Coaching a team is enormously gratifying work. It can also chaotic, engaging, turbulent, emotional, fun, frustrating, and surprising. All of that in a very short period of time, sometimes simultaneously.
Although team coaching shares similarities with individual coaching or executive coaching it is a very different, public environment with layers of relationships and a unique set of challenges.
Team coaching requires a much broader focus as the underlying goal is to improve team performance.
The process of team coaching is a powerful mix of group dynamics, coaching conversations, action items, and new team behavior.
There are many forces at work, although only some are in the team coach or a team leader’s control.
When managing a team of ten, there is simply a lot more going on, and on multiple levels, with mixed priorities, personalities, and styles of expression.
To be effective requires a special set of competencies, team coaching skills and awareness of the complex relationships that existing within the team.
It also requires the ability to act with confidence in the midst of constantly shifting dynamics. It’s a dance that requires great agility.
Years of experience working with teams and training team coaches have helped us distill the essential abilities needed to work effectively with teams.
This post provides an overview of the five essential team coaching competencies, based on that experience.
Five Team Coaching Competencies
Basically, a competency is an adaptive ability, like a muscle. It can be used for a variety of purposes.
The arm muscles we all have provide the ability to perform tasks like lifting, punching, and hugging.
A skill is an observable behavior—it’s the specific purpose applied by that competency.
These five team coaching competencies are present at all times. The art of the work is in the choices you make as you observe and interact with the team.
Each of the five competencies shines a particular light on what is happening in the team. Each of the competencies provides a unique way of exercising a coach’s awareness.
You can think of these five competencies as a Pentasphere. Each light shines on the team, illuminating the living system that is the team.
These are the guiding stars in the Pentasphere constellation, each equally important.
They are not a sequence; they are simultaneous. The job of the team coach is to have access to all of these and then choose in an instant what to attend to. They are the keys to team coaching mastery.
Competency #1: System Aware
At the most fundamental level, we start with an understanding that the team is a system more than a collection of individual parts.
The study of human systems is a fascinating subject, much deeper than what we can address here.
For simplicity, especially when referring to the work we do with teams, see this high-level definition: Human systems are complex networks of interrelated relationships with a common identity and purpose. Teams are living, dynamic systems.
What that means in practical terms is that teams have rules for belonging and behavior. Those rules are not written in the employee handbook.
Team members learn how to be successful in the culture of the team by observing “how things are done around here.”
A team has an identity and a personality. New team members adapt by experiencing often subtle effects of approval and disapproval.
A team holds certain beliefs and expresses certain values. Mostly the team is not aware of its own cultural norms.
Team members are more aware of the different individuals on the team, the individual personalities, and relationships, and not very aware of “who we are as a team.”
The culture of the team – including rules of behavior, expectations of team members, beliefs, what the culture rewards and what it punishes, is woven into a system that is inherently self-protecting.
In other words, teams as systems, naturally resist change. This is something that makes our work challenging because coaching is a change process.
Underlying dynamics are transparent to teams until we shine a light that reflects the behavior in a way that illuminates the system at work and starts a conversation about the impact.
This first team coaching competency is the coach’s ability, or the team leader’s ability to see the system and interact with the team on that level.
For team coaches, our “coachee” is the team. This is important because the dynamics that affect the team’s performance operate on the system level, and teams are mostly blind to that influence.
In the conversation between team members, the attention is on the urgent topic at hand, understanding of the subject matter, dissecting the issue, identifying the problem to be solved, and strategizing action steps.
For the team, the discussion revolves around positions that team members take and the process of resolving those different positions. As team coaches, we look below the surface to see the ebb and flow of team dynamics.
Unsurprisingly, individuals have an influence on the system. It’s relatively easy to see the impact of the team leader, of a team bully, of the squeaky wheel, or the earnest peacekeeper. What is not as easy to see is the power of homeostasis—the drive to survive.
As teams become clearer about their identity, beliefs, values, and operating system, they can start to see how their system experience controls results; they can start to evaluate the impact and begin to make different choices.
As team coaches, we are listening for the voice of the team. We are curious about what drives the team, and how the team engages with challenges.
In the same way, you get to know an individual coachee over time, the same is true for teams. The culture of the team is always present. We need to have a soft focus or look below the surface to see it.
Competency #2 Tuned In
If “System Aware” is the big picture of the system as a whole, the ability to be tuned in is the competency of selection.
You can think of it like an old-fashioned radio dial, tuning the radio band up and down, choosing this channel, and then a different channel.
There’s something happening on every station but in order to assess what’s going on with each of them we listen to one at a time.
To be “tuned in” requires listening of course, but there’s much more to it. There is a need to be aware on many levels.
For a team coach, it’s like having multiple receptors with each receptor providing a particular stream of information.
There is a receptor for the words of the conversation the team is having, a receptor for the tone of that conversation and the energetic or emotional field it creates, receptors for noticing patterns, shifts, roles, and more.
In the midst of this, the coach’s job is to make choices—to tune in to a particular channel.
We are listening for what’s being said—tracking the unfolding topic—and we are listening for what is not being said.
We’re aware of body language and what is happening in the environment—a side conversation between team members and our curiosity is piqued does that happen often?
As coaches, we notice when it gets quiet and when it gets tense. We observe the changes in the team environment and invite the team to notice those changes too.
When working with a team, we are immersed in a sensory and information-rich environment. With so much going on, to be effective in that environment we need to be selective.
It must happen instantly, and continuously. To fine tune this ability takes work, some benefiting from leadership team development
Competency #3 Reflective Observer
We invented a term for this competency. It’s the ability to be an Observationist. That is an observer with a job to do.
Just being a good observer is not enough. You need to do something with what you see and hear.
Adding the word “reflective” gives this competency two additional dimensions. To be reflective is to consider—to reflect on what just happened or what was just said.
The subject of that reflection is the team, team dynamics, awareness of old habits, topics that lead to new levels of insight and ultimately, changes that support the team’s development.
“Reflective” is also the special role of the team coach reflecting back to the team, observations and powerful questions for the team’s thoughtful reflection.
You are not just watching the team, you are seeing the team and can reflect on that, and reflect back to the team what you see.
This is the competency where skills that help make the invisible, visible are so valuable.
It can be as simple as being a mirror to a pattern in the team’s dynamics that you’ve seen before.
It includes highlighting the diverse voices on the team—here’s a voice advocating for moving on and making a decision—here’s a voice for slowing down, looking at more options.
You’ll find yourself asking: “Are there others who feel the same way?” And, “What is it like on this team when you have strong, contrary voices?”
This is a judgment-free approach to being as neutral as possible. This is observation without interpretation.
We are sharpening the team’s focus on unspoken team rules, noticing conversational topics that appear to be taboo, getting curious about the elephant in the room, or a perspective the team has that is self-sabotaging.
Over time we start to identify those informal roles that become individual team members’ way of engaging; the scholar/authority, the jokester, the doomsayer.
We can see the impact and engage the team in the exploration of that impact on team dynamics and results.
An important part of the work we do with teams is to be reflective observers; just as important, we have a role in training the team to be reflective observers as well. Systems adapt by integrating feedback.
As teams learn to be more observant about how they interact and notice the impact of that behavior, they become more adept at adjusting and choosing more effective collaboration strategies.
Competency #4 Actively Present
In order to do effective work with teams, the coach must be 100% present. But being present is more than just showing up, more than being in attendance. Being present is not a passive act—at least not in a coaching relationship.
There is a dynamic tension between being open, receptive, and connected to the team at this moment, while also having our eyes on the path ahead.
There is a need to be completely present with what is happening, including our own impact on the moment.
As team coaches, we are constantly dancing, shifting awareness, adjusting. At the same time, we need to have some level of attention on the plan, the promises to the team, and the direction this current conversation or activity will take the team if we stay on this course.
Ultimately, the coach is responsible for process and the path from which the process follows. There is a job to do—a goal or outcome to reach.
Both aspects are necessary conditions for effective team coaching sessions: the ability to be present in “this” moment, and the responsibility to act for the sake of the team’s progress going forward.
Riding that tension between this moment and the plan is at the heart of the practice for this core competency: being Actively Present.
Yes, the goal and the intention are to be 100% engaged with the team and process, and there will be times when we disengage—for a thousand different reasons.
Team coaches are human. It could be the team member whose prickly attitude gets under your skin or the team leader that dominates the conversation.
You may suddenly remember an overdue bill, or what you ate for lunch is not agreeing with you.
You may be impatient with the pace, or the team might be impatient with yours. Your ability to self-manage your own experience and impact is essential.
The ability to be actively present requires the ability to multi-task and focus at the same time – it may even require some leadership training.
There are dozens of screens to monitor and an urgency to maintain a productive course.
In the end, managing the process, navigating in all kinds of weather, deep water, and rocky shoals is the job.
You have your plan, your timeline, your promised outcomes, the agenda prepared in advance, your expectations and the teams’ and the team leader’s and then you have whatever shows up.
That’s why we say, the real mastery in team coaching is not in what you do, it’s in how you recover.
Competency #5 Committed
What does it mean to be committed as a team coach? It would be easy to assume that the very nature of the work requires the coach to be committed. But there’s committed, and then there’s a higher level yet: Really committed.
Coaching a team is a demanding assignment. The team coach is working in a complex, often chaotic environment where choices need to come rapidly and the situation changes constantly. It can be energizing. It is definitely challenging.
There is a great deal of responsibility with systems work, starting with the issue that systems are naturally resistant to change; then, add an unpredictable mix of personalities, emotions, rank, responsibility, goals, assumptions, etc.
To meet this challenge requires a high level of commitment. What’s more, it’s not just the coach that needs to be committed. Success in this work includes helping the team to buy in as well.
To achieve meaningful and sustainable high performance improvement starts by addressing the basic foundation of clarifying roles, setting expectations, creating safety, and designing the relationship. That’s where commitment begins: with understanding and agreement.
A real commitment to the team means being willing, as a coach, to take risks for the sake of the team’s growth and development.
It includes intruding and taking charge of a wayward or escalating conversation before it gets out of hand.
It may mean having the patience to slow down when the urge is to act, to dive deeper when the urge is to bail out or to rescue when the topic of conversation is clearly uncomfortable and being avoided. These are those moments that could be the team’s breakthrough.
Commitment includes truly believing in the inherent ability of the team to take on the challenges they face.
It requires the coach to be an authentic team’s champion and to fiercely call the team forth, at times to challenge the team to not settle or tolerate, to go for it.
In short, to be deeply committed as a team coach includes the ability to stand in the fire, for the sake of the team’s growth.
The Pentasphere in Action
We come back to the metaphor of five lights shining on the team. All five lights are switched on with the team at the center.
Any distinctions we have made to help clarify these five to team coaches disappear as soon as the lights go on.
The moment belongs to the team. Whatever strength we have brought to the moment will support the team and the experience itself. Coaching the team will also be an invaluable opportunity to build those muscles.
The opportunity to bring the transformative power of coaching to work teams in organizations is a privilege.
We play an important role in the organizational development and cultural change taking place.
It has the ability to improve team members’ lives in ways we never see, such as the way they engage with family, friends, and their communities as well.
This is deeply satisfying and meaningful work, that can be aided by the utilization of a quality team coaching service.