The Coach’s Dilemma

Just tell us what to do!

– Manager

Many years ago I stood across from the role I am today. A wonderful Agile Coach named Mark.

I was the sponsor for introducing Agile ways of working into our organization. Agile ways were new to me and I had a lot of questions. I had retained Mark to help transition our product development approach from a traditional waterfall-ish to an Agile methodology. Mark introduced us to Scrum, Kanban and a host of engineering practices. He possessed a wealth of knowledge and experience.

And yet, getting access to that wealth was like trying to break into Fort Knox! He frustrated us to the point of anger. Every time we asked him a question, he would answer back with a question.


I was paying him for answers and all I got were questions in return. He was unlike any consultant I had dealt with. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was masterfully executing his role as the consummate coach. He wasn’t going to spoon feed us. His Socratic line of questioning was forcing us to fish for ourselves or starve.

Now, as an Agile Coach myself, I often stand or sit across from versions of my former self. All looking to me for answers. The quick fix.

I have two choices.

On the one hand, I’m tempted to show them how much I know. To respond to all of their questions with straight forward answers. To prescribe and lay out all the steps for them. To justify my worth and the fees they’re paying me.

On the other hand, I want to help them learn by coaxing the answers to their questions from within themselves. I want them to understand not just “the how” but “the why”. I want to measure my success by not how much I know, but by how much they have learned.

I struggle with these two choices in every interaction with everyone every day, both professionally and socially.

It’s my coach’s dilemma. Do I exercise mollycoddling or tough love?

Do I do what’s most efficient and expedient in the short term or do I let them struggle to grow and sustain themselves for the long term ?

How much failure do I endure before picking them up?

Perhaps the answer lies in another coaching mantra.

Meet them where they are

Not where you want them to be.

And, if there is desire where they are but no answers, then it may be time to take off the coaching hat, hold their hands and put on the teaching and mentoring hats.

And, if there is no desire where they are, then maybe it’s time to pause or leave.

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