturally know how to collaborate effectively.

After all, we all know what a team is. We’ve been on teams. Ergo, we know how to interact effectively. It’s as if simply using the language of teams is sufficient unto itself, which we know isn’t true.

Organizations and especially team leaders are waking up to a very disturbing realization: most teams are vastly underperforming. They are simply not reaching their potential, and our data confirms it.

Our data shows that less than 10% of teams rate themselves as high performing before starting a team coaching engagement. That’s less than one in 10.

In some cases, it’s obvious. It might be a team with a clearly toxic culture or a team that is repeatedly unable to achieve team KPI’s.

Sometimes the issue at hand is the result of circumstances entirely beyond the team’s control.

They may find themselves caught in the throes of a major reorganization, merger or acquisition, or changes in key personnel.

In most cases, however, the cause is less obvious and buried beneath a vague sense of underachievement or dysfunction. What to do?

Familiar Options Don’t Create Sustainable Change

There are fundamentally two ways organizations and team leaders address the situation of underperforming teams.

One way is to focus on personnel and identify the problem team member and find a way to replace that person with a better fitting performer. It’s a replacement part approach.

Replace the worn out or broken part with a new one. Sometimes it is indeed a personal issue and hiring a new team member is the simple and correct answer.

However, in our experience, unless the team culture changes, more often than not, one new player will have little lasting effect on team performance.

In the transition and delays that are often caused by turnover, there will be a clear loss of productivity.

The other way organizations address the situation is to reach for the tried and true options they’ve experienced in the past.

If you’re that team leader or HR business partner looking for an answer, you’re likely to reach for what you know and what’s familiar.

Most likely that’s going to be team building or training programs. Those are the two most familiar options.

They are both excellent options when they are thoughtfully targeted and delivered by accomplished trainers and facilitators.

A team building event can have a powerful emotional impact. It can create extraordinary bonding.

But too often the learning from that team building session is temporary and the impact begins to fade quickly when people get back to work.

People are left with very little except great stories about the experience that are soon forgotten once they’ve returned to the old routine.

The same is often true for training. Without a structure that integrates the training into new team behavior the results of the training get lost in short order.

Without new practices, new goals for team members to reach and action to be accountable for, busy team members are likely to slip back into their old habits.

The consistent report we hear from organizations is that these two options simply don’t deliver sustainable results over time.

There is another way organizations have addressed this issue of team performance. Over the years, there’s been a huge investment in leadership development.

In the quest for better business results, the focus was placed on improving the performance of the team leader.

Here the assumption is, if you improve the team leader’s leadership competencies, it will translate into improved team performance.

There are many good, justifiable reasons for leadership development. But the assumption that it somehow automatically leads to improved team results, is an assumption with a very inconsistent track record.

A team leader might be or might learn to be a great communicator. But if the members of the team don’t possess those communication skills, the team results won’t show the difference.

A team leader might be a master of personal accountability but if the team doesn’t hold one another accountable the team will not perform up to its potential.

Leadership is key to a team’s performance. That is absolutely true. But at the end of the day, it’s the team’s performance that the organization will measure.

Instead of working through the team leader and hoping the effort will transfer to the team it makes more sense to start with the team in the first place. It’s more direct and more efficient.

Team Coaching As An Ideal Fit

Coaching provides the structure, support, and empowerment that allows teams to learn, practice, and integrate new behavior over time.

That’s the inherent power of coaching at its core. As coaches, we know that it’s not new knowledge that will make a difference to teams.

A new awareness is important but it’s new behavior that creates sustainable change. To become a more effective, more collaborative team and improve a team’s ability to deliver results is a change process.

Change, as we all know from personal experience, is not easy. Homeostasis is a powerful force of nature, which is why coaching is an ideal fit.

Coaching works because it actively, intentionally, and consciously helps teams and team members integrate new practices over time.

Coaching is effective because it works on the underlying abilities that deliver the visible results.

The ultimate goal is improved team performance, however, that is measured by the team or the organization itself.

But from the coaches point of view, the focus is not on the results, but on a team that can deal with a broad range of challenges successfully.

A Team Coaching Process Overview

Phase One: Discovery & Assessment

A team coaching engagement starts with a discovery and assessment phase to create a baseline understanding of where the team is today.

In the Team Coaching International methodology, this includes the TCI Team Diagnostic™ assessment (TDA).

The TDA provides a self-portrait of the team. The assessment results are delivered in a team coaching session designed to engage the team in an honest conversation about, “What’s working?” and “What needs to change?”.

The outcome of this initial discovery and assessment phase is an action plan.

The Second Phase: Coaching Begins

The second phase of a team coaching engagement is a series of ongoing coaching sessions. These are in-person sessions when that is possible.

A typical format would be six monthly half-day sessions and of course, there are an infinite number of variations depending on availability and budget.

Virtual team coaching sessions are becoming more common as more and more teams are geographically dispersed. These team coaching sessions tend to be more frequent but shorter.

In the TCI methodology, the focus is on improving team dynamics and the material we spotlight is the real and relevant everyday issues and interaction patterns of the team.

This is more than a generalized, high-level discussion of team qualities in the abstract. It is a focused conversation describing current, specific team interaction that shows up in visible team behavior.

A hundred teams might agree, “Trust is an issue on our team,” and there would be a hundred different reasons why.

The coaching process is designed to sort out those unique dynamics for the team and create awareness not only of the pattern but the impact.

It should then create action steps and accountability as structures to support change and new ways of working together more effectively.

By focusing on real issues, the coaching has meaningful and timely benefits. The team’s everyday focus is on the content of the issue at hand, as it should be—that’s where the conversation takes place.

The coaching focus is on the currents and tides below the surface: the team dynamics that exert a powerful impact on how the results are achieved.

Over time our goal is to train the team in recognizing those undercurrents and working with that awareness to improve interaction.

The Third Phase: Measuring The Results

The third phase of a team coaching engagement is the completion, measurement of results and harvesting the learning.

Because this is a coaching method, this third phase also leads to an action plan for next steps that may include additional team coaching.

A coaching methodology provides the structure and support for teams to learn and integrate new behavior into team member interactions.

Teams set goals, take action, learn from that action then recalibrate and reload and take new action.

This simple cycle of action, learning, and accountability at the heart of team coaching is what makes it the ideal fit for ongoing team performance improvement.

Outcomes of Team Coaching

Obviously, outcomes will be specific to the needs, plans, and performance of each team. There are, however, expectations from any team coaching process.

What we know from our experience over the years is that high performing teams are simply better than others in all 14 factors in the TCI team effectiveness model.

They communicate more effectively, resolve conflicts and disagreements efficiently, make faster and better decisions, and are more resilient, more adaptable to changing conditions, and more sustainable over time.

In our method, we emphasize two parallel tracks for team outcomes. One track is improvement in team dynamics. The other track is improvement in business metrics that matter to the team, determined by the team.

The two go hand in hand. In the team coaching methodology, we train and we put a strong emphasis on measurement.

One of the guiding principles behind our work is that “Teams exist to produce results.” Ultimately, improvement in team results is the only justification for an investment in team coaching.

From the organization’s point of view, there needs to be real-world impact on outcomes that matter to the business.

By using the TCI Team Diagnostic™ assessment we are able to show measurable results in team dynamics based on the TCI team effectiveness model.

TCI case studies show the wide variety of industries, team types, goals and team results.

By comparing assessment results pre and post team coaching we see the improvement teams experience and learn about the impact of those results.

Here are some examples of desired outcomes teams described, and team coaching delivered:

  • Improved patient satisfaction scores
  • Store over store retail sales improvement
  • Mission-critical IT project delivered on time and on budget
  • Senior leadership team alignment
  • Improved employee engagement scores
  • Accelerated product development
  • Rapid integration of two teams in a major corporate reorganization

Benefits of Team Coaching

The benefits start with improved performance for that initial client team of course. And that benefit to the initial client team is actually on two levels.

On one level teams deliver better business results and impact the bottom line. That’s the ROI justification for the investment in team coaching: revenue growth.

The second level is equally important: a more effective, collaborative, resilient, and sustainable team.

In fact, our ultimate purpose is to help the team become more capable and more resourceful.

From there the team is able to face new challenges and not remain dependent on the team coaching process for continued success.

As teams incorporate those new practices, they become more and more self-sufficient. That’s the point.

There are clear benefits from team coaching for the individual team members as well. Team members develop a new understanding of how effective teams operate.

They learn new skills and practices. They develop confidence and they raise their expectations for teams in general.

These days, team members are often on more than one team. As a result, what a team member learns about higher performing teams on one team becomes a new standard of expectation for all teams.

There is a viral, contagious effect as the learning spreads to other teams. A new level of understanding and higher expectations infect other teams in the organization.

Raising the bar shows up at the team level too. No team is an island; all teams exist within an ecosystem of teams in the organization; all depend on each other for organizational results.

The cross-fertilization that happens as higher performing teams interact will have impact on the performance ecology of the organization.

Improvement in one team’s culture almost inevitably results in improved relationships with existing stakeholders.

The change that one team experiences ripples out through the stakeholder connections and sets new standards of how teams in the organization work together.

This is the infectious effect of doing team coaching. Imagine the impact that’s possible within the organization simply by starting with one team and engaging that one team in team coaching.

Best Candidates

Not every team is a good candidate for team coaching. What is also true, team coaching is not just a triage center for dysfunctional teams.

In some cases, a team may be so paralyzed, they simply aren’t ready or capable of engaging in a coaching process.

The foundation of coaching is honest, open conversation and on some teams it may not be safe enough for that work.

In fact, with any form of coaching we would declare three conditions that are necessary for an effective coaching relationship:

  • The client is willing to change.
  • The client has the capacity to change.
  • The client is committed to change.

This touches on one of the essential differences between individual and team coaching.

With individuals those three: willingness, capacity, and commitment, are relatively easy to identify in coachees as they start. With teams it will be a mix of attitudes.

In effective team coaching engagements, those three get stronger over time as relationship trust is built and teams experience the benefits of better collaboration and improved results.

One of the qualities that reinforces those three conditions is a clear sense of urgency. That sense of urgency is unique to the team and it’s circumstances.

It’s an urgency that is very clear to the team and not just the team leader driving a particular agenda.

There is something very important at stake that everyone recognizes; there will be serious consequences if nothing changes.

The team understands they are at an important threshold, and the evidence for the need to change is clear.

This sense of urgency is often called “the burning platform”. It’s a common experience for project teams under budget and time constraints.

The sense of urgency may have nothing at all to do with the talent or skills of the team and everything to do with the project itself.

Although the urgency may be clear, that doesn’t mean the team is talking about it, except perhaps in pairs or small groups, covertly, here and there.

The need for change may be the “elephant in the room” that everyone recognizes and no one is talking about.

All senior leadership teams have, or should have, a strong sense of urgency simply based on the crucial role that team holds within the organization.

Unfortunately, we often see the most senior teams in the organization satisfied with minimal interaction.

We often see them more committed to maintaining their independence than engaging for the benefit of the team and its leadership role.

We’re not saying every leadership needs to be a strongly-bonded, interdependent, banner-waving, example of team togetherness.

But it is true that teams in the organization look up to senior teams and those senior teams model team behavior.

We would naturally expect teams at the top, with a view of the organization’s place in a competitive marketplace would operate from a strong sense of urgency.

It is also important for organizations to know that team coaching is not just the last resort for dysfunctional teams.

It’s actually a development strategy. As mentioned previously our data shows that 90% of teams are underachieving based on their own assessment of their team’s performance.

Team coaching is more than a way to fix a problem or resuscitate a team on life support. In fact, in our experience even those high productivity, high positivity teams benefit.

One way to think about team coaching is to think of it as a dojo or a gym for getting fit, building team strength.

Developing mastery in any skill, including teamwork, takes repetition and practice over time.

It’s the practice over time that actually leads to the development of any new skill, any new desired behavior.

Because cultural change at the team level is primarily about learning and integrating new behavior.

The process works best with teams that are open to change, willing to learn and practice new behavior, and are committed to the process. In short they’re engaged.

Finally, among the most important conditions defining best candidates is commitment from the team leader.

A commitment by the team leader to be open to the process and fully participate is key.

The team leader should be a model of full participation and demonstrate a willingness to let go.

The team leader may even need to exert less control over the outcome than they are accustomed to and less control than they’re comfortable with.

But it’s that level of openness and engagement that becomes the model for team members to follow.

In fact, team members will calibrate their own willingness to participate by what they see from their team leader.

The Business Case for Team Coaching

For organizations that focus on teams and see the need for improved team results, team coaching offers clear business benefits.

A coaching methodology is an ideal fit for delivering improved business results, and more importantly for the long run, developing more effective teams.

The impact ripples through the interconnections and affects team members, teams, stakeholders and the organization itself.

There is another aspect of the business case for team coaching that is a bit more philosophical.

We mentioned that we can look at team coaching as culture change at the team level. In the broadest sense team coaching helps individuals work together better in small micro-communities of 8, 10, or 12.

In the process of doing team coaching with such a small group, team members experience collaboration at a higher level.

As a result, they often bring that experience into their personal lives, their family environment, their networks, and communities.

The team, in fact, is a perfect microcosm for a community, and what team members learn there, they bring into every other aspect of their lives.

In addition to improving team business results, there is a way that this process builds better collaborators, and ultimately, stronger communities around the world.

There is a way to look at our work from a truly global human development perspective.

As team coaches, we leave a legacy that is far beyond the individual teams we interact with.

We frequently say, “The action of coaching doesn’t take place in the coaching session. The real action of coaching takes place in the lives of the team and team members.”

We believe there is a deeper impact to this work that we may never realize but it will be visible in human terms.

It will be visible in a world that learns how to work in a community more effectively and that’s an outcome and benefit that serves a higher purpose.

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