February 17


What the heck is team coaching?

Google’s secret weapon?

Bill Campbell

When Google hired Eric Schmidt as CEO, investor John Doerr advised him to bring in Bill Campbell in as his coach.

Eric was sceptical. He was an impressive top-performer. He’d been CEO of Novell and CTO of Sun, and he held a string of impressive academic credentials (BS, MS, PhD). Did he really need a coach?

The answer turned out to be yes. Within the year, Eric wrote:

“Bill Campbell has been very helpful in coaching all of us. In hindsight, his role was needed from the beginning. I should have encouraged this structure sooner, ideally the moment I started at Google.”

For fifteen years, Bill met with Eric, Larry Page, Jonathan Rosenberg and several other Google leaders just about every week.

Fairly classic behaviour for ambitious leaders, you might say. But there’s a twist.


  • He didn’t just coach the execs one-on-one.
  • He coached the executive team, as a team.

Campbell attended Eric’s staff meeting every week, and during and between these sessions he made sure the team was communicating, that tensions and disagreements were surfaced and addressed, so that everyone was on board for big decisions even when they disagreed.

It was coaching the team, in situ, to create the highest possible value from working together.

Bill Campbell’s story has been documented by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg in the book “Trillion Dollar Coach”. The book clearly shows how Bill’s coaching of the Google exec team - as a collective unit - propelled them to new heights.

They conclude:

“without a doubt, Bill Campbell was one of the people most integral to Google’s success. Without him, the company would not be where it is today.”

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and whilst systemic team coaching has emerged as a powerful and recognised discipline, it remains below the radar for many leaders.

That’s a shame, because it’s one the the most powerful ways to improve the performance of a team.

In this article, we’re going to de-mystify systemic team coaching and look at:

  • what it is and what are the benefits
  • how it compares with other leadership development options such as team building, one-to-one coaching, or process facilitation

What is systemic team coaching?

Peter Hawkins, in his helpful book Leadership Team Coaching, describes systemic team coaching in the following way:

Systemic team coaching is a process by which a team coach works with a whole team, both when they are together and when they are apart, in order to help them improve both their collective performance and how they work together, and also how they develop their collective leadership to more effectively engage with all their key stakeholder groups to jointly transform the wider business.

Specifically, we can pull out these aspects of team coaching:

  • With a whole team: Team coaching involves not just coaching individuals, but the whole entity.
  • Both when they are together and when they are apart: The team needs to act as a team during its meetings, but perhaps more importantly during the 90% of the week where the team are representing the team in their own parts of the business or engaging stakeholders.
  • In order to help them improve both their collective performance and how they work together: Team coaching not only helps create process improvement but also helps drive the collective performance of the team.
  • Develop their collective leadership: High-performing leadership teams use their time together as a team to develop their collective capacity to spend the rest of the week leading the business in a joined-up way.
  • To more effectively engage with all their key stakeholder groups: Central to the focus of systemic team coaching is how the team engages its various stakeholders in a cohesive, aligned and transformational manner.
  • To jointly transform the wider business: It’s no longer sufficient to simply respond to the changing context. The team must identify how to influence the wider business and larger context in which they operate.

An example of team coaching in action

I recently worked with a senior team in the pharmaceuticals sector. As we reviewed their stakeholder environment and how that would impact the team’s success, the team generated a succession of “aha” moments:

  • stakeholder expectations were conflicting (the team would need to work with this tension)
  • any major breakthroughs would come through partnering more closely with external stakeholders (rather than continuing to focus on internal operational concerns)
  • the team’s communications with internal stakeholders was fragmented and uncoordinated, limiting the team’s ability to make their voice heard at the very top level of the corporation

The coaching session resulted in a significant and permanent “identity shift” for the team: we’re not an operational oversight board (and in fact we need to delegate those aspects to our sub-teams) - we’re an influencing entity that needs to shape the stakeholder landscape if we have any hope of achieving our five year plan.

In a nutshell

As we’ve seen, team coaches help the entire team to play a bigger and more impactful role in the organisation’s success through a process of enquiry and dialogue, through which the team will:

  • Pinpoint the need to improve/change in certain areas
  • Motivate themselves to set and own improvement targets
  • Plan how to achieve those targets
  • Identify new behaviours/skills they will require
  • Create opportunities to practise the desired skills/behaviours
  • Reflect on their successes and failures, and course correct

Team coaching in a nutshell


  • collective awareness & insight leads to
  • collective understanding & choices, leads to
  • relationships & processes, leads to
  • collective performance


  • the team
  • within the system
  • for the present and long term future

Systemic team coaching is a process by which a team coach works with a whole team, both when they are together and when they are apart, in order to help them improve both their collective performance and how they work together...

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What systemic team coaching isn’t: comparing the alternatives

It’s easy to confuse systemic team coaching with other team-related and development-related activities. Let’s briefly review the difference between team coaching and:

One-to-one coaching vs. Team coaching

One-to-one coaching
Team coaching

One-to-one coaching vs. Team coaching

Individual executive coaching is a standard practice, and well documented to be an effective tool for improving leadership skills of all types.

The limitation of this model comes when the “new, improved, leader” engages with their team (either the team they lead or the leadership team they’re a part of).

The executive may have changed, but the team has not, and its not easy for one individual, single-handedly, to change the overall dynamic of the group.

Putting it another way, the team culture is likely to pull the individual back to the status quo; rather than the individual being the catalyst for dramatic change at the group level.

Team coaching, however, engages the whole team in dialogue and helps the team to collectively reimagine the team’s overall sense of purpose, identity, desirable behaviours, roadblocks to overcome, etc.. In this way the whole team leaves changed, rather than just one component.

In practice, individual and team coaching both play a part; it’s not uncommon to coach the leader and the team, for example.

One-to-one coaching in a nutshell:


  • individual awareness & insight leads to 
  •  individual understanding & choices leads to
  • individual behaviours leads to
  • individual performance


  • the leader within the system for the present and long term future

One-to-one coaching versus team coaching - 3 distinctions:

  • Whereas one-to-one coaching helps optimise the leader’s achievement, team coaching helps optimise team and individual achievement
  • Whereas one-to-one coaching focuses on leadership behaviours, team coaching focuses on internal and external team dynamics
  • Whereas one-to-one coaching relies on the executives own perspective (supplemented by stakeholder interviews and surveys), team coaching gets to observe and address many real-world team dynamics firsthand.

Group coaching vs. Team coaching

Group coaching
Team coaching

Group coaching vs. Team coaching

Group coaching is the coaching of individuals within a group.

The group members take turns to be the focal client (and bring current challenges they are facing to be coached on by the other members of the set and, where present, the set facilitator). The other group members become part of the coaching resource for that person (they, along with the facilitator/coach, coach the individual in the ‘hot seat’).

In group coaching, often there is more of an emphasis on the individual; the focus is on supporting individuals in being the best they can be in addressing their work challenges.

Group coaching can also be carried out in the context of a team, where the individuals being coached are all members of the same team.

However, group coaching fundamentally different from team coaching, for in team coaching the primary client is the whole team, rather than the individual team members.

Group coaching in a nutshell:


  • individual awareness & insight leads to
  • individual understanding & choices leads to
  • individual behaviours leads to
  • individual performance


  • individuals within the system for the present and long term future

Group coaching versus team coaching - 3 distinctions:

  • Whereas group coaching coaches individuals one-by-one, team coaching coaches the team as a whole
  • Whereas group coaching focuses on individual insights and behaviours, team coaching focuses on collective and individual insights and behaviours
  • Whereas group coaching may involve individuals from one team or many, team coaching works with a team its in entirety.

Team building vs. Team coaching

Team building
Team coaching

Team building vs. Team coaching

Team building aims to create opportunities for team members to reaffirm commitment, to build respect and trust with their colleagues and to align around common goals.

The evidence suggests that team building does improve relationships between team members, but this does not necessarily translate into sustained productivity or performance gains - especially when newcomers enter the team and the process needs to be restarted.

In addition, team building is often a (very) occasional activity, separated by long intervals of “work as normal”. So while the deeper interpersonal issues that create fault-lines within the team are temporarily addressed, they gradually reemerge and find expression in other ways. By contrast, frequent coaching dialogue progressively addresses deeper issues to prevent symptoms recurring.

Team building in a nutshell:


  • relationships leads to
  • collaboration leads to
  • performance


  • within the team for the present and near future

Team building versus team coaching - 3 distinctions:

  • Whereas team building only focuses on collaboration, team coaching also includes team task effectiveness and team learning
  • Whereas team building only focuses on internal team relationships, team coaching expands the scope to all stakeholder relationships
  • Whereas team building activities are unrelated to the work task at hand, team coaching keeps the focus very much on the team’s objectives.

Team facilitation vs. Team coaching

Team facilitation 
Team coaching

Team facilitation vs. Team coaching

The role of team facilitator is often confused with that of a team coach (who might, indeed, use facilitation skills on occasion).

The purpose of facilitation is to structure the team’s dialogue to help them reach complex or difficult decisions. The facilitator is focused on process.

In contrast, the purpose of coaching is to empower the team to manage its own dialogue to enhance its capability and performance. The coach is focused on creating a space for fresh understanding and insights to emerge.

Team facilitation in a nutshell:


  • process leads to
  • decisions leads to
  • performance


  • specific decisions or problems to be solved

Team facilitation versus team coaching - 3 distinctions:

  • Whereas team facilitation only focused on process support, team coaching provides intellectual, emotional and practical support
  • Whereas team facilitation follows the facilitator’s structure, team coaching encourages the team to develop its own structure and thereby take responsibility
  • Whereas team facilitation helps reach agreement on team direction and methods, team coaching helps optimise team and individual achievement.

Team training vs. Team coaching

Team training
Team coaching

Team training vs. Team coaching

A team coach might bring a model, a framework or an idea to the team, or work with the team on developing specific process skills - but there’s a difference between team training and coaching.

Team training is generally done “to the team” with a fixed agenda and set of learning objectives, and is generally a short-term intervention (a few hours, a day, or so - perhaps spread over a couple of sessions).

Team coaching, however, is done “with the team” and skills development is less of a transfer of knowledge than a conversation with the team around how to embed specific new behaviours that the team agrees are desirable. It’s more of a trial-and-error approach, with the team taking responsibility for its learning, and which results in more ownership and commitment to the new behaviours.

Team training in a nutshell:


  • information leads to
  • new behaviours leads to
  • performance


  • specific pre-agreed topic

Team training versus team coaching - 3 distinctions:

  • Whereas team training delivers the knowledge necessary for specific skills, team coaching helps identify which skills are truly needed
  • Whereas team training tends to be an information transfer from the trainer, team coaching presents ideas and frameworks and lets the team explore and internalise them
  • Whereas team training focuses on something to be learned, team coaching helps the team engage with how it learns, and how it can improve its learning.

Summary: coaching the team is a way to optimise the overall impact of the team within its organisational context

As complexity rises, the impact of individuals in firms is declining and the impact of teams is rising.

This in turn creates a whole set of challenges as teams wrestle with how to maximise their performance in a context of high expectations, limited resources, and plenty of pressure.

Systemic team coaching helps an entire team engage with the structural issues that are limiting its performance, and find creative ways to overcome these challenges or look at things in a new light to find new opportunities.

Unlike the other modalities (team building, facilitation, etc.) team coaching addresses the overall impact of the team within its environment, and is impactful because it incorporates all of the following factors:

  • real time: based on the real challenges that need to be resolved
  • transformative: not just leading to new insights and good intentions, but new actions and behaviours
  • relational: where attention is given not only to the individuals changing but also to changing the relationships between them
  • collaborative: helping leaders focus on collective team impact
  • stakeholder-aware: incorporating the expectations and challenges from other interested parties
  • future-focused: addressing assumptions, mindsets and patterns that have been successful in the past but need to be left aside for the next season

The results of this holistic approach to raising the level of team performance are often transformational.

Bill Campbell made such an impact on Google because he wasn't just coaching the leaders, he was catalysing change in the entire executive team.

Systemic team coaching is a game-changer for any team operating in complexity. If you’re curious as to how systemic team coaching might help your own leadership team multiply its impact and increase its performance, please get in touch.

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  • Create a cohesive and high-performing leadership team. Our team coaching approach focuses in on the critical few shifts that will make the biggest difference to your team's performance.  We start with a quick discovery process and take it from there.
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