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Interview: Portia Tung on Executive Coaching and Habits of Effective Agile Coaches

Ben’s full question: This is Ben Linders for InfoQ at QCon London and I’m here with Portia Tung. Welcome Portia Tung. You have been coaching Agile for almost a decade and the author of the first Agile Adventure novel called The Dream Team Nightmare and now you work as an Executive and Business Agile coach. So what does an executive and business Agile coach do? Well so fundamentally is what a good coach does, it’s about enabling people to achieve their outcomes. Now, how do I go about doing that, it consists of one-to-one coaching, group coaching but in particular also facilitation and problem solving, all of those using Agile techniques and lean techniques as well.

Well not massively actually. A lot of the times it’s about abstracting your experience and your skills and your knowledge to really look at what the client needs. So you could have teams of executives as well, as well as executives on the road and it’s about what they need. Typically a lot of people who are focused on IT team Agile coaching would jump in and say oh, you need to do a stand up oh, you need this and that but actually when you’re looking at executive and business coaching, what you are looking to do is figure out what the challenges are, where the value is and their value stream and then how to enable that to ensure that we achieve the outcome that they need.

Ben: Yeah. That’s different from bringing in ready solutions to the team. Absolutely. And there is a lot of listening. There is a lot, a lot of listening and accepting and embracing that the answers will always come from the people that you’re coaching.

One of the things we’re seeing very often, as people ascend the corporate ladder that the opportunity to learn reduces. The time reduces. Right? They have got some fires to be fought. And as a result, the opportunity for them to sit down together for 30 minutes or an hour and to really have that shared experience of let’s talk about the challenges, what can we do to move forward etcetera is really positive for them. Very often, the first question I will have is how can I unblock my team? What can I do to help them and it’s a really positive experience overall.

4. […]Can you explore some of them?

Ben’s full question: Okay. Great to hear. You wrote some a blog series on the habits of highly effective coaches. Can you explore some of them?

Yes. It was a series actually inspired by Paul Coelho’s, the Manual of the Warrior of Light and then I sort of plagiarized a Stephen Covey, Seven Habits as well but the series is called the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Coaches. I’ll go for the first one now that I really like, it is the knight habit which is called Know Thyself. As I have gotten older, that’s increasingly more poignant and it’s all about personal reflection. I think for a coach to be truly effective, they need to know themselves inside out and it’s not easy to look in a mirror and accept what there is and the amount of work it takes to get better.

As you will well know Ben, and one of the exercises I recommend is in the series, it is an exercise as well as amusing, is personal reflection. So go and add some set, find a quiet place to sit if you can and with a piece of paper and a pen on the left hand side, just write down your values, what the things you strongly believe in are — so for example, mine happens to be the XP values. So communication, simplicity, courage, respect and I throw in things like trust as well and you write those down and then in the right hand column, you think about the day that has gone by and you try to write down at least one concrete example where you have practiced and lived each of those value.

Ben: That can be challenging.

And then you take a step back. You look at the piece of paper and you reflect on what you have learned about yourself by doing this exercise. So know thyself.

Ben: Yeah. I think that’s a great exercise and I agree with you. As a coach, you have to know yourself before you can help other people.

Exactly.

Ben: Okay. So some more examples.

Sure. Another one that I find really useful nowadays is lead by example. So the idea that you can inspire change by just modeling the behavior that you believe will help others improve. So I call this one the flaw workout. The trick is to maybe a colleague or even somebody you’re helping to coach, sit them down and just be very open to say, look, I need a bit of help. This is a flaw I have and it might be — I’m a bit judgmental. Can you help me with this? And the other person will give you some suggestions of how you can improve in being less judgmental for example. Then you agree on a time box on which you will work on improving yourself and dealing with this flaw.

And let’s say you agree it’s a week. So in a week’s time you get back together and you ask this colleague or coachee, who you do spend time with so they can observe you, you ask them to actually give you a rating out of ten where one is totally rubbish. You did not do anything. It’s not the flaw and ten which is great, you have made a lot of improvement. Now the ratings are important. So the first rating you ask them for is what were you like last week so they might go — and then you asked them, what am I like this week and they might go — and when that has truly happened to me, I was ecstatic because I just needed an improvement and the fact it was one point is great because the needle is moving in the right direction. And that was really liberating because being able to acknowledge your flaw, your own vulnerability and ask for help often encourages the other person to ask you for help as well and it becomes a lovely peer coaching relationship.

Ben: Yeah. This is a great situation where you can help each other and learn from each other. Absolutely.

5. Okay. Do you have another great example?

Yeah, let’s do one more. The third one is begin with the end in mind. So it’s really important to understand why you are doing what you are doing because as a coach, especially if you are high on the empathy scale, you get really sucked in at growth and helping these people and obviously people often are in some form of pain possibly suffering and you want so much to help them. You lose track of yourself. The exercise I suggest here is taken from Lean. It’s actually the Five Why’s. Now typically in Lean, you would use that to do root cause analysis asking why five times to the answer you give. So in this case I would suggest asking why you are doing what you are doing. Why am I here? Oh, to facilitate a retrospective.

Why are you facilitating the retrospective? So that people come out with some improvement actions. Why are you doing that? So that they can move forward and then block their blockers. Why are you doing that? So that they will be less stressed. Why would you want that? Because when they are less stressed they can start achieving more of what they wished and hopefully self-actualize. And if you ask that once more, it becomes the why of why you do coaching, right? And that may well be enabling people to achieve their outcome.

Yes. And when you remember that root cause or root why and that’s kind of like your compass north and it guides and you can fast track to that why when you get lost and I found out that really helps ground me.

Being an Agile coach is probably one of the harder jobs to do possibly similar to midwifery I would say. So I was like delivering a baby because you see people go through this journey and you want to so much to help them and make it easier or less painful. And so a lot of it is actually about being determined, comforting, compassionate, patient even if they have to scream at you sometimes just because they are in so much pain. Really fundamentally, it’s just remembering that you want them to enjoy the experience they are going through regardless of what it is but I think the key benefit for me to benefit, the organization I work with is about the energy you bring. If as a coach you have low energy then it’s important to do whatever it takes to maintain that high level of energy because that’s how you stay positive, you have will power to do what’s needed.

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s very often to have coaches who end up I guess, it’s the whole frog analogy where the frog doesn’t realize it’s being boiled, right? And I have seen instances where people who are less used to coaching and toxic environments where they go or nothing is going to happen and oh poor me and all of this which is very strange because they chose to be in this environment and that should be their specialty. I think knowing that an environment is toxic, you just need to find ways to detox after work and really build up your tolerance and increase your energy levels.

Yes, the main thing is about clarity of language. For example, with Agile coaching, that term in itself is made up of two parts. The first part is Agile and the second part is coach or coaching. So much like a football coach or football coaching, you have got the subject matter expertise in Agile of football or whatever it is and then there is the second half which is the coaching aspect. Both are essential if you want to be an Agile coach. But the coaching piece is so important because it’s very easy to end up go in command and control as an Agile coach and say well, no, no, no, no, no. This is how you do a stand up. It’s my way or the high way. And if you do that, then you obviously negate all the modeling positive behavior because Agile is about being flexible and understanding and respectful of other people as well.

Ben: Again, this also goes back to the values again. Absolutely. And I think the Agile values have really helped me embrace the coaching aspect, right? Again the belief that we have what we need to overcome the challenges we face. And it’s about feeling hurt and then feeling listened to and being supported.

I’d say go back to the habits. So get to know yourself. Now that includes lots of things. It’s very fun and it’s a life long journey, isn’t it? So get to know your strengths, your weaknesses, definitely your biases, sort of your prejudices, your hopes, your fear but more fundamentally your wishes. Dare to wish big and if something is difficult, it doesn’t matter. You have got to constantly challenge yourself. That’s really important. Get to really know yourself.

Ben: If also means being authentic.

Absolutely. That’s very true. And the second one is leading by example. One of the things I always remind myself at the start of work and throughout the day is will my three-year-old be proud of what I have done today? So if I compromise my values in my first meeting and then my second meeting and then the third meeting, what does that really mean? What am I trying to achieve here? To lead by example is really essential. And then the third one I’d recommend is beginning with the end of mind. As long as you know why you are doing what it is and typically this why is much bigger than your personal goal, right? It’s typically a noble cause or something very worthwhile of the greater good. That is what keeps you going. And so when you hit a blocker, you might feel a little bit down but you’ll find some friends around you who also care about great things to make the organization better and together, you will support each other through.

Ben: Right, willing to do it together.

Exactly. It’s good to have friends.

Ben: Hey, thank you very much Portia for the interview. Thank you.

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