Two Train Rides: The Pain of Coaching

On the train to work this morning, I thought about yesterday’s coaching successes.  My teams were leaping into solving their own problems with just a touch of guidance.  I had successfully threaded a needle: intervening as they struggled and then stepping back quickly enough to put ownership right back in their hands.  The team’s very positive response to the particulars of the day made me happy, but I was happier still because they took the reins and began spinning out ideas for how to tweak the approach for the next time around.

As I thought about it all, it struck me as funny how quickly it had become habit for me to avoid being the problem-solver.  My entire life, I had loved nothing more than being the hero, diving in to do what no one else had figured out, turning a drudgery into an efficient couple of clicks, breaking out of the run-of-the-mill options to come up with a creative solution.  But here I was, less than two months into full-time focus on coaching, and what thrilled me was thinking about those moments that the team dove into problem-solving without me.

Sitting on the train thinking about this, I remembered an uncle of mine once saying that the trick to success was making yourself indispensable to the world and then demanding your due.  I thought about the less blackmaily versions of this lesson I had learned from others through promotion and praise over my professional career.  I figured they would say I was making a big mistake by lowering my “hero value”.  But my gut told me helping others find their way was the more effective (not to mention healthier and happier) option.  I might go unsung, but I would actually be making a more valuable contribution to the company.

The train ride home was a different story.  An hour before starting home, I met with cross-departmental peers to make various decisions about our group.  They unanimously recommended cutting the coaching budget for our group by 50%.  This meant I would be stretched impossibly thin, barely able to pay the sort of patient attention to my teams that good coaching requires.  This came just two months after the company had made this brave, exciting decision to invest in coaching in the first place.  It came just a week after a group that had been notorious for years as death march central had released products months ahead of schedule.  It came just a few days after a team outing at a bar had been shockingly peppered with spontaneous mentions of how good times were at work these days.

Reading Coaching Agile Teams or searching online, you learn it is extremely difficult to evaluate agile coaches.  Based on this, I was expecting the transition from regimented, clear goals and metrics to a much more subjective world.  What I was not expecting was the painful contradiction of my two train rides: the one during which I was proudly headed toward an approach in part because of its clear advantage for the company; the other during which I wondered about my job security in the wake of my colleagues so materially questioning the worth of that approach.

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