Weaving business and people together

Call the Plumber! My team’s leaking!

February 3rd, 2015


red wrench

Getting your team in order doesn’t have to be a wrench.


When I started my own business, it was 2012, the summer of the London Olympics. I dreamed of spending more time coaching leadership teams. You couldn’t escape, then, from all the talk about teamwork and coaching, and like many I was inspired by the minute attention to incremental improvement evidenced by the British cycling and rowing teams in particular. Coaching leadership teams is important work which I felt, and still feel, well-equipped to do. They’re a vital element in a successful, sustainable organisation. They have more impact than even they realize, and the complexity is an interesting challenge for an experienced coach. So I’ve been intrigued about what it is that makes teams ask for help; and how willing they are to invest in the time it takes to develop a high-class leadership team.

Two years down the line, here’s a categorisation that I’ve developed to help myself, on the basis of the requests I’ve had and talking to other team coaches. I use it as a shorthand to try to identify what teams are ‘up for’, and what role they want me to play.

At this point I need to leave the lofty sporting team metaphor and move on to something a little earthier: plumbing. I’m going to mix my metaphors, however, since overdoing the plumber one (I promise you) isn’t going to be helpful, for me or for you. Plus I have a pet hate of over-worked single-track metaphors. However I’ll come back to glorious sport at the end.

The Emergency Plumber.                                                                                                     

There’s a very obvious hole in the team which is diverting energy and damaging performance. The biggest challenge is often broken relationships, for whatever reason. Even highly competent leaders can find this territory very hard to navigate and the temptation to solve the problem with a neat compromise agreement or swapping people around is huge. When this can’t be done, good leaders will recognize quickly that something needs to happen to change the relationships but it’s difficult to make those relationship interventions from the leadership position. An outsider can help everyone to change perspective, say the things that need to be said, shift the toxic waste products which are clogging the free flow of communication. Done well, this needs good diagnostics, (often achieved with an attentive conversation) coach, close attention to trust-building, and an understanding of how clogged communication blocks performance because important business and personal information isn’t shared in a healthy way. It also needs a coach who is willing to get their hands dirty in the murky world of emotions at work.

In my experience, this sort of coaching contract can end up being quite short-term, and I’ve often wondered why. It may be because the pain goes away, the team feels a great sense of release and whoosh of positive energy and the euphoria of improved functioning due to trust being re-built. Is it enough? Would you deal with your domestic boiler in this way? In this type of working, the team itself often doesn’t want to engage in that sort of process again. They can’t really remember what happened. The conversations have felt uncomfortable, unmanly, not ‘business-y’; and I think there’s often a feeling of embarrassment and confusion that the situation was allowed to get that bad. The plumber can be a person you don’t want to see again because you know s/he’s seen things at their worst. It often isn’t easy for the coach who has invested a lot of emotional energy in the team in order to make things better.


The regular Maintenance Contract.

That sum of money we pay to have someone service the boiler in the summer, even though there’s nothing wrong with it. We’re just trying to make sure it doesn’t break down in the winter. This team will often feel a dutiful obligation to invest time and money in SOMETHING. They will change supplier regularly and won’t build a long-term partnership with a coach, because different people will provide different things. All will be useful, all will incrementally add to the team competence, and will make sure they never actually need to employ that pricy emergency plumber. Most good companies will have this sort of service available in-house. It’s a set of solid activities that can be used, like different classes at the gym, to keep building transferable understanding of teamwork. For large organisations, I think this is the most efficient and effective way to build, over the long-term, a sustainable organisation full of people who understand the different elements of great team-work.

The Team Personal Coach.

Often what drives this contract is a major challenge ahead: an Olympic-scale one… a merger, a growth explosion, going global, total restructuring. The team is highly competent, but they know that in order to get through the next few years they need to be in tip-top form. The team is often mature in terms of experience and/or development and will see a coach as a catalyst to high performance, not a slight on their effectiveness. This sort of contract is a long-term partnership between the team and coach and can be as gruelling and boring as those long hours of sporting drills and practice. Ultimately, this is what makes the performance difference. A team who invests in developing itself at this level will start with mutually respectful professional relationships which deepen and strengthen and become more personal over time, until their ability to understand, trust and predict each other’s behaviour in any context starts to feel instinctive and flowing. And as we all know, that lovely feeling of flow is a result of long investment in skill development. Watching a team like this becomes (forgive me) like watching the Welsh rugby team at their best. One of the hallmarks of this kind of work is the time it takes to get to be able to work with a team in this way. You need a high-quality relationship with the leader from the start in order to be able to work well. You find yourself, in the end, a highly valued member of the team itself.

AND: I am continually surprised at how few senior leadership teams actually bother with a coach. But that’s another blog for another time.

I’d be really interested in other people’s experience of supporting teams… does this resonate? If you are a team leader, does this help you categorise the sort of help you need? If you are a coach, are there other categories of intervention that you are asked, regularly, to provide? And if you’ve been part of team development events, what difference do you think it has made to your team performance?

(No real team has been harmed in the creation of this blog. All teams are fictitious, and resemblance to any living team is entirely unintentional)

  1. Really like the plumbing metaphor Annie. And thanks for describing the categories. Its made me think and I reckon I do emergency plumbing mostly! My clients dont ask for maintenance contracts yet. Investments in time and cash are inevitably pulled to the immediate rather than the long term. And your categories might help people challenge that approach. I do see leaders being more preoared to investigate the quality of the business relatuonships as a way to improve – but need help finding an approach and language that feels credible and business oriented. Cheers.

    by: Greg on February 3, 2015 at 6:07 pm
    • That’s really interesting about the plumbing….would be good to chat about whether it’s a common theme not to get asked back, even though the work of truly building a team is only just starting… or is it to do with how to contract at the beginning….thanks for delightful honesty Greg.

      by: Anne Owen on February 3, 2015 at 10:34 pm
  2. Nice metaphors for the different types of team development. I find the hardest is when the team leader requests the support of a coach but the other members of the team are not bought in. It takes time to get everyone’s trust. Not sure if I can think of a metaphor for this – perhaps coaching a reluctant after school homework club?! 🙂 you’ve got the bright kid in the corner who doesn’t see why he has to work with anyone else (including the coach), and the class clown who keeps it fun but is avoiding the serious work and perhaps the head boy who is trying his best to do the right thing but is overworked and stressed by the high levels of performance he holds himself to. Hmm… Perhaps I’ll leave the metaphors to you!!

    by: Gemma H on February 3, 2015 at 9:08 pm
    • Think you’ve added another helpful metaphor for the within-team dynamic and the roles people can take, often unconsciously. I often wish we could use more ‘everyday’language to describe behaviour in teams and the school class is SO familiar to all of us. What an enjoyable response, thanks a million Gemma.

      by: Anne Owen on February 3, 2015 at 10:30 pm
  3. I like the description of the different categories of need – really helpful as ways of thinking about the team’s motivation to involve a coach. My experience is that the team leader’s own style and maturity has a major impact on what it is possible to achieve. I’m also pondering on the complexities of coaching cross cultural teams – using the schoolroom analogy, the chinese classroom is a very different place to the dutch classroom or the british classroom.

    by: Ros W on February 12, 2015 at 8:17 am
    • i really agree about the team leader’s maturity in leadership..it makes a massive difference. maybe you could blog about the Chinese, Dutch and Scottish classroom…I’d love to hear what you have to say? what are the 3 words which characterize each classroom/team?

      by: Anne Owen on March 23, 2015 at 9:37 pm


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