Coaching complex teams

Every executive and leadership coach should have a proven methodology to work with teams.

In my own case, I have had the privilege to work with a variety of teams, often working on crucial initiatives involving tens to hundreds of millions of dollars of capital equipment, product launches, technology implementation, or process improvement. In many cases, the team leaders and members were brilliant professionals from clinical, technical, and scientific backgrounds.

Despite their education and status, they often had blind spots when it came to working effectively on teams. Issues included:

– Focusing so much on a "let's get it done" attitude that they lost sight of the importance of focusing on outcomes and human relationships;

– Failing to recognize that different people might have different communication styles and ways of processing information;

– Gaps in skills when working with other people, including some basic behaviors like showing respect when resolving conflict, or listening effectively; and

– Having open and honest conversations instead of avoiding issues that would later escalate.

Over time, I've developed a powerful approach to working with teams, one that might not become a best-selling book because it isn't easily broken down into a 5-step pyramid, but one that has been proven to work on diverse, extremely complex teams with challenging characters.

The approach includes coaching the team leader and team members on any of the following issues, depending on needs. In addition, the approach works best with a hybrid model that includes any combination of facilitated retreats, quick applied trainings, group and one-on-one coaching, and assessments — all depending on client needs.

Elements include:

– Confirming a clear goal(s). No matter which study on teams you read, each and every one confirms what I have found to be essential to any team's success: a clear goal. If the team's goal — along with interim milestones — is not clear, the team will flounder.

– Setting rules of the road about team behavior. Team members need to agree about rules: coming on time, what each member is accountable for achieving and by when, respectful communication, staying for entire meetings, no distractions during meetings, open and honest communication, and my personal favorite: the dead horse rule (no ongoing discussions about issues that have already been resolved).

– Clarifying roles. Clear roles are important for a team that works smoothly together, without conflict or friction.

– Making sure that everyone is clear about who is doing what, and what is expected from every member of the team.

– Making time for team members to get to know each other and build chemistry. We are human beings. While the concept of virtual teams run by Skype seems appealing on paper, the fact is that human beings need to meet occasionally to break bread and get to know one another in person. The best teams take time to do this. It doesn't require expensive outings to climb rocks or go fishing at a tropical resort, but for a true team to form (vs. what Katzenbach calls a work group), team members need to take time to bond.

– Setting the course, addressing risks, and building in ways to get some early wins. Most teams are pretty good at creating action plans. Sometimes they are too good. In fact, I have worked with engineering teams that have created 35-page work plans that are so complex that no one knows what is going on. Simplicity is important. Similarly, sometimes teams create risk management plans as a way to cover their you-know-what for bureaucracy, when what is needed is a real risk management plan to prepare actual risks (like management refusing to release funds, or a politically powerful leader refusing to support the project, something that isn't politically acceptable to put on the risk management report). A coach can help the team figure out ways to plan for the real risks vs. the ones that have to go on the administrative plan. Finally, to get some momentum going, teams need to consider ways to get some quick wins right out of the gate.

– Communicating effectively. Technical, scientific, and clinical teams sometimes come up short when it comes to communicating — whether one-on-one, within the team, to sponsors and key stakeholders, or to the organization as a whole. They are often so smart that they assume people are keeping up with their super-fast thought processes. Sometimes they get personal instead of focusing on issues. The coach can remind the team leader and members of the need to communicate so that key constituents stay in the loop.

– Managing politics. Many teams have blind spots about navigating the politics of the organization in order to make things happen. The coach can help the team see the bird's eye view of the organization's political power, and manage stakeholder support.

– Managing different personality, leadership, and communication styles. Similarly, many clinical, technical, and scientific people lack awareness of the fact that different human beings can have very different styles. A coach can bring assessment tools to help team members understand different styles and adapt, rather than being perplexed and annoyed by each other.

– Clearing up setbacks. Setbacks always happen. When they do, they test a team's mettle. A coach can help team members realize that setbacks are natural. The coach helps the team stay positive, focus on outcomes, and move forward, rather than falling into unproductive conversations and negativity.

– Moving things forward. There are different conversations on the way to results, and many leaders don't recognize that team members can be talking about the same issue but having very different conversations about it. Some members might be talking about the vision while others are coming up with opportunities, others are evaluating data, others are coming up with action plans, and others are stuck in the past. A good coach, and a good leader, get everyone having the same conversation — and also move people to the next conversation when appropriate. This work is not as easy as it seems and sometime the coach is the only person who can focus on the types of conversations people are having and whether they are productive.

– Talking straight. On teams, it is not uncommon from team members to avoid productive conflicts and tough conversations. Coaches can help make sure that team members have open, honest conversations that balance ego, results, and relationships.

– Motivational strategies. Different team members are motivated in different ways. A good leader changes his or her leadership strategy for each person, depending on the situation (per Blanchard and others). The coach can serve as a sounding board to help the leader develop the right strategy for each team member.

– Transitions onto and off the team. Few teams take enough time to consider how to transition new members onto the team while transitioning members off. Transitions are common on teams, and the coach and team leader need to work carefully to make sure these processes are seamless. Otherwise, the team will lose crucial knowledge and productivity.

– Capturing lessons learned and improving. The coach can serve as a crucial professional to help the team improve how it works together.

– Coaching individual team members as needed. Finally, the coach can work with individual team members as needed to help them with specific issues they might face in resolving conflicts or better working as part of the team — or with the leader to help him or her coach these individuals.

The Center for Executive Coaching teaches our members how to coach teams using proven methodologies and processes that incorporate the above elements. There is no fluff here, and the process has been proven on some of the most complex team initiatives you can imagine — in major universities, healthcare systems, and technology collaboratives. For more information, contact Founder and Director Andrew Neitlich anytime at


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