In Agile Coaching, Thought Leadership

What do all successful coaches have in common?

During the recent BeLiminal Advanced Certified ScrumMaster training, I demonstrated what personal coaching could look like by coaching my friend and partner Mark Summers. I was then coached by a course delegate and I observed and provided feedback to other delegates after they had a go at coaching one another. All of this made me ponder on the key attributes of a successful coach. As usual, when it comes to it, I came up with three of them.

Accept that you don’t know

The first thing all seasoned coaches tell you is that you have to accept that you don’t know. This sounds like the Socratic paradox of “scio me nihil scire”, loosely translated as “I know that I know nothing” (derived from Plato’s account of the Greek philosopher Socrates). When coaching clients, you will never really know what is happening behind their words and their body language. You can and will sometimes have to guess. Just make sure you know that’s what you are doing: guessing.

Be curious

Secondly, be curious! If you are not curious, you are probably already dead or just dead boring. Even Harvard Business Review has been promoting curiosity, claiming that it could improve your organisation’s adaptability and performance (HBR September/October 2018).

Curiosity perpetuates – left to itself, it only keeps growing. Keep wondering and exploring, not to get to know but to keep expanding boundaries of your world. Go on discovering more and more things that you don’t know and are nevertheless curious about. And as for “curiosity killed the cat”, just think about all the fun the cat had in the process.


And finally: care! I am always reminded of Theodore Roosevelt’s wise words: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. Care for others and for yourself. This expands well beyond making coffee and buying pizza for your friends, colleagues and the teams you are working with. It requires you to invest your time to patiently and carefully listen to others, to love them even when you don’t really like them. You will have to share “tough love” or be a “loving boot” by challenging their limiting assumptions to help them learn, grow and make positive changes to their lives.

These three attributes by themselves won’t make you a successful and sought-after coach but without them, no tools or techniques will help. So to summarise: my advice to you is to accept that you don’t and will never know, keep being curious and care deeply.

Have fun on your coaching journey!

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