I recently read Naresh Jain’s short, but highly informative article (click here) comparing part-time coaching to full-time coaching. I share some of his experience, having done long-term full-time coaching, long-term part-time coaching, short-term full-time coaching, and even short-term part-time coaching. Individuals have benefited a lot from remote working sessions with me, and I think companies have mostly overlooked this powerful and cost-effective alternative.

Individuals can rarely justify spending the money it costs to bring a coach to them, so they either work with their coach remotely or, in some cases, combine work with vacation and travel to their coach. People have approached me for coaching for two broad reasons: either they want quick help related to something very specific, or they want a mentor to help guide them through some difficult or uncertain decisions. I have found that I can deal with even sensitive interpersonal issues effectively over the phone or Skype.

How to Work With a Coach Remotely

Most often, the client schedules remote working sessions with me, which we conduct over the internet using basic tools like Skype, chat, email, screen sharing or virtual whiteboards. I have helped people prepare clients for job interviews, reviewed clients’ code, programmed with clients in real time, mapped products and stories with clients, and advised clients working themselves as team leaders on performing that role more effectively. This situation works best when the client and I establish trust very quickly, either by having met before, or by completing a single working session before discussing a longer-term arrangement. On rare occasions, technology has got in the way of the work, but the interruptions have been minor and overcome by using backup, technology like the phone. In a typical one-on-one engagement working remotely like this, we tend to keep the schedule quite flexible, and so the occasional rescheduled appointment causes relatively little trouble.

Members of The jbrains Experience get preferential booking with me for one-on-one coaching sessions.

When teams and companies look for coaching, they rarely consider alternative coaching models, and I think they overpay enormously for convenience, possibly even for less effectiveness. (Refer back to Naresh’s article.) I can think of a few reasons for this.

  • The client and coach do not know each other well enough to establish a level of trust that makes part-time or remote coaching work well.
  • The client’s company has no experience with these alternative coaching models, and simply doesn’t trust them.
  • Someone in the approval chain has had a bad experience with a consultant (who hasn’t?) and wants to keep the coach close by, in order to monitor the work.
  • Someone in the approval chain equates face time with value.
  • In some cases, such an alternative coaching engagement doesn’t fit into the detailed system of departmental budgets and project codes that has evolved over time to track the cost of working with consultants.
  • Obtaining the budget for a large block of work with a consultant requires less effort and involves less bureaucracy than a more incremental approach.

Before I continue, let me be clear: I don’t ridicule these constraints. I feel bad about them, but I understand how these policies evolve, and I don’t want to make things worse by complaining to the client before they agree to the first engagement! I’d rather focus on our shared interests in part-time coaching:

What We Gain From Remote Coaching

  • Your team will have to stand on its own feet long before I leave “for good”. We can avoid the ongoing anxiety of what happens after he leaves?
  • Your team will have a chance to digest and use the first batch of suggestions before I try to give them more.
  • You can commit less money to working with me to start, and I can commit less time to working with you to start. If the relationship breaks down, and sometimes it just doesn’t work, then it’s much less likely for us to succumb to the impulse to involve lawyers.

When working with a team full-time, I feel happy when my clients use 20% of what I teach them, given the sheer number of things I can share with them. When working with a team part-time over a longer period, my clients have had time to test and refine my suggestions. They don’t try to do too much at once, reducing frustration and giving the chances a much better chance of sticking. This gives me a chance to learn more about them and give them more effective advice. This becomes a virtuous cycle that generates much more value for the cost.

When It’s Time To Go, It’s Time To Go

So, do I still value full-time coaching? Yes. I think that teams need leaders of the type that Gil Broza describes in his upcoming book, The Human Side of Agile. I think that companies need help cultivating those leaders, and that at a result, full-time coaching needs to include an explicit mandate to coach would-be leaders. When I coach a team for a few months, I expect to show them some tricks, give them feedback about their behavior, point them towards useful resources (like books, articles, training), and inspire at least one person to act in the role of servant leader. Most clients do not talk to me about this last point, and I see it as a mistake every time.

When I agree to coach a team for any significant length of time, I expect to work with the client to develop a strategy to deal with this issue. Not doing so wastes money, time, and effort, and given what we coaches typically charge, I want my clients to get the most out of their time with me. Just because I show your people 50 tricks doesn’t mean that they can use 50 tricks after I leave. We have to do much more than that to make any coaching engagement a success.

I Still Think I Need On-Site Coaching…

This might leave you with one last question: when should I hire a full-time coach? I think that, if you need someone to do the work of an agile team leader because you have a gaping void in that area, then you could consider hiring a full-time coach for 3-6 months. If you hired me for that, I’d start by leading the team, while learning as much as I can about the team and how it fits within the company. If you had someone in mind to take over as coach after I leave, then I’d teach that person what I know and share what I’ve learned. If you needed me to help you find that person, I’d do that, too. I’d split the engagement roughly into thirds: first leading the team, then pair-leading the team, then coaching your employee-coach as she leads the team. By the end of the scheduled time, your employee-coach would feel comfortable to lead the team, but might still need some part-time help, and I’m happy to do that. Even if I leave this person with 10 books to read, she’ll still need someone to lean on for advice, and remote working sessions fit that need perfectly.

This style of engagement contrasts sharply with stories that friends, colleagues, and clients have told me. They have shared stories of consultants who come in, lead the team, become the bottleneck, create (intentionally or not) a situation where the client depends on the coach for too much, then disappear abruptly when boredom sets in. It happens too often; don’t let it happen to you. A long-term, part-time relationship with a strong coach delivers tremendous value long after a full-time coach has left the building.

If you’d like to start working with me as your coach, then join The jbrains Experience and start getting answers to your burning questions.

UPDATE: I just ran across George Dinwiddie’s short article (click here), which I offer here as a companion piece.