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Life Coaching in digital agencies : Possible career ladder

Life Coaching in digital agencies : Possible career ladder

In my earlier article Coaching and mentoring framework - Engagement and Performance Catalyst for remote high performing teams, I shared my experiences on how a well planned coaching framework can help boost team performance in highly agile environments. More so in a remote/work from home agency where additional effort is needed to ensure team engagement and connectedness. Led by life coach, a peoples person by background, we briefly touched upon how mentoring framework can be embedded in project delivery ecosystem while being exclusive from hierarchy, verticals forming organizational structure; a possibility to allow for collaborative innovation, self organised and self-directed emergence. I also briefly shared on how the role of life coach was initially evangelised (with my role as COO and leading organisational engagement as a function) with prelim set of activities. I started with a minimum viable tour of duty/alliance designed with the coach, for the teams, to have an initial pulse of possible impact role could have - essentially a buy-in. As we progressed with the tour of duty and while leading projects and programs we realised the dilemmas an employee faces could be arising from individual behavioural patterns, group dynamics of the person's team or skewed towards culture, systems and sometimes even strategy."

It was a leadership challenge to help coach the "coach" for effective decision making here post understanding the context, before even getting into helping people solve their problems unless its an individual behavioural issue. This is where role of life coach demanded an expansion from individual coaching to diving into the ecosystem's operational mechanics. As a leader and reporting manager I had to co-architect and define a journey/alliance with the coach, for the coach while being aligned to organization's strategic objectives. The tour of duty had to be expanded in scope from its minimum viable initial design.

Primal Leadership : "To be really helpful, a coach will need to understand the employee's dilemmas from multiple perspectives: the individual level (whats going on for the person); the team level (the group dynamics of the executive or staff teams); and the organizational level (how all of this fits in with culture, systems and strategy)"

With above definition, it was easy to define a global architecture to the design and hence help provide a possible role horizon tailored to the organization.

Simplistically put, the role of life coach involves

"Helping empower system agents while helping them to understand on how their thoughts, beliefs and attitudes are leading them through life. Something that not only impacts their lives in family or in a bigger organizational family. Life coach can help them take an objective look at their life and their vision for themselves ; Identify the obstacles they are facing ; Determine where they want to be in life; Create a plan to accomplish their goals and also help them in executing their plans.

Discovery Phase (Individual) - System acknowledging the need for the role 

The first minimum viable scope of the tour of duty involved "non mandatory" one to ones with the employees who were going through personal challenges. Initial response was quite overwhelming for the employees got a listening ear who was not a reporting manager and there was no fear of performance appraisals getting impacted. Life coach was purposefully kept away from verticals and performance assessments for one could share freely. As part of one to ones life coach if needed had been sharing psychological instruments and exercises.

Initially dealing with personal issues, this extended to issues arising from team work and sometimes even organizational processes which had to be then dealt with by experts for needed environment to change (if warranted). This clearly meant a needed expansion of well acknowledged current role for life coach to effectively delegate to concerned in the managerial team. With a matrix organization (which is not projectised or functional) there is a greater number of cross communication between functions. With such this becomes slightly more challenging for some of the challenges need to be fed back to the organizational improvement program funnel in their appropriate function.

Few other activities a coach was involved in at an individual level

  • Be an active participant in escalated people conflicts not to help with a decision, but to facilitate and mentor for consensus and problem solving abilities

  • Provide individual coaching to interested people with behavioral patterns that impact organizational performance and its culture negatively

  • Induct new joinees to cultural expectations and help solve challenges arising from ecosystem newness.

We extended this by creating a self assessment library of instruments that people could use to evaluate themselves. It's all the more beneficial should you be running a 360 degree program in your company. The idea is that knowledge workers get to self-evaluate at their own pace.  While answering questions they get to know what they are not doing and which is important to be in a system, and in turn get to know what they should be doing to empower themselves. Depending on the results of these instruments, and relating it to the peer feedback via 360 they hence had the opportunity to "reach out" to a life coach (if they want) for dedicated and supported self-reflection.

Following could form the elements of the self -assessment library

  • Am I engaged?

  • Am I a narcissist?

  • How satisfied am I with my job?

  • Am I a deliberate decision maker?

  • How creative am I?

  • How confident am I in my abilities to succeed?

  • What's my job's motivating potential?

  • How are you feeling right now?

  • What's my affect intensity?

  • What's my emotional intelligence score?

  • Do I have a negative attitude towards working in groups?

  • Do I trust others?

  • How good am I at building and leading a team?

  • How good are my listening skills?

  • What's my leadership style?

  • Am I an ethical leader?

  • What's my preferred conflict handling style?

  • What's my negotiating style?

  • Do I like bureaucracy?

  • How willing am I to delegate?

  • What's the right organizational culture for me?

  • How good am I at giving performance feedback?

  • How well do I respond to turbulent change?

  • How stressful is my life?

Phase 1 (Project Team) - Careful and planned exposure to ecosystem

Alliance : End goal being to define an alliance that helps transforms the company for the future while also helping the employee to transform their career for the long term

The first set of challenge while leading a life coach (who was more of an individual consultant to people and helping them) in this phase was to empower a shift in mindset for working in an organizational system demands needed exposure to delivery dynamics, frameworks, a section of processes, elementary management vocabulary and even knowledge about used tools and techniques. This helps to better understand the triggers and sometimes root causes of the challenges/dilemmas employees are facing. A focused support is hence possible by involving stakeholders from relevant functions and also adds value to learning and development programs in the company. Secondly, as the portfolio (kinds of activities) of the coach expands, a efficient framework becomes a must need for the coach to manage his programs and related Kanban. Hence related trainings on relevant tools.

Accommodation of this learning can be sometimes overwhelming for the coach if not planned and rushed. The tour of duty (which is tailored to life coaches productive velocity, interests, earlier background and exposure to IT) if defined and reflected upon continuously "along with" the coach can help manage the related anxiety. 

As a leader its imperative to not just measure progress against the mutually defined goals (in the tour of duty) but also be consciously sensitive to capture satisfaction levels of the coach with the wider exposure. It needs to be timed and phased with the learning curve while also aligning to current organizational priorities and wider strategic objectives. 

How the progress on co-planned goals and needs is being met both by the coach and the organization needs a continuous reflection as a ritual / timely process via one to ones. 

Phase 2 (Entire Team) - Leading employee engagement programs

Closely related to individual performance and involvements of system agents (knowledge workers), it is best if employee engagement as a function is led by coach because by now there is a wider exposure to nature of challenges on the ground with the workforce along with an established trust which is mutually exclusive to performance appraisals and hierarchical tiers. Life coach can hence can play a vital role in designing executing coordination and synergy in remote agencies. In order to lead the functional unit, following functional skills (aligned towards organizational dynamics) were identified as must needs:

  • Be conversant with 12 principles, values of agile project management framework

  • Understand how an effective implementation of the principles can lead to people empowerment, high team performance, team happiness and as a cultural enabler.

  • Conversant with Organisational Behavior and Organisational Psychology as bodies of knowledge

to coach and mentor on how one can be an "effective team member" (as an example) by learning on 

  • how to give feedback

  • how to achieve consensus building

  • group decision making techniques

  • what differentiates team from a group

Some of the other activities a life coach was involved in at team and cross functional level

  • Participate in team retrospectives to observe team participation, facilitation and leadership style from management

  • Keep a watch on customer and internal feedback on knowledge workers for proactive issue resolution

  • Be an engagement manager to project teams who form clients extended teams.

  • Do skip level meetings with team members to establish a personal connect and catch the pulse as an unbiased external observer

Phase 3 - Reinventing organizational culture strategically 

Just with any remote organization, knowledge workers come from different cultures and with varying backgrounds. In my experience I have encountered cases where an employee have unknowingly messed up with the feelings of another employee for lack of awareness, impacting project heath and sometimes cascading to impacting overall team performance. This and other such sensitive scenarios were best handled by an experienced life coach; I generally found managers and leaders not being trained enough (even with numerous certifications) to manage such systemic noise.

Such interventions by coach not only led a correction to bring back the ecosystem to stability by helping heal and train, we also realized the need for "working with different cultures" program to be added to engagement backlog funnel as a high priority strategic program. This is just one of the many such needs arising from cultural interventions by the coach. Some such programs have be ensured as embedded in the ecosystem DNA. Another such program being to ensure a common understanding of the organization values, which a coach could lead as a cultural custodian. 

In this phase of the journey, life coach is expected to be aware of systemic knowledge and have a top level view of the entire ecosystem.  Any organization being a living, agile, adaptive system there needs to be continuous efforts to be updated on how system is evolving. For this life coach has to be part of core exec team to understand the need for strategic changes and how the culture can be re-engineered to support the common goal statement.  

Following awareness and involvements were identified as must have  


  • Should be continuously aware of organizations reporting structure and related changes

  • Continuously being observant of feedback received from open channels and also reply back as necessary to manage curiosity and anxiety of knowledge workers.

  • Evangelize and institutionalize new and updated best practices to empower other mentors in the organization

  • Understand the intersects and connections between various sub-units forming operations to effectively delegate to relevant unit leaders for proactive or correction actions

Expanding into organization strategy and owning culture

  • Own the organizational values and ensure that everyone have a common understanding of the terms.

  • Be aware of other geographically distributed companies, look at their websites and how they are managing engagement

  • Participate in HR conferences, workshops and other such events focused on ensuring team engagement

  • Share journeys and learnings with the wider community

  • Network with folks working in similar domain in other organisations and learn from their failure and success stories.

From my personal experience it is best to allow the tour of duty to organically evolve with

  • organizational and strategic changes (the phase space in which the system operates),

  • role acceptance by the agents (workforce/knowledge workers) forming the ecosystem along with

  • life coaches efficiency and ability to empower self and evolve in a wider role definition.

The role also demands sufficient executive commitment which could become a bottleneck for not so self-organizing (or lack of interest in such) digital agencies.

Agility : An all pervasive need

Agility : An all pervasive need

High Performing scrum team is a self-organized team

High Performing scrum team is a self-organized team