Crossing the Bridge

An Evolutionary Bridge

Following two decades as a both an educator and practitioner of executive coaching and leadership development, I found myself at place of deeper self-examination and professional maturity, questioning how to best leverage my wisdom and experience into the next coaching evolution.  As a metaphorical frame for this blog post, I modify a familiarly sounding proverb:  When the executive coach is ready, the team development bridge appears.  In acknowledgment, the structural support that has both expertly and securely guided me to cross this bridge has been the 6 Team Conditions framework.

My purpose in writing this piece is to share with you a few reflections on what I have been learning from the 6 Team Conditions that continues to inform, deepen and elevate my work as a team development practitioner who honors the science and art of great collaboration.

Coaching Context Matters

In a team meeting last week with a graduate level coach educator-practitioner, we engaged in a strategic discussion as to next generation’s needs from coach education and training as influenced by marketplace conditions, intensified by the globally existential context of Covid19.  Increasingly evident seemed to be the notion that organizational leadership is seeking an expanded coaching role and scope of practice beyond the one-on-one models that heretofore have been useful yet no longer sufficient to meet the gravity of the collective challenges we face into the next decade.   Organizations are increasingly interested in scaling coaching to broaden collaborative capabilities while reaching greater numbers of stakeholders for increased impact in faster time frames.  This has been evidenced in the marketplace by the growth and expansion of programs for internal coaching, managerial coaching, team coaching, peer consultation and coaching cultures.  Given that context, how does the 1:1 coach grow mindset to expand their coaching capability for greater impact?

Conditions-Thinking Shifts

In crossing the bridge from Executive Coach to Team Development Professional, I owe much of my current thinking to the science and research behind the 6 Team Conditions framework.  It has given me cause for pause in rethinking my team leader and team engagement designs for smarter preparation, intention and strategy.   I share with you a few key highlights along this reflective journey.

  1. Not for Naught

When I entered the team coaching field, my initial thinking was that I was going to have to start anew by re-careering from years of 1:1 executive coaching work to team coaching and facilitation. What I discovered was that much of my executive and organizational coach experience was directly transferable, valued and instantly relevant in this new space.  Engaging with a team also requires the ability to work in partnership alongside the team’s leader, with a coach’s skilled and trained capability for content and person empathic listening, understanding and questioning.  I realized that a team engagement may not always be best delivered with me leading from the front as team coach, facilitating and directing the team’s process, though instead, in some cases, that my talents may be better leveraged in the behind-the-scenes coaching that I can do with the team leader in helping them to become a better coach, facilitator and expansive leader of their own team.

  1. Team Diagnostic Survey (TDS)

In almost all my executive coaching engagements, I’m asked to conduct an initial multi-rater and/or psychometric leadership tool to establish a datapoint baseline for assessment of key competencies, leadership style and personality profile.  Using a formal instrument provides an objective and contextual starting point to build rapport, establish initial coaching goals and anchor our work in organizational and leadership relevance.  With the 6 Team Conditions, having a scientifically grounded and academically researched diagnostic assessment of the team’s strengths and development areas provides me with a team-level quantitative and qualitative unit of analysis while establishing early and quick credibility with the team. Another gem in this assessment is that it informs the design aspects of my work with teams, bridging the science with the art of team coaching.

  1. Conditions for Work

Embedded within the 6 Conditions framework is a treasure trove of coaching questions and exercise avenues for exploration with both the team leader and their team.  The 6 Conditions framework prompts deeper design and structural reflection for a variety of essential work we can do to help ground team purpose in a compelling, clear and consequential direction.  In utilizing the 6 Team Conditions toolkit, I can help the team appreciate and expand its perspective diversity through creation of a representative metaphor or clarification of teamwork preferences.  If the team is sufficiently grounded in its Essentials, we can look to Enabling Conditions for performance acceleration and lift through building a more supportive organizational context using stakeholder mapping and inviting representative voices external to the team through stakeholder chairing.  Establishing a team charter harnesses the team in a one-page Sound Structure that summarizes the team’s six conditions as a compass to guide behavior, direction and decision making.

  1. Structure Drives Behavior

Over the years, much of the executive coaching work I have been asked to do has been in the realm of behavioral coaching.  Not uncommon is the call that comes to me from the HR Business Partner who characterizes ‘the problem’ as the team leader having an abrasive management style or personality profile that needed reshaping, refitting and in some cases, transformation.  What I never considered before within a team was the possibility for an authority attribution error.  Could the problem be structural in the way the team was set up, perhaps with an unclear purpose that was causing the team leader to micromanage, or without the team not knowing what type of team it was designed to be (leader-led, self-managing, self-designing, self-governing), thereby throwing confusion and tension into its understanding of authority level and decision making scope?  The 6 Conditions framework has furnished me with added insight into a functional model of leadership, allowing me to understand and appreciate that leadership can be designed to be shared and realized by whomever is best suited (be that party internal or external to the team) to fulfill that function, which may not always be the team leader.

  1. A Role Repertoire

One of appealing aspects in becoming a Team Development Professional is that is has given me permission to be more explicit and expansive in the portfolio of services that I can offer to the client beyond the one-to-one executive coach role.  The scientific rigor of the 6 Conditions framework stimulates my intellectual curiosity and challenge by stepping into the analyst and consultant role when debriefing the Team Diagnostic Survey.  Partnering with the team leader to explore the arch of a potential team intervention taps into my creative designer.  When convening a team retreat, meeting or sprint, I can alternate roles of facilitator, coach and coach supervisor to bring the highest add value within a dynamic and emergent process.

  1. Leadership by Design

One of my earlier careers was as an instructor of theatrical improvisation for eight years to professional actors in New York.  Seemingly paradoxical, I would often spend considerable time to prepare and design the lesson plan for the most optimal improvisation to occur.  What I discovered was that my thoughtful pre-design and structural considerations gave rise to some of the richest theatrical, improvisational scene work.  I was host to a dynamic classroom where psychological safety promoted increased risk taking and defined structure provided an ensemble’s freedom of expression.  It was an environment inspired by prepared spontaneity.  Similarly, team effectiveness and leadership are hardly accidental occurrences.   Whether applying a punctuated equilibrium within a team’s life cycle or balancing coaching between structural support and emergent process, the importance of thoughtful design and its potential for intentional, positive impact cannot be underestimated.

It is not only what we do,

but also what we do not do,

for which we are accountable.


— by David Matthew Prior

Three Word Coach

Less is more. 

Respect for Coaching

Having been deeply engaged in the professional coaching field for over 20 years, I have been a student, teacher and trainer of multiple competencies, frameworks, models, and practices each aimed at improving a coach’s capability to become a master listener, reflector, questioner, communicator and change partner.  Each of these pedagogies can be traced to years of painstaking research rooted in professional disciplines such as psychology, education, management theory, neuroscience, and adult education – to name a few!

A Research Experiment

One of my research experiments in coaching has sprung from the field of improvisation.  Before landing upon coaching, my career journey spontaneously bumped along its merry way – from resort hotel desk clerk to an international MBA degree to Texas Trust Officer to conservatory trained actor to New York City instructor of improvisational theatre.   Improvisation held an 8-year space in my world before crossing into the field of coaching.  From that time, I have made intermittent inquiries into bridging backgrounds: how could I bring the discovery, spontaneity and power of improvisation to coaching?  How could coaching be simplified in such a way so that people who study coaching be able to sense more sharply, listen more deeply, question more concisely, message more meaningfully and become more present?

In Three Words

When I taught theatrical improvisation in New York, I discovered another form of improvisation that was not the typical fare of comedy improv which often focused on being fast (pacing), furious (high energy) and funny (make the audience laugh).  In the scenes that I directed, a wonderous new world of improvisation opened in oppositional aspects which embraced going slow (cadence), being centered (stillness) and heightening the dramatic (attending to the truth and moments of tension that existed between two players).  One way to bring these improvised scenarios to life was to ask the players to play the scene, though limit all verbal communications between one another to just three words – no more, no less.  What ensued were scenes no longer filled with frenetic moves, extraneous dialog or imposed narrative, but instead, emergent theatrical moments in time which offered idiosyncratic behavior, intriguing subtext, and deeper truths.  You could not have scripted what we saw created spontaneously between individuals on the levels of dramatic intensity, unrestricted play and vulnerable transmission of the human condition.   Simple three-word phrases took on nuanced and metaphorical meaning which stirred the intrapersonal and interpersonal relationship.  Three- word responses tapped into cognitive, emotional and somatic significance: “I am home.”  “There’s something missing.”  “You are right.”

Three Word Coach

The three-word concept became my improvisational bridge to coaching.  I began to weave the three-word scene concept into my speaking and training windows with students of coaching.  In offering public coaching demonstration sessions at global conferences with me as the ‘Three Word Coach’, I would begin by telling the volunteer client that I am to start our session by speaking normally (i.e., no word count restrictions), though eventually, as we advance the conversation, I will incrementally reduce the number of words I am using (e.g., from unlimited, to seven to five and then to three).  From this initiative, we (me, the client and the audience) noticed the coach’s move to three words began to increase the aliveness in the coaching conversation and transform the nature of the relationship.  I was offering less, in a simpler way, to produce more – more time for the client to talk and self-discover, more cogent communication from the coach, and more truth, spontaneity and organic play within the coaching partnership.  The simplicity behind of the coach’s contribution seemed to move the conversation forward, yielding greater impact.  For example: “You seem perplexed.” “What’s your goal?” “Action is beckoning.”

Validated by Google

This is my first blog from a man with three names – David Matthew Prior.  I was Google-validated today before sitting down to write as I entered in the search bar ‘the power of three’ and came across:  The Rule of Three, or Power of Three, suggests that things that come in threes are funnier, more satisfying, more effective, and/or more memorable, than other numbers of things.  Hence, I’m duly encouraged to bring this world forward a bit more.  As the song says, we’ve only just begun.

Please stay tuned.