How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure, Part Two

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If the first principle in building an effective coaching structure is First "What," Then "Who," the second is Open Your Eyes to What Doesn't Work. Although it may seem negative, this is an important step.  In the same way that a doctor needs to be able to recognize the symptoms of common medical problems, you need to know that coaching failure is often the result of a small set of problems.

But before I go any further I need to ask one diagnostic question:  Do you already have a coaching structure and is it working?  (I know...that's technically two questions, but they're related and essential).

Do you have a coaching structure and is it working? Your answer here is very important.  Based on many conversations in churches large and small, contemporary and traditional, seeker-sensitive and otherwise, I've found that most churches admit to having mixed success at best.  And the truth is, even the ones that initially maintain that it's working great fade under any serious cross examination.  Why?  Because it is a tough thing to get right!  That being the case most of the time, let's assume that you have some kind of coaching strategy but you'll admit that it isn't working all that well (if you don't yet have coaches for your small group leaders, hang in, this information will help you too!).

Step One: Assess Your Current Coaching Team

If you have a coaching structure and it isn't working, your first objective will be to assess your current team.  There are at least 7 reasons why coaching fails.  The reasons are almost always related to who your coaching team members are underneath the veneer of their title.  I've found that coaching fails when you have:

  • Coaches in name only: They may have the title, but they're really only place-holders.  You learn that you need one coach for every five small group you recruit a few "coaches" but they're not the right people and they really don't do anything.  Expectations are very low and their work is never seriously inspected.  Symptoms: Small group leaders don't know who their coach is or can't remember the last time they talked.
  • 30-Folds in the place of 100-Folds: This is a very common mistake.  It is a great temptation to use "warm and willing" instead of "hot and qualified," but it is a huge mistake.  I'm using Jesus' "30, 60, and 100 fold" to describe the relative capacity of people.  When you put a 30-fold into a slot you need to realize that they're not going to be able to influence even another 30-fold.  Don't let idealism get in the way of reality.  Symptoms: Leaders aren't drawn to their coach.  No zip to the relationship.
  • 100-folds wearing multiple hats: This is also very common.  You get the right people on the team but don't help them clear their calendar.  Bandwidth is a precious thing.  If you've openly declared small group ministry to be a key to your strategy, you'll need the full attention of these key players focused on this one responsibility.  Symptoms: Coaches aren't clear on what to prioritize.  Leaders don't feel prioritized.
  • Unclear objectives. This works both ways.  Coaches are often unclear about what their role is.  This results in their defaulting to a kind of accountant, checking on whether the group meets, who is in the group, etc.  The flipside is that leaders are also unclear about the role of their coach.  Their most common comment is that they don't need a coach. Symptoms: Leaders don't look forward to connecting with their coach.  It's a chore for both parties.
  • Unrealistic Expectations: This also works both ways.  Many times a new coach is recruited and released into action without anyone preparing the leader.  Because first impressions are so important this results in an unexpected call and results in an insurmountable barrier between the new coach and the leader.  On the flipside, the leader is introduced to their coach but poorly prepared for the coach's involvement.   Thinking that the coach is a watchdog or an accountant when they could be a mentor.  Symptoms: "Who are you?  Why are you calling me?"
  • Poor matches between coaches and leaders: This may be the second most common problem with the whole coaching idea.  I refer to it as "the arbitrary assignment" issue.  Here's the situation: I've got 20 groups and I want to develop a healthy span of care so I recruit 4 coaches and deal out my leaders.  Five for Bob.  Five for Steve.  Five for Joe.  And five for Debbie.  And we're done.  The problem is that it's tough to make a meaningful assignment that way.  It's arbitrary.  Symptoms: The start-up energy is too great and takes too long before actually paying off and seeming like a good investment to either coach or leader.  It's a formality.
  • Time lag between the group's beginning and assigning the coach.  This is the number one problem and the main reason coaching fails.  Without question the easiest time to assign a coach is at the very beginning.  Any time after that only increases the likelihood that the graft won't take.  Once a group has made it through their first 6 to 12 meetings they've figured out most of the very basic coaching issues (how to engage Sue's husband, how to help Bob and Carol to come on time, how to help Bill not dominate, etc.).  The groups that couldn't figure out the basics are dead anyway.  They often don't make it through this season.  The leaders of the groups that do make it have legitimate questions about why they need a coach.  Symptoms: "Why do I need a coach?"

So the question is, "How does your team stack up?"  Do you have the right people in the right place?  Do you have a mix (some of the right people and some that aren't a match)?  Or do you need to rebuild?

Don't dodge the question.  This is a key step and needs your full attention before you move on.

Step Two: Reposition Where Needed

One of the best known principles from Good to Great concerned getting the right people on the bus.  An important part of that principle takes it a step further to make sure that you've got the right people in the right seats on the bus.  The implication is that there will be times that you need to reposition in order to actually win the game you're playing.  If you've clarified the win for this position, and if you've got people in the wrong seats (making it very tough to win), then you'll need to move them to where they can be both fruitful and fulfilled (more on this idea in part three).

So if you've assessed your team.  Let's talk about what comes next.

  1. Develop a short job description that clearly states what a win is for your coaches.  Here's an example of what I use for what I call "launch phase coaches or community leaders".  You'll notice that it's not very specific on the day-to-day responsibilities.  Specifics for these candidates will be covered in their orientation.  They'll also receive a very specific understanding of what a win will be in their orientation and every conversation thereafter.  Once they get through the launch-phase we'll move them to a more formal job description with more detailed explanation of day-to-day responsibilities.
  2. Carefully evaluate your team on the basis of fruitfulness and fulfillment.  You haven't talked with them formally.  This is about forming an opinion on informal conversations (and possibly some interactions you've had with the small group leaders in your ministry).  On the basis of your evaluation you should begin thinking about more suitable ministry opportunities for those coaches that are mismatched with the role.  Remember, the goal for every person ought to be to find a way to serve that is consistent with their SHAPE.
  3. Ask each of your coaches to assess their own fruitfulness and fulfillment.   You're really looking for both.  It may be helpful to have your current coaches read and then think about the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25) as it relates to their work as a coach.  It is possible to be fruitful (at least to a degree) and not fulfilled...but it won't last for long.  It is very possible to be quite fulfilled and not bear any fruit.  Neither condition is desirable.  You want both fruitful and fulfilled.  Those players are in the right seat on the bus.
  4. Schedule a one-on-one opportunity to talk with each of your coaches.  This will be your chance to talk with them individually about how they're feeling about the job they're doing.  At the same time, this is your chance to emphasize the importance of the role of a coach.  The outcome of this meeting should be to affirm and reenlist the coaches that are both fruitful and fulfilled and reposition (or at least begin the process) those coaches who are really in the wrong role.  Is there room for a probationary period for some who might want to continue but aren't currently living up to the responsibility?  Sure.  Just remember that people do what you inspect, not what you expect.  Reinforce the job description, carefully define expectations, and give them a review date.

Short Version? If you want a meaningful coaching structure you will have to work at it.  You'll need to have clear expectations.  You'll need to recruit the right people.  And you'll need to inspect what your coaches are doing.  A coaching structure won't succeed without all three of these elements.  We'll talk about how to recruit coaches in Part Three.

Need additional help?

Take advantage of Building an Effective Coaching Structure - 2019.  It comes complete with 4 video sessions, job descriptions, and other handouts.


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  1. Adam-Small Groups Pastor in MD on March 19, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    I just saw your post on coaching and am about to devour it. I hope it will also encourage my discouragment…

  2. Adam-Small Groups Pastor in MD on March 19, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    This is absolutely great stuff Mark. I am looking forward to part 3. You have given me lots to chew and act on.

  3. Mark Howell on March 20, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Adam, thanks for jumping in to the discussion! Glad it is helping. Be sure and let me know how it’s working in your place.