If you are like many of us, 2020 was a memorable year for you in many ways. The pandemic forced many of us to adapt and seek creative ways to continue working productively while maintaining our new sense of normalcy despite long days on tele/video-conferences, kids and/or pets vying for our attention every 10 minutes, and our significant others sending us on unexpected errands in the middle of the day. If you work as a professional Agilist – either as a Scrum Master or as an Agile Coach, I am willing to bet that you have struggled to feel the same sense of accomplishment and influence during this difficult time.
As a professional Agile Coach, I was forced to come up with new ways of contributing to my teams despite not being able to interact with them in person. The absence of face-to-face communication was one of the biggest limitations that I still struggle with today, as the pandemic is near the end for many of us within the United States. During this period of frustration and angst, I had to experiment with a few new ways of connecting with my clients and peers in order to build and sustain a healthy working relationship. Under the best of circumstances, this may be difficult as it is, but having to do so in a virtual world feels like a whole different problem.
Reflecting on the past year, I recall a few small wins that were seemingly trivial at the time, yet were memorable enough for me to make a mental note as an experience that could aid me in future situations. I compiled a short list of these tips that felt like small victories; I hope these will help you enhance your coaching approach in future endeavors.
- Empathize – Coaching teams in itself is difficult even when interfacing with co-located team members in a face-to-face setting. Without the ability to read body language and/or facial expressions, the challenge grows exponentially. Empathy is something that we have all heard of and understand to be the cornerstone of all healthy relationships. However, how do we utilize empathy in a virtual setting? If you have the fortune of a video-conference, this is much easier to accomplish. Assuming that you must make do with only an audio conversation, you may show empathy through asking powerful, reflective questions; questions that lead with “how” usually encourages dialog much more than close-ended questions (i.e. “yes/no” questions). Keeping the conversation focused yet exploratory is an important thing to keep in mind in this scenario.
- Be humble – Demonstrating humility is nearly as difficult as, if not more difficult than empathy. In a virtual setting, humility can be expressed through an openness to learn and understand without judgment. Resist the temptation to tell the coachee/client what to do; do not “lead the witness” by asking questions that steer him/her towards a premeditated solution. Keeping an open mind will go a long way towards showing humility.
- Be vulnerable – Many coaches I have worked with tend to avoid discussing shortcomings or failures in past projects. In my mind, it is natural to encounter failure especially when we deal with difficult organizational challenges that are often outside of our direct sphere of influence. Sharing success stories as well as failures, while difficult to do and hard on our egos, builds trust because we show that we are human.
- Offer options – More often than not, when I work with new Agile teams, they want to either do things their own way or they want me to tell them exactly how to do everything. In a virtual environment, this dynamic is even more pronounced because most of us do not enjoy talking on the phone for long periods of time; we tend to feel more pressed to take action or make a decision when communicating by phone. Hence, my suggestion here is to slow things down a bit and explore options. Do not rush into a decision prematurely. This means that as the Coach, don’t give directives and expect the team/client to follow your orders. Talk through options and discuss advantages and disadvantages, then decide on a timeframe to inspect and adapt. This will accelerate decision-making yet provide room for course-correction later.
- Co-create a vision of success – Having worked remotely/virtually for over a year, I realized that I truly miss the whiteboard; being able to pull a small group of people together to brainstorm ideas or sketch out different thoughts is something that is nearly impossible to reproduce in a virtual setting despite all the technology we have at our disposal today. As a result, defining and communicating a vision of success is often much more difficult to do virtually. What I have found to be very effective is to develop a template that helps to guide the conversation. For example, at the beginning of a coaching engagement, I usually work with the project team and/or sponsors to create a roadmap that highlights key outcomes and deliverables for the specific initiative. Such a roadmap can be developed with relative ease with common word-processing tools that can be shared through a Skype/Zoom session.
In conclusion, coaching teams virtually may be one of the most challenging things that any knowledge worker can do in the modern world for obvious reasons. Despite the barriers, if you are willing to be a little vulnerable and put yourself in your client’s shoes, you may find that it is still possible to build the connection and trust that is central to the success of your engagement. Be patient and you may see the fruits of your labor sooner than expected!