It is not an exaggeration to say that I have spent my entire life around coaches. I used to think it was because we just went to the church all coaches in my town attended as a child. Small town politics aside, it was more than that. My dad was just one of those dudes that didn’t judge or pull punches, so our house was always filled with coaches and their families growing up.
To say I was raised to be a sports fan would be an understatement.
We would spend weekends talking about one-back offenses, the beauty of a match-up zone, and laugh while trying to come up with the perfect running stride. My mom’s dinners kept our bellies full, and the TV would always have a game on. I had no idea this how good I had it.
As I transitioned to college, I wanted to use my encyclopedic knowledge and creativity to become the next great sports writer. Sports Illustrated was still the gold standard in journalism in those days, and I wanted to have my name on the cover. To accompany my journalism degree, I would get a leg up on the competition by getting a minor in kinesiology — otherwise known as the coaching degree. Yes, I got a degree in sports so that I could be a better sports writer.
I was dedicated.
Years later, I still use my degree. Whatever you want to call Agile leadership in the software world today, it goes by the same name. Whether you coach offensive lineman or app developers, the principles are the same.
The other day, I was talking about this with my boss wondering if there were similarities between the sport and agile version of this profession. In the circles I run in, we talk about the practical application of the various Agile disciplines all the time. What I wonder, though, is if we spend enough time talking about the art of coaching. Regardless of the sport we dedicate our lives to, we all coaches in the end.
What follows are ten characteristics of highly successful coaches from the US Olympic Committee Coaching Development Office:
Committed to individual integrity, values, and personal growth. Can’t worry about anyone else if you can’t take care of yourself, right? For many (including me), this can be a long road of figuring yourself out and constantly having to challenge yourself to achieve this point.
Most of us have some sort of organized set of values and integrity, but have you ever spent time writing down what exactly you stand for and what it means to “stand for integrity”? Not only is it worthwhile to develop your own transformation backlog, I would argue any coach worth anything must do this to help others. Also comes in handy to have a personal mission statement.
Well-educated (formally and informally). Do you have a passion for learning and passing it on? You might be on to something there. Scientists and doctors don’t get their degree and then spend the rest of their career working off that amount of knowledge. They continue to learn.
The enticing route is to just accumulate certification after cert, trying to come up with the longest set of letters after your name. Trust me, I have a few, so I know how attractive it may seem. My encouragement is that while you can get a lot of love from recruiters if you get them, most of the great coaches I know have very few certs. It’s not that they innately know things that come from cert classes, far from it. Just ask yourself the reason why you need your PMP, CSM or any other accreditation.
Educate yourself for the right reasons, first. Letters and love will follow.
Profound thinkers who see themselves as educators, not just coaches. It’s also not enough to be a sponge, you also have to want others around you to learn this stuff too. One of the reasons I started writing and tweeting links a few years ago was because I thought there was so much to pass on to others that shouldn’t require taking time off work and a thousand bucks. We all have so much to learn and pass on.
Why not participate in it?
Long-run commitment to their teams. The buzzword that gained steam recently is the term “servant leadership”, which seems like a redundant set of words. There is no leadership without a servant-like attitude. Keep this in mind when preparing yourself for coaching.
Many think that commitment is long hours, and out-of-balanced life, and that dedication to the craft means nothing else can be let in. I would argue that the opposite is true. I have learned more about coaching from being a devoted husband, father, son, brother, and friend than any coaching clinic I can participate in.
Sure, there are some late nights I spend researching and preparing. I wouldn’t be where I was without putting in a few extra hours. Just don’t confuse that for an unhealthy approach to success. Speaking with my wife about what I want to accomplish helps me keep boundaries with work and still have enough in the tank for tomorrow morning’s standup.
Be dedicated without sacrificing your sanity.
Willing to experiment with new ideas. While many of the sports coaching trends sometimes come back into fashion like bellbottoms, for the most part the innovative techniques being used today are the result of coaches taking something current and iterating. For that same reason, you must be willing to try new things.
The push to innovate also brings with it some failed attempts. I’m the first to admit some of my “ingenious” ideas are easy to sell and tough to actually produce results. If my job security depended on every idea being a home run, I’d never work again.
That’s why some coaches can always be rehired by new teams in the pros. While they may have gone 0-16 the previous season, there’s no reason why they can’t be a successful coach this season. There’s many reasons for the wins and losses a team has. While ultimately a coach is the accountable one, it’s not necessarily their fault.
They at least tried.
Value the coach-player relationship, winning aside. When was the last time you ran into one of your teammates at the coffee machine and took some time to get to know them personally. My beloved boss asks us all the time if we have a new piece of personal trivia about a team member we can share. The moral is that while we have a job to do, we’re still people with lives.
The more we can connect with teams outside of sprint demos and standups, the more they will see us as an actual person too. Nothing like having a PM show up for just meetings and then disappear for the rest of the sprint to make you think they are a robot.
Care about people.
Understand and appreciate human nature. To care about them, empathize with them. Understand what asking them to stay late means. Teach yourself to read body language during meetings. Keep an eye out for flaring nostrils before they realize they are doing it.
The old saying is that software is not human, but the people making it are. As such, things will happen along the way that can only be explained as an “I-D-10-T” error. We have all been the idiot making the error, but it’s up to us to understand human nature and see paths to a solution in order to help right the ship.
Love their work. This is what I would call the “cheerleader principle”. It’s not enough to care about understand people and care for them personally. We have to be willing to stand up with our pom-poms and yell, “F-I-R-E UP, that’s the way to spell fired up! Fire up!”
While I won’t necessarily encourage you to start your daily scrum with that mantra, you have to love what you are doing so much that it can’t help but come out. Lead the charge, let them know they can do it. Thank them for their hard work. Make sure you mean it.
All that, and more. Clap your hands and cheer.
Honest and strong in character. Nobody likes being thrown underneath the bus. Teams certainly don’t respond when you dodge the truth and try to sugarcoat things just so they don’t look bad. Those things are what boys and girls do. Your teams need men and women to lead them.
One of my favorite things to tell my son Owen is how he’s supposed to take care of his sister and mother. Of course, he’s three so there’s no way he can go out and earn our daily bread. The underlying message I’m trying to teach him, though is that if he’s going to be half the leader I can already see in him, he has to start strengthening his character.
That ties back to leadership. When I feel myself getting defensive, dodging a direct question, or willing to cut corners, I have to trust that my backbone stiffen and say “no”. I also can’t be shy about asking for some accountability. Leaders aren’t afraid of the light, we shun the shadows and let everyone see what we’re made of.
Human and therefore imperfect. That said, when you do make a mistake, own up to it. Hopefully, you stand up and ask for forgiveness the first time something happens — not the tenth. I heard it said the best way to stay humble is to confess and ask for forgiveness. If you are constantly in a state of transparency, things won’t go unnoticed. You can tell your teams how you messed up, what you plan on doing to correct the issue, and look them in the eye while doing it.
I find that teams respond more to human coaches than the robotic embodiment of success. People may respond to those kinds of coaches out of fear, but you will lose them when the day comes where you mess up.
Couldn’t think of a better way to sum things up. Don’t seek perfection. Pursue learning, the change that accompanies it, and the transparency to all walk together through the change as humans. You might not end the effort as arm-in-arm best friends, but you will respect each other and celebrate the wins and losses along the way.