The Business Case of ICF + Agile Coaching for Organizational Interventions

This article is intended for professional behavioral coaches, typically ICF (International Coach Federation) certified executive, leadership, team, organizational coaches who are considering to become professional process coaches as well, and vice versa for professional process coaches, commonly Agile coaches, Design Thinking facilitators and Lean (Lean TQM and Lean Startup) practitioners, considering to become professional behavioral coaches simultaneously.

My name is Takeshi and I am the founder and Chief Coach at Agile Organization Development. After over twenty years as a career banker and then a serial startup entrepreneur, for the last few years I have been concentrating my activities as an Agile coach with a focus on Organization Development. In my second year as an Agile coach, I made the decision to also become trained as a professional behavioral coach certified by the International Coach Federation (“ICF”). The effort has paid off in multiples and today with our tribe at Agile Organization Development, we enjoy a constant stream of large scale organizational intervention opportunities with corporate clients globally.

I am writing this article for three purposes.

  • First, as tribe leader of Agile Organization Development, I syndicate work with fellow ICF coaches, Agile, Design Thinking and Lean practitioners to cater to the accelerating volume of customer demand. I would like this article to serve as an invitation for like minded professionals to join our tribe.
  • Second, I find behavioral coaching + process coaching to be in the Goldilocks zone for delivering impactful organizational interventions. As an Agile professional I practice Evidenced Based Management and I have enough early outcomes and results to justify further investment of efforts in this approach. The world needs more coaches like us, and I would like to encourage both current professional behavioral coaches (executive, leadership, team, organizational coaches) and professional process coaches (Agile coaches, Design Thinking facilitators and Lean (Lean TQM and Lean Startup) practitioners) follow suit in the route we are taking.
  • Third, freelance coaching is a tough business and I know only a small number of independent coaches making a sustainable, profitable business out of it. Behavioral coaching + process coaching delivered as a dual ICF and Agile Scrum certified coach has been my formula of success in building a stable, profitable coaching business. I’d like to share my experience with the community.

I’ll first start by sharing my own journey of how I came to find this “Goldilocks zone” of organizational work.

Why It Works: Behavioral Coaching + Process Coaching

I don’t recall when exactly the epiphany occurred, but at some point in my coaching journey I came to realize that functioning, performing teams have two simple traits: they have team processes that work, and people that talk with each other. So for me, leadership, team and organizational coaching circles around these two themes of process and communication.

I first started as an Agile Scrum coach, and as I felt comfort in living the mantra that Agile is not a methodology but rather a framework, approach and mindset, my practice quickly evolved to integrating Design Thinking and Lean (both Lean TQM and Lean Startup). Today I group this side of my practice as “process coaching.”

Meanwhile, as many will attest, at the end of the day it’s always people matters. It’s in our survival instincts to reject change and by definition, doing new things in new ways is disruptive at the personal level for those involved. Simply put, it’s wishful thinking that people will automatically comply to change.

It was around this time that I received an invitation to teach and train executives at my MBA alma mater INSEAD. Through dialogue with the INSEAD professors and the many executives that joined my lectures and workshop, I started to take stock of what’s working and not working in my organizational interventions. What was not working was “persuasion” and “convincing” to adopt Agile, and what was working was an iterative process of dialogue with the leaders and teams that I was working with. The latter dialogical process is none other than a coaching conversation, and hence my decision to acquire the proper professional skills on this front; which today I group this side of the practice as “behavioral coaching.”

I chose to pursue my behavioral coaching training in Positive Psychology for two reasons. First I had strong conviction that “optimism” would be a killer attitude and aptitude in instigating, leading and driving change. This conviction is now validated as today whenever I speak at the level of aspirations with anyone, I observe a burst in energy and a strong likelihood of follow-through with actions. Second I considered “flow” to be integral to achieving sustained, elevated performance. When I first learned about the concept of flow in Positive Psychology, I recalled my ancient days as a school athlete and it resonated with me very strongly with an imagined surge of dopamine and endorphin hormones. Today I treat my coachees as athletes, and together with coaching on habit formation, they respond very well to finding their individual pattern of productivity and performance.

The definition of “organizing” is simply people coming together to do things together. For simple tasks, team processes naturally emerge and so do conversations. However, once the work starts to go in the complicated and complex realm, appropriate learning and facilitation support may be needed:

  • Just coaching the team to communicate well with each other may not be enough, as the team process they come up with and agree to can have its limitations.
  • Just training the team on e.g. Scrum may not be enough as they may follow instructions but not own the process – to “activate” them, we probably will need a series of “enabling conversations.”

Behavioral coaching and process coaching go hand-in-hand, particularly when the team requirement for complexity handling is high.

Funny Things Happen in Organizations

As a learning professional my niche is in Organization Development, which is a systematic practice of applying behavioral science for driving organizational change and performance.

Since acquiring the professional lenses of process coaching and behavioral coaching, I have better clarity and pattern recognition of the many funny things that happen in the organization.

While I use various theories and frameworks to understand and describe these “funny things” (e.g. disjointed vertical communication, immunity to change, mean-reversion and undoing of change, and ultimately “Waterfall Agile“) with theories and frameworks such as Systems Theory, Organizational Ambidexterity, Theory X & Y and Theory E & O, the crux of my work is in designing and implementing practical interventions, specifically learning interventions, to these organizational dysfunctions that clients ask to help solve.

My learning intervention designing is a back and forth of thinking between process and behavioral elements. This comes at two levels. First is on the choice of interventions and second is on how to embed complementing elements of other interventions into a certain intervention:

  • For example, if a client is at the stage of going back to the drawing board and deciding what their next team move is, I may (1) chose to recommend using Design Thinking for high stakes strategy formulation, while (2) embed group coaching for helping team members identify ways to handle functional interdependencies, and for discovering and learning “positive deviant behavior” among team members for inspiration.
  • Or for a client that, as part of their agile transformation journey, is in a need for the C-suite team to align to support their newly formed Scrum of Scrum teams, I may (1) recommend a series of one-on-one executive coaching or board group coaching, while (2) opportunistically embed elements of agile supporting mindsets and behaviors such as the delegation-empowerment spectrum (for supporting self-organized, autonomous teams) and habit formation of an inspection and adaptation cycle.

Again, behavioral coaching and process coaching go hand-in-hand, even for the most complex organizational requirements.

Wanted: Organizational Learning Interventionists

I have been growing Agile Organization Development from a solo operation to a tribe of fellow ICF coaches and Agile coaches (including Design Thinkers and Lean practitioners) to cater to the increasing frequency and scale of customer needs for our work.

I categorize our work as “organizational learning interventions.” One strong validation for the customer needs of our work is the fact that we regularly work with consulting companies as expert partners for their customer projects.

Agile organizational transformation mandates traditionally tend to go to management consulting companies. Many of the consulting companies are also adopting the learning intervention approach as they themselves see limits to the conventional programmatic design and implementation mode of delivery for organizational transformation. Specifically with Agile, all major consulting companies have their benches of Agile coaches and Scrum Masters, and typically an agile or digital academy where they have trainers organizing client workshops.

Nonetheless, we are regularly invited to work with the consulting companies to augment and aid their work with our learning interventions. Call it experience or maturity – beyond run-of-the-mill Agile training, it takes a veteran Agile coach to handle the intricate and dynamic nature of client interaction. The pattern is clear: there is clean respect from the major consulting companies on the value of expert coaching. (We have both patterns of being hired directly by a corporate client and asked to work closely with the consulting company they have separately hired, and being hired by consulting companies as external experts to support their client projects.)

Beyond that, an Agile coach that is also an ICF coach is a rarity. Yet when found, the consulting companies are quick to discover that such coaches are very well positioned to be placed in front of their client organization’s leadership team – to address the crucial vertical alignment need for supporting the agile transformation.

Finally, I believe one of the sticky reasons why we command quality opportunities from customers including from the consulting companies is our ability to design and deliver pilot interventions of highly complex organizational nature.

From (1) veteran Agile coach to (2) ICF and Agile coach with significant senior leadership coaching experience, and (3) organizational learning intervention designer that has “been there, done that” with global corporates, the hurdle is high. Yet there is a first for anyone – I was no exception. If you are already an Agile coach with a good number of years under your belly, or if you are an ICF certified coach with strong commercial experience, I believe it is very worth the investment to acquire skills on the other side.

Economics and Benefits of Becoming an ICF + Agile Coach

I am into my fourth year as a professional coach and I know first hand how hard it is to build and sustain an independent coaching practice.

There are three vectors to consider for earnings potential:

  • Agile coaches on average earn around USD60,000 to USD120,000 per annum, or at a daily rate around USD300~600 (from what I hear in Europe and US – Asia may be lower). A good majority of Agile coaches work for a single organization as either employees or on contract. Earnings is therefore somewhat stable. Top earner Agile coaches probably cap out at around USD250,000 per annum, or on a daily rate at around USD1,000 or slightly more (for regular engagements coaching teams; fees for spot engagements such as training workshops would be higher).
  • ICF coaches typically charge on an hourly rate. The average hourly rate is probably around USD250 for executive coaches so at first glance that might not look bad. However no executive coach coaches for 8 hours straight a day (we can’t, it’s too exhausting) so the daily intake is much lower. Plus the demand for executive coaches is not as high as Agile coaches, therefore utilization is low and it’s understandable that the average annual earnings of ICF coaches is USD51,000 (2016 survey). However, variance of earnings among executive coaches is much higher than Agile coaches. It’s not unusual to hear certain coaches earning USD1,000 per hour, and consequently “hot” executive coaches can command good six digit annual earnings or more.
  • I would also like to introduce the scale of independent management consultants. The volume zone of earnings of independent management consultants is probably lower than what an Agile coach currently earns. However, it’s the variance that matters and once you are recognized in the expert category by the major consulting companies (the external consultants that consultants need to hire are by definition those that have the rare skill and expertise – bar is high), top earners command daily rates well in excess of what an Agile coach will earn (possibly in multiples). In this category, likelihood is that clients will contract you in the form of a consultant and not just as a coach (indeed the work as an organizational intervention designer is consultant like). If you are really good, you can even get a retainer contract.

So, what does this mean for an ICF coach considering to also become an Agile coach? First, there’s the potential of your earning level becoming at least on par with a conventional Agile coach (of course, experience counts so probably not immediate but eventually). Second is liberation from hourly rate to daily rate or monthly salary, hence income stability. Third is the potential of getting a very high daily rate if you make it to the expert consultant category.

And for an Agile coach eyeing to become ICF certified, potential benefits are as following. First and foremost is the attraction of coaching wider and higher (from coaching developers in Scrum teams to coaching business units and ultimately giving executive coaching to C-suite). Second is the potential freedom to work on multiple client engagements at the same time, if you chose to. Third is the possibility to break the highest earner category as an Agile coach if you make it to expert consultant status.

Not bad prospects, right?

How to become an ICF + Agile Coach

So what’s the catch? Well, there’s a learning curve.

(1) ICF coach also becoming an Agile coach

The time and money invested on this side of the equation is relatively low. However, just because you get Scrum certified doesn’t mean that you’re ready to open business. Experience counts.

My recommendation is to go for Professional Scrum Master I certification. Read everything on the learning guide page, practice the mock test multiple times, and within five days most likely you will be ready to pass the test in one go. A two, three day training course is offered for typically around USD2,000-3,000, but that’s not required. You can become PSM I with as low as USD150 as that’s all it costs for the test, and the full study material is on the website. I also have a free online Scrum Crash Course that covers all the areas needed to pass PSM I here.

Once you get PSM, that’s when the real journey starts. In this industry, experience counts, so you will need to find your first Scrum team to embed yourself as a Scrum Master. My recommendation is to pro-bono yourself with a couple startup teams. Send an email to a VC friend, ask for a couple intros to their portfolio companies, and it would be hard to imagine a startup saying no to a free Scrum Master. I recommend going through at least half a dozen Sprint cycles (typical Sprints are two weeks, so three months in total) with one team to experience the evolution of your growth as a Scrum Master. Repeat the exercise with a second team to replicate the learning in a different organizational settings.

Next step is to step up from Scrum Master to Agile coach. Again call your VC friend for a couple more intros to startups, and this time, don’t embed yourself as a Scrum Master but offer to coach some of the startup team members to become Scrum Masters. This is a valuable learning experience as teaching accelerates mastery of the subject. Do it for two rounds of six Sprints and by the time you finish you most likely will be a solid Agile coach.

Finally, try to find a low risk opportunity to coach a Scrum team inside a large corporate. This will be a very different experience from coaching Startup teams and it’s important to experience it properly before formerly selling your Agile coaching service to these clients, whom typically have high expectations for delivery. Knock on the door of Agile coaching companies that have existing business with corporate clients (such as us) and ask if you can apprentice for their next delivery opportunity.

(2) Agile coach becoming an ICF certified coach as well

This side of the equation is more time and effort consuming and expensive. To become an International Coach Federation Associate Certified Coach (ICF ACC), you need to join an ICF accredited coaching school program for 60 hours of training, receive 10 hours of mentor coaching, accumulate 100 hours of (mostly) paid client coaching experience, submit a coaching session recording for assessment, and finally take a written test. All in all, it takes about a year to complete and a cost of around $10,000 give or take.

Also it is a heavy personal transformation journey, as a coaching style of conversation, particularly the listening bit, does not come natural to most people and there is significant de-learning and re-learning involved.

In the year that I did my ICF coaching training, I took a significant revenue hit as the time dedication was very taxing. (Although in the next year I rapidly made it up and cleared more as my revenue shot up dramatically compared to my Agile coaching days.)

Once you receive your ICF certification though, you can hit the ground earning money confidently as an ICF coach because the 100 hours of client coaching experience already puts you up at the vocational level. The requirement for ICF certification is rigorous, yet I am supportive as I do feel it represents a genuine standard of quality for the behavioral coaching profession.

Join the Tribe for the Joy of Learning

If you are the rare talent that is already an ICF and Agile coach and you share our aspirations to help client organizations succeed in their change, transformation and innovation endeavors, join our tribe at Agile Organization Development today.

If you are an Agile coach, Design Thinker or Lean practitioner that aspires to further skills on the human side of the enterprise, reach out to us. Having dual ICF and Agile credentials is not a pre-requisite for joining our tribe. So long as you have expertise in your area of process coaching and have the strong desire to continue learning with us, we will share with you client opportunities where we can work together.

If you are an ICF ACC, PCC or MCC, or an ICF coach in the making, speak to us. We will help you on your learning journey to pick up skills on the process coaching side, and involve you on organizational interventions where your core coaching skills most shine.

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