I recently became a Scrum Alliance Certified Team Coach. The process was simultaneously one of the most challenging and frustrating and helpful and rewarding things I’ve ever done.
To me, saying that I’m proud to have earned this certification is still kind of funny. There is one thing I constantly hear from Agile Coaches around me and it’s this: certificates suck. They’re not agile. They should not be used. They’re a waste of money. While I agree that this is the case for a lot of certificates I reject this blanket statement. Let me explain.
Why did I do it?
I remember when I got my CSP. Back then you still had to take an elaborate test to pass it. To prepare for it you were given an extensive list of books to read. Before taking the exam I had never been quite sure if I was actually doing a good job as a Scrum Master. And so I was looking for some way to grow and test myself. Preparation for the CSP was awesome. I spent six months immersed in all kinds of books, summarizing and learning as much as I could. I passed the exam and that was nice. But most of all I had a hurdle to clear, a goal to grow towards. The difference between my work before and after the exam was noticeable. I suddenly felt much more competent, and while working with teams I had fresh ideas and new concepts to explain. The people around me gave me great feedback and felt like my coaching had a much bigger impact.
And so I got really excited when the Scrum Alliance announced the Certified Team Coach certificate in 2015. It was obvious that this would be the next thing to help me grow. As if I needed further convincing I found Cherie Silas’ article about her journey to CEC.
She managed to capture exactly what I had been hoping to get from my own journey: reflection, knowledge exchange, a huge challenge, growth and so much more. She wrote about the value of taking your time and not trying to rush through the process. About her feelings of inadequacy. About being humble and putting yourself out there. To me it was both daunting and inspirational.
Finding a Mentor
Around the same time I met Ralf Kruse at the Agile Coach Camp here in Germany and later found out that he was a CEC. We spent time together in several Open Space sessions and I took note of him for several reasons. First of all there was a slightly uncomfortable intensity about him. I had gotten annoyed by a lot of the touchy-feely stuff at the coach camp and he was the perfect antidote. Instead of rehashing agile myths and reinforcing ingrained belief patterns he would flat out ask people how they knew certain things or if they had seen them work well regularly. While most people at the camp seemed to focus on avoiding conflict and optimizing harmony he seemed to press for truth.
We talked out in the hallway and a lot of the things he said stayed with me after the camp. When I saw that he was actually a CEC I decided to send him a message, asking him whether he would consider being my mentor. It said “I know several people who would write a mentor recommendation for me. I would like to have worked for and earned it. I believe you are the person that would make me earn it.”
We met up a while later and Ralf began mentoring me. It was, simply stated, quite awesome. Just having someone to help me reflect on current client situations and at times being able to ask “How would you approach a situation like this?” was incredible. Ralf gave me daily tasks to reflect on and kept me accountable for my work with teams. I also had the chance to basically ask any question I was interested in or ask stuff I felt insecure about. Gradually, I discovered that Ralf brings a level of professionalism to agile coaching that still makes me pause. That’s something I admire and strive to match in some form.
Just the mentoring alone would have made the whole process worthwhile. However, there was much more yet to come.
I started filling out part 1 of the CTC application in February of 2016. It became a summary of everything I had ever done up to that point. Clients I had worked with, trainings I had taken, people who had mentored me, talks I had given at conferences… But it also allowed me to connect to other people in the community. Reading through the CTC candidate Google group made me reach out to Aaron Corcoran, who had at that point already passed part 1. We set up a video chat and he walked me through his experience filling out part 1. Aaron is just one example of people in the community going the extra mile and helping others out. It was great to feel that support.
Filling out the application made me realize that I had actually learned quite a bit throughout the years. Several people looked over my application and commented. Then I sent part 1 off and waited for feedback…
…but it never came. Four days before Christmas I got a message saying I had passed the first part of the CTC application. No questions, no remarks. I was rather surprised by this but decided to focus on part 2 of the application.
While scanning the questions in part 2 a few months before I sent off part 1 I thought to myself “This should be pretty straight forward.” And then I started actually working on them. They were anything but! So I simply started jotting down first ideas. While doing this I noticed how much trouble I had being specific. I had an intuitive sense of how to approach the outlined scenarios and questions, sure. But explaining coherently what I actually meant was next to impossible for me. My world was shattered. Here I was, trying to be a great Agile Coach and I wasn’t even able to explain basic concepts! However, after the initial disappointment a wave of excitement washed over me. I knew that a big learning opportunity lay ahead.
I decided to focus on individual questions, really drill deep, and think and learn as much as I could about them. Every morning on the subway I would try to make progress on a single question, think about it during the day while working with my clients, observe myself in action, talk to other coaches about it, and then summarize new insights on the way back home. What was puzzling to me was that I often did have an approach to solving certain issues. However, I had no systematic way of explaining that approach. So over the course of the next months I tried abstracting my internal mental model from my actions, trying to externalize and describe what it is that I actually do. This led to some major insights for me. By putting these ideas outside of my head and having to explain them to someone else I was able to reflect on them in a totally different way.
After several months of this I started noticing a distinct shift in my work with clients. They responded much better to the work I was doing with them. I attribute this to my increased ability of explaining key aspects of my coaching style and the willingness to develop or use existing models to create shared reality.
I decided to ask other coaches about this. “How do you do x?”, “What’s your approach to y?”, “How do you know z actually works?” Interestingly enough all the coaches I talked to pretty much always gave the same answer: “I just kind of do it,” or “It’s intuitive,” or “Good question… I’ve never actually thought about it.” Most people don’t see that as a problem. For me, it has become one of the biggest areas of personal development. Knowing things is one thing. Being able to explain and work with concepts in a way that people can have significant insights and take action is something entirely different.
The coaching scenarios in the CTC application took me the longest to finish. And to be honest, at first I really didn’t know what to write. There were a ton of things I was able to diagnose right away. But those felt superficial to me. I read through the questions dozens of times, wrote down ideas. And then I erased them again until I wasn’t even sure if I understood the question anymore. That’s when I decided to ask Cherie Silas for help.
Cherie and I agreed to meet on Skype and I had the chance to ask her questions about the application. Her help was really amazing. But what really made it special and stays with me till this day was her trust in my ability. She told me she had read the first part of my application, that it was great, and that I shouldn’t sell myself short.
It might sound trivial. However, there were lots of moments when I felt like giving up because things just became too confusing. That’s when I remembered her words and thought “Well, my answers can’t be complete nonsense. Maybe I’m closer to a good answer than I think.” Writing became easier again.
It took me a long time to finish Part 2. And towards the end I got sick of it. It felt unfinished. I was unsure about many things. But it was good enough for now and I felt like it represented me well enough. That’s when I submitted my application.
It felt weird. I didn’t know what to expect. A few weeks later I got an email saying there was a question about my application. It related to the section on values. I could see right away how someone wouldn’t get what I was trying to say or how it related to Agile values (even though I had spent weeks crafting the perfect answer). It took me about a day to make the necessary changes and I was proud of myself for delivering early this time.
The next thing that happened was an email from Cherie saying she had reviewed my application. Her words were flattering and they made me glow for a month. She urged me to also apply for the CEC.
It then took another couple of weeks till I got the final confirmation. I had passed. I read the email about ten times with a huge grin on my face.
I now have a certificate. I’m not entirely sure what it does. It puts me in the company of people I look up to. But beyond that I’m guessing I’ll still have to explore what impact it is going to have. Is anyone going to approach me specifically because I am a CTC? Is anyone going to listen to me more because of the certificate? I’m not sure about the first one and I hope the second one won’t be true.
What I do know is that I have matured in ways I hadn’t even been aware of. I’ve met wonderful people. I’ve challenged myself a thousand times and came out with deeper, even more challenging questions.
Most of what I do now has some form of connection to my CTC application. The way I think about Agile, the way I interact with clients, the areas I’m trying to grow in have all been fundamentally shaped by going through this process.
I would go through it again and again, and I can’t recommend it enough.