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You're an agile coach; you bump into the CEO in the lift. What do you say..?

In your first conversation with a leader, here’s one thing an agile coach should probably not discuss.

Agile. That’s right, don’t talk about it, no one cares about frameworks or our special weird language. Leaders have lots of responsibility to deliver value, results, outcomes and benefits for shareholders/stakeholders/customers. They do not have time to unlearn everything they’re spent years learning simply to demonstrate that they can talk Agile.

Recently I’ve been working with a few C-level people; never once did I start talking about Agile; in this post I want to help you get ready for your next conversation with a senior leader. As an agent of change or agile coach, there’s only one outcome to aim for when meeting with a senior leader for the first time

To be invited back for a second conversation

Once you’re invited back you can get on with your job of coaching, enabling and influencing. Here are some of my tips on how to prepare for your next conversation with a senior leader:

  • Ask a first-person question. Enquire as to “how they are going”, then really (no really) listen to what they say. By asking about them you obtain insights on their perspective as a leader / person whilst avoiding talk about we, the business or our brand. The reason I suggest this is because a coach should aspire to always work with what is in a person's control, their immediate circle of influence. By asking about the leader as a person you can then easily ask a follow up question and start a dialogue about what’s in their control. Leaders are usually eloquent, fast-thinking, smart and expect those around them to keep up. So if you’re in a conversation, pay attention on purpose; listen with your whole body, take in what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, as well as any other cues or intuitive signals. Be prepared to open and hold the space for a deeper conversation should the opportunity arise. If you do what I recommend you may also notice that leaders have a “beam of attention” that , when it is turned towards you can feel like it is boring into your soul. When a leader really is listening to you they give you their full attention; this can be off-putting in a world where people only half-listen and never really care about your answer to the question “How are you today?”. So if you get their attention, respect it and be prepared to have a useful conversation.

  • Have THE question ready to go. Information you receive from the above question about the leaders personal state can then be linked to a follow-up question about the work, job or situation you both have a stake in. This is where you can practice your coaching craft. Recently I was introduced to a member of the CEO’s team, the question I asked was

“What’s the one thing you would change about the current culture?”

What followed was an exchange of stories and a rich conversation about where the organisation is versus where we would like it to be; BOOM! I had an objective which I could now consider and prepare some key results around.

  • Be brave, curious and contribute from your place of knowing. You will probably have a better perspective on the work than the CEO because you are closer to the teams doing it. Leaders love stories from the “coal face”, insights from the teams that are unfiltered when compared to their usual lines of reporting. Have a story ready, one that is useful, insightful and valuable to a leader. It could be a cry for help but better to have a mix of good news plus a small but highly valuable impediment that the team wants removed. For example vendor contractors offshore don’t have enough bandwidth over the company VPN to work with the onshore teams effectively. Leaders love someone who can inform them without complaining; try it, speak up without blaming and offer to help solve the impediment with the leaders sponsorship.

  • Don’t talk about Agile or use terms that make the leader feel less than capable. Just because you deeply understand what a 'definition of ready' is doesn’t mean you need to use this language when in a leadership conversation. I suggest talking about OKRs, outcomes and business value and leave all the agile language out of the conversation.

Finals words and an experiment

You may never get the chance to “bump into” the CEO in the lift but I recommend you try to contrive a situation where you come into contact with senior leaders. Once you start to practice you may be surprised when you’re invited into work more often with leaders. Agility practitioners often talk about wanting a seat at the table to design better ways of working; well I suggest to you that this post will help get an invite to sit down at this table (note: there isn’t a table just a series of conversations). Good luck and please stop talking Agile to leaders, no one cares about what a sprint is but everyone cares about the outcomes it can deliver.