Agile Coaching 101: How to Get Started and 7 Roles to Master
Agile Coaches work with everyone in an organization, from a Scrum team with junior developers right up to the CEO. They give Agile coaching workshops, help spread agile ways of working, and often help shape the vision and structure of an entire company. And, for all that, the average agile coach in the U.S. takes home a cool $142k per year.
We’ve interviewed several agile coaches to compile the definitive guide on how to get your start as an agile coach.
Here’s everything you need to know, whether you’re shifting gear from Scrum Master to Agile Coach, or starting from scratch!
What is an Agile Coach?
An Agile Coach is an experienced agile practitioner who supports an organization in creating and improving its agile processes and practices. An Agile Coach does this at all levels of a company, working on the micro level with individual teams and on the macro level with executives.
Agile Coaches teach, show, and embody agile values that help companies and their people build an agile culture that’s tailored to their needs.
Agile Coaches may work at organizations on a project basis or on permanent contracts. And they may exist in many different forms.
You may come across an Agile facilitator, Scrum Master, Scrum Coach, iteration manager, Kanban Coach, or Enterprise Agile Coach. All these jobs involve Agile coaching, but there are subtle differences.
⚠️ Most people use the title “Agile Coach” when they operate at multiple levels of an organization, not just the individual team level. That’s also how we use the term in this article.
🎓️ Agile Coach vs Scrum Master: What’s the difference?
The distinction between Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, or even consultants might be difficult to spot at first.
Scrum Masters help teams practice Scrum, whereas Agile Coaches have many different frameworks and methodologies in their toolbox, of which Scrum is just one.
Scrum Masters and other agile team facilitators tend to focus on single teams, or a small handful of them. Whereas Agile Coaches work beyond individual teams – often at a department or organization-wide level. Moving to an agile coaching role takes people out of their “Scrum bubble”, as Agile Coach Season Hughes puts it.
She explains that in Agile coaching you often have to define your own job, whereas the role of a Scrum Master is more clear cut. After all, if the company knew what to do next, it wouldn’t need an Agile Coach.
Why do organizations hire an Agile Coach?
Organizations typically hire agile coaches to transform from Waterfall-based project management to an Agile approach. This kind of organizational change is often triggered by a crisis with a major project or declining business results – often at the hands of “more agile” competitors.
To become “Agile” organizations must fundamentally change how teams work together. It’s one thing to implement practices and processes from frameworks like Scrum, Kanban, or the Spotify model. The harder part is changing employees’ mindsets and the company culture as a whole. That’s exactly what Agile Coaches are hired to do.
Source: Adapted from State of Agile Coaching Report
Another common scenario is when an organization already uses Agile but struggles to make it work or feels it can improve. In such cases, the coach comes in to figure out how to improve working processes and culture.
Getting an Agile Coach is the first of five steps for successful agile implementations because such changeovers hardly work without their help.
7 Agile coaching roles and responsibilities to master
The job description of an agile coach is formidable and explains why they command hefty salaries. There’s no such thing as a “typical day” in the life of an Agile Coach; their responsibilities are too expansive for that.
Agile Coach Ron Quartel’s account of one of his days gives a sense of what it can be like:
“Sometimes I’d be giving workshops or training. Sometimes I’d be sitting in retrospectives or facilitating retrospectives, or listening in or talking with Scrum masters, helping them become better… And when I wasn’t doing that, I’d sit in with developers and actually pair program with them.”
Agile Coaches… support, teach, and learn. They listen but also lead. And they might challenge a seasoned executive today and support a struggling developer tomorrow. They build teams, help set goals, redesign org charts, and coach the entire organization on agile ways of working.
1. Set the vision and goals for an Agile transformation
An Agile Coach’s first job is often to figure out why an organization wants an Agile transformation (or resurrection) and ensure those expectations are reasonable.
Many organizations want to “go Agile” for the wrong reasons:
- A middle manager thinks Scrum is a shortcut to making programmers work faster.
- A startup team has heard Agile does away with processes, deadlines, and bosses.
- And a corporate executive gets sold on a specific agile framework by one of the “Big Four” consultancy firms.
🎓️ Here are some of the right reasons for launching an agile transformation.
An agile coach works with people at all levels in an organization to craft a realistic vision of what agile can do for them. They then create concrete goals to help a company transform in line with that vision.
Source: Long-term goals for agile transformations from the research paper “Agile Transformation in Project Organization: Knowledge Management Aspects and Challenges”.
2. Work on re-designing the organization with agile in mind
The primary objectives of agile include helping organizations learn to adapt and iterate on their work. You can’t achieve those outcomes with a command and control operation.
Agile ways of working usually put the people who do the work in close proximity to decision-making power. This means that overhauling the org structure is often the first step an agile coach works on in an agile transformation.
Re-structuring teams, departments, or companies may involve:
- Redesigning the org chart to make teams autonomous and cross-functional
- Redefining roles and responsibilities of teams and individuals
- Changing processes like meetings, incentives, strategy, and budget planning
An Agile Coach doesn’t unilaterally make these changes. Instead, they coach, mentor, inspire, and teach others to design their organizations in a way that matches the agile values and the goals they’ve set for themselves.
That means some key skills include diplomacy, advocacy, persuasion, and conviction.
As you may imagine, such changes don’t come easy. Managers might push back as they fear for their jobs, while company leaders may still want to monitor and measure the transformation in ways that are incompatible with agile.
“My boss wants to know how we’re going to make this happen. What are the steps? Where will we be by the end of the first quarter? How can we ensure that we’re done on time and on budget?” … There are no Gantt charts in OS transformation (unless you’re okay with a lot of rows that say “try things, learn, iterate”). This realization would not sink in at Control Inc. for a long time… “You want a destination, but what we’re actually doing is starting a pattern of continuous improvement—a habit of getting better every day.”
This work might also involve selecting and recommending tool for the team to use. Whether those are backlog tools or retrospective tools geared towards continuous improvement – like Parabol.
3. Form and boost Agile teams
Agile Coaches operate at higher organizational levels than their team-level counterparts, like Scrum Masters. Yet they must still work closely with teams to make transformation goals and org redesign a reality.
An Agile Coach might help a new team get up and running or support an existing group to improve their agile practices.
Agile Coach Season Hughes starts engagements by asking diagnostic questions, like: “How are team members communicating with each other?” and “Are they being effective in meetings?”
As a coach you may work directly with a team or indirectly by coaching and mentoring other agile practitioners and facilitators.
4. Manage relationships – and sometimes politics
Organizations consist of people, and their interactions are what shape and change it.
Now, imagine interactions as cars, with relationships as their roads – without relationships, interactions can’t happen. Agile Coaches need to talk with many people across an organization, so they must be expert relationship builders.
Building such connections with folks at all levels of an organization goes beyond simply having good communication skills. Agile Coaches need to get buy-in from skeptical stakeholders. They may also need to win over managers to give up their powers and convince demotivated team members that the agile transformation can work.
Such challenges mean Agile Coaches must demonstrate a lot of empathy and be able to build trust and inspire others. And if all that wasn’t enough to ask for, Agile Coaches sometimes need to manage the dark side of relationships: politics.
Every organization that needs to evolve includes some people who want to keep the status quo. They might even be the very reason why no change happens. Such folks rarely receive an Agile Coach warmly. These people might wield considerable power and could actively sabotage the agile transformation if they feel threatened by it.
Winning over skeptics or in some cases dealing with this dissent is part of Agile coaching, too.
5. Spread the “agile mindset”
Building an Agile organization requires everyone to not just learn new roles and processes but also new ways of thinking. One of the things coaches often refer to as “adopting an Agile mindset”.
Agile coaches play an instrumental role in helping teams and organizations make a mindset shift.
But changing people’s minds is difficult. While adopting an “agile mindset” sounds fuzzy, it’s accurate in that to be Agile, people need to change their fundamental beliefs about their work and each other.
Many Agile teams are “self-managing”, which means managers need to trust the judgments of their reports, while those team members suddenly feel the burden of responsibility for their decisions and actions. Not everyone is ready for the more democratized decision-making that Agile encourages.
And while managers might be uncomfortable letting go of their power, they’re not the only ones who can feel at a loss. Here’s how Ron describes his first agile experience as a programmer after his manager told him to start pair programming at one desk with a junior teammate:
Why do I want to sit over there at a pairing station next to someone else? I can’t listen to music.” So I’m thinking there’s a loss. “Why do I want to work with a junior developer? I’m a senior. That’s just going to slow me down,” so there’s a sense of loss. “I don’t write bugs. The junior writes bugs and I fix them.” Again, a sense of loss. So Agile, there was no reason for me to do it, right?
Agile Coaches move across the entire organization, coaching and mentoring both leaders and team members to uncover and overcome their fears and resistance to change. Sometimes they do this by working directly with managers and teams. But often they do this indirectly by coaching and mentoring Scrum Masters and other agile ambassadors.
@lockedonagile Making changes is a process! #agilecoach #scrumtok #agile #scrum #communication #transformation #growth #tech #change #goals ♬ original sound – Jordan Locke
Jordan Locke on TikTok explaining how she helps teams change.
6. Build an iterative agile culture
Bureaucracy is the opposite of Agile, and it results from processes gone stale. If all an Agile transformation achieves is rewriting an organization’s procedures one time and then never reassessing them, soon everyone ends up in the same predicament as before. For an organization to stay Agile, it needs to learn how to reinvent and iterate on its processes.
The ultimate test of whether you’ve established a self-renewing agile culture is whether the coach is still necessary to move the transformation along or if they can move on to other organizations or challenges to solve.
As Agile Coach Rebecca Sassine told us:
“You generally want the coaching to stop. The whole thing you’re doing is making yourself redundant because that means you’ve created a self-sufficient team.”
7. Facilitate agile meetings
As is probably clear by now, agile coaches spend a great deal of their time communicating with a great number of people to do their work. Most of that communication happens in meetings.
Agile coaches sit in on meetings, and they facilitate every type you can think of: individual and team coaching sessions, Scrum events in which they act as Scrum Master, group workshops about Agile topics, strategy sessions with executives, event storming, mediations, and more.
Here, for example, is a list of regular meetings Agile Coach Jordan Locke has:
- Facilitating daily standups with a team in Sweden (early morning for her)
- Hosting or sitting in on other Scrum events from engineering teams she’s involved in
- Recurring meetings with their customer success team to help their sales teams transition to agile practices
- A few one-on-ones with junior team members who want to learn more about agile
- One-on-ones with senior developers on product strategy
- A regular team meeting with other agile coaches in the company
🎓️ If you’re looking for practical tips on how to improve your meetings, check out Improve any Meeting with Agile Thinking.
How to become an Agile Coach
Nobody turns into an Agile Coach overnight. Getting the experience, skills, and stamina required takes years – and don’t forget about the recommended Agile certifications.
There’s no one right route to the position, but we’ve outlined some of the most common pathways.
Start as a Scrum Master, project manager, or other coach
The best starting point is a role that requires you to develop the skills you’ll need as an Agile Coach but at a smaller scale.
Starting out as a Scrum Master is the obvious choice since you’ll do much of what an agile coach does with a single team. And you’ll learn agile’s most popular framework – Scrum.
Even though you focus on one framework and one group, you’ll get to interact with other stakeholders on behalf of the team when there are impediments. Such challenges help you practice the relationship and org-building skills you’ll need as an agile coach.
“When I hire for Scrum Masters, I’m looking for someone who brings a coaching mindset, facilitation experience, an understanding of different frameworks and practices, the ability to build trust and safety, and who can articulate what it means to have influence without authority.”Season Hughes in How Do I Get Started?
If a Scrum Master role isn’t available to you, look for an opening as an agile project manager or coach.
Season says agile coaching is the hardest thing to learn as it can only come from practice:
“What you have to practice are things like removing your biases, approaching from a lens of diversity, coming from a place of invitation… whereas you can go and take a class and get certified in Kanban or SAFe.”
…or as a Software Engineer
Another typical route is from Software Engineer, to Scrum Master, to Agile Coach. This path gives you the knowledge to ask the right questions and understand what’s going on when development teams have discussions – or disagreements – on technical matters.
As a former software engineer, you have access to greater understanding of the needs of other engineers when approaching your coaching work.
Get curious and keep on learning
You’ll need to have the skills, experience, and passion for dealing with all the roles, responsibilities, and activities we’ve encountered.
But you also require what Ron Quartel calls “your own theory and strength of conviction” about Agile and all its frameworks, plus other relevant subjects, like product management, technical topics, and different philosophies on leadership, collaboration, and organizational design.”
You can’t obtain such a breadth of knowledge from a cold, professional interest. You’ll need to have a burning curiosity about these topics and see learning about them as a privilege, not a pain.
The ultimate test is to ask yourself: Would it feel like work or fun to read a book about these topics on a Sunday afternoon? 🤓
Acquire Agile coaching certifications
Eighty-six percent of Agile Coaches have Agile certifications, and most organizations require them when hiring.
The State of Agile Coaching Report divides these certifications into two categories:
1. Professional certifications:
This refers to those certifications that require an agile professional to demonstrate a moderate level of experience, for example, the Scrum Alliance CSP®, ICAgile ICP-ACC, International CoachFederation PCC, or ScaledAgile SP certifications.
2. Master certifications:
This refers to those certifications that require a significant demonstration of competence and experience at the peak of someone’s career, for example, the Scrum Alliance CTCSM or CECSM, ICAgile ICE-AC, International Coach Federation MCC, or ScaledAgile SPCT certification.
Many coaches also have certifications in other areas besides agile. Below is a chart from the State of Agile Coaching Report showing the most common types of certificates agile coaches have.
Expect these salaries and working arrangements
Forty-four percent of coaches, like Season and Ron, work as freelancers. They have fixed-length projects (typically from several months to a year) and get to work with different companies and people. While 56% of others, work in-house.
Both arrangements have pros and cons. Freelancers have variety but also experience more pressure to get results and to find new projects when the current one ends.
An in-house Agile Coach can build deeper relationships and focus on long-term projects and solutions. They don’t have to worry much about where the next project will come from, and often their employer pays for ongoing training. The downside is that they’re stuck with the same organization and people for much longer, so you’d better have nice co-workers.
Agile Coach salaries
According to Glassdoor, in March 2022, the median annual salary for Agile Coaches was $142,542 in the U.S. Wages go up further for those with titles like Senior Agile Coach ($158,068) and Enterprise Agile Coach ($170,063). In comparison, a Scrum Master makes on average $110,797 per year in the U.S.
🎓️ Another insight from the State of Agile Coaching Report is that coaches at companies new to agile tend to make less than those at mature agile organizations.
So you still want to be an agile coach?
Agile coaching isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve made it this far and are still on board, it just might be the job for you.
The role is exciting and fulfilling, but only if you love challenges, people, and the unpredictable.
And it requires deep knowledge of human psychology but also multiple Agile frameworks that you can’t fake or master with a single course.
You’ll have to live Agile for years in many different situations and then still want to keep improving yourself continuously. The job requires a rare combination of humility and self-confidence in the right amounts, topped off with empathy and business sense.
Here’s a summary of what you’ll need to cover to go for the role:
- Gain as much experience as you can in Scrum Master, Agile facilitator, or project management roles.
- Pay attention to and connect with the broader organizational environment in your existing role.
- Practice as a coach with anyone willing to receive your coaching and connect with other Agile Coaches to understand their journey.
- Invest in your professional development by reading about Agile, doing training, learning product management basics, organizational design, and other management approaches.
- Find a mentor who can help you understand whether you’re ready yet, and coach you in areas to improve.
- Take your first shot at applying for an Agile coaching role!
Agile Coach Jordan Locke offers a last piece of advice if you embark on this route:
“In an interview, you should ask, ‘Am I the only person who is going to be an agile evangelist?’ Because you want to make sure that leadership is supporting this transformation. Otherwise, it’s just going to be an uphill battle and you’re going to be frustrated every single day. It’s important to have support.”
No matter how much you prepare, you’ll need a bit of luck to find an organization that trusts you to lead its agile transformation.
But once you do, you’ll be in a uniquely exciting position to make a positive change for many people while doing what you love.