The in-between conversation – making the transition between coaching the individual leader and coaching their team

A high proportion of team coaching assignments arise from one-to-one engagements with leader clients. The client gains increasing confidence in the coach and gradually comes to understand that there would be value in applying coaching to the team as a whole. However, a straight jump from individual to team coaching can be disastrous, for several reasons:

  • Team coaching requires a very different and wider skill set than individual coaching – does the coach have those skills?
  • How the team views the coach / client relationship is a factor that must be taken into account. They can easily perceive team coaching as the leader and the coach working together to manipulate them. The longer lasting and closer the individual coaching relationship, the more likely this perception is.
  • It can lead to the team leader abdicating responsibility for “fixing” the team to the coach.
  • The team leader’s understanding of the team coaching process and dynamics may be (usually is) poor. They may be unprepared for the level of openness and vulnerability required of them. If they feel psychologically unsafe, they may withdraw from or even sabotage the team coaching sessions.

The solution is the “in-between conversation”. At some point, the client recognises that their own progress and development, and their ability to achieve the goals they aim for, are constrained by the capability and capacity of their team. If the coach is systemically aware, they can help the leader unpack how the team dynamics and the interactions between the team and the leader influence the collective performance. The coaching conversation shifts from the development of the individual to the development of the system. The two most important components in the leader’s system are his or her boss and his or her team. The capacity to change the leader-boss component is limited by the relative power between them. But the capacity to influence the leader-team component is much greater.

The in-between conversation therefore focuses on how the leader can create an environment better suited to fulfilling the team objectives. It gradually educates the leader to observe the influences at play within and around the team and to reflect upon how the leader and the team can better support each other in bringing about a higher level of supportive collaboration.

The changes the team leader tries to bring about, both in themselves and in the team, won’t all go smoothly. And that is when the team coach gets invited in. The role of the team coach is not “Come in and sort this out for us”, but “Help us build on what we have achieved by ourselves”.

For more information about team coach training, see here.

© David Clutterbuck, 2023

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