How We Hire Great Agile Coaches
What makes an Agile Coach successful?
We have been asking this question a lot lately. What makes an Agile Coach successful? Hiring is notoriously difficult in general, and we are in need of hiring top tier Agile Consultants and Coaches. Being a small company, we get to select and improve our methods through experimentation and refinement.
Recently, I stumbled across a nice way to conduct and assess our interviews. I will share the high-level approach here along with a couple of the key details so that you can see how this compares to your approach and maybe try something new. Reach out in the comments to share your own take!
The Six Characteristics
This interview method is centered around assessing the candidate against six characteristics:
- Servant Leader
- Always Learning
- Champions Agile Fundamentals
- Cultural Catalyst
The first four of the six characteristics we assess, regardless of the role, are our four core values. Each of our four core values represents who we are and who we want every new hire to be. The other two are unique to the role, e.g. Agile Consultant, DevOps Engineer, etc. For instance, for an Agile Consultant we want someone who champions agile fundamentals and is a cultural catalyst.
Each question asked in the interview must help assess the candidate’s strength in one or more of the characteristics. For some extra spice, we throw in a real-time consulting scenario in the middle of the interview to see how they respond to the everyday challenges of the job and further ascertain their strength in each area.
During the 30-45 minutes outside of the role play, we give open-ended questions and prompts that candidates must answer from experience and know-how. We avoid asking hypotheticals because the answers can easily be faked. The best predictor of how a candidate will perform is how they have performed in the past, and we dig in further based on the candidate’s responses. One of my favorite prompts that highlights a candidate’s courage and servant leadership is:
Describe a time when you disagreed with the consensus.
We chose characteristics that are essential to be successful in a variety of Agile Coach roles, from single-team clients to large 300+ person transformations.
As long as the candidate possesses a solid combination of these six characteristics, we have high confidence they can perform the job well.
While we won’t dive into each of the characteristics, let’s talk briefly about the most important one. Servant Leadership is the first characteristic we look for — it is essential to being effective and successful as an Agile Coach and in our firm. Let’s define it simply:
- A servant leader enables others above all else, eagerly removes impediments, facilitates collaboration, and actively listens
- A servant leader serves by doing the work the team does, leading by example
To find out if someone is a servant leader, we give them an open-ended role play scenario in which they have to find out what the issues are. For example, they could be an Agile Coach asked to meet with a team’s Product Owner and Scrum Master after the Product Owner’s manager says that the team is struggling to perform. A Servant Leader doesn’t come in with the answers. She listens. She asks the right questions. Maybe the team is doing just fine and the Product Manager is misled by the team’s metrics. Maybe the Product Owner is assigning work, causing bottlenecks by micromanaging instead of empowering.
A Servant Leader asks, listens, facilitates, then serves.
You could apply this method to any role as long as you find the right mutually-exclusive characteristics representing that role.
How to Assess
At the end of the interview, we simply score each characteristic on a 1 to 5 scale, weak to strong, and add them up. Both the open-ended questions and the role play scenario help determine the candidate’s strength in each characteristic. The total score provides an easy way to objectively compare candidates — those at the top have the highest likelihood of succeeding at our company and in the role.
There is a place for a gut check, but not until after the structured assessment. If you still have doubts about the top candidates at that point, put words to that doubt, discuss it amongst yourselves, and consider saying no. Otherwise, you’ve found yourself a solid new hire!
Quick and Effective
We ask a few consistent questions while also constantly trying out new questions and prompts to better compare candidates. If a question consistently gets answered the same way, throw it out. It needs to differentiate the candidates to be useful. Another one of my favorites that helps assess the Always Learning characteristic is:
What have you done within the past year or two to further your education and effectiveness above and beyond your day-to-day job?
Before we bring people in for the in-person interview, we conduct a 30-minute phone screen to assess cultural fit, and before that we have a checklist to ensure a rough placement fit. We keep our process minimal but purposeful.
In grad school, six companies flew me out for all-day interviews. An hour with Program Manager Bob, then an hour with Senior Scientist Mike, and so on, for 6–8 hours, separated by a nice but often awkward lunch. That’s a lot of time and effort for what can be accomplished in 60–90 minutes.
We are currently privileged by our company being so small and having strong talent nearby. Once we start growing and hiring outside of the Denver metro area, we will probably use a video conference instead of the in-person interview. We’re not there yet, but you can be sure we will experiment at each stage and constantly improve.
I read about this interview process in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. The Nobel-prize winning psychologist and economist used this method in the Israeli army back in the 1960s to determine recruit placement. He knew, based on research at the time, that using gut instinct and intuition yielded results no better than a coin flip, so he created this structured assessment with great results. When revisiting the unit decades later, Kahneman found that his candidate placement process had stood the test of time and remained largely the same. They hadn’t found a better way to evaluate candidates.
I have also borrowed a bit from Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street, and we adopted the role play scenarios from our coach’s coach Christen McLemore.
We recognize this method isn’t perfect, but it’s a great start, and I am very excited with the candidates it has helped us hire so far.
I would love to hear other characteristics that matter to you most in an Agile Coach, as well as any different or related ways to interview that you have found. After all, one of our core values is Always Learning.
I am the Head of Strategy for Centil, serving to enable superiority in U.S. Defense & Space through the adoption of flow, feedback, and relentless improvement. Follow me here on Medium to see more posts like this, and you can find me on LinkedIn here.