Learn Your Own Way: Thoughts on a Journey to Becoming a Certified Agile Coach

If these next few hundred words have any impact on you, I hope it’s this: There is no right way to become a Certified Agile Coach® through Scrum Alliance®. There is only your way.

Sure, the application has specific requirements for hours spent coaching, years of coaching experience, number and variety of coaching tools, techniques and frameworks; but none of those things–or anything else in the application—are prescribed to you. How you get to those requirements is up to you.

As I write these words, the Scrum Alliance Certificant Directory lists 128 Certified Enterprise Coaches (CECSM) and 181 Certified Team Coaches (CTCSM) world-wide. Not a single one of us followed the same path as any other coach in that list. Some started as developers. Some as project managers. Others as executives. Some, like me, started as UX professionals. How and wherever we started, each of us took different paths on our way to becoming Certified Agile Coaches–just as you and those who follow you will take your own.

How I Got Here

Like many agilists my age, the publication of the Agile Manifesto for Software Development was an earth-shattering event. Suddenly, after years of leading software development teams and drowning in monstrous requirements documents, ever-changing scopes of work, cost overruns, and missed deadlines, there was a brand new blueprint that humanized the work and imagined a different world for development teams.

Fast forward a number of years and numerous flirtations with many agile practices and frameworks and I had another earth-shattering experience. This time it was reading Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins. Just like the Agile Manifesto before it, Coaching Agile Teams completely reinvisioned the way that teams could and should work together. It was my first introduction to the role of Agile Coach and how the role could play a critical part in a team’s and an organization’s success.

After reading the book, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the ups and downs and successes and failures of the teams I worked on over the years. I realized that most of the times my teams didn’t succeed wasn’t because they lacked the skills or understanding necessary. It was because their organizations and teams weren’t designed or didn’t behave in ways to enable their success. A personal transformation was taking place. I was becoming more interested in designing great work environments than designing great products. I learned that becoming a Certified Agile Coach was my new path.

That was 2015 and my journey intensified with studying, reading, meeting, practicing, and slowly building my vision of what an Agile Coach should be. In February of 2021, I reached my goal: earning both Certified Enterprise Coach and Certified Team Coach certifications.

And while I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished and very thankful for those who have helped me, I know that my agile journey is far from over.

What I Learned

I’ve learned a lot about myself over these last six years. Most significantly, I’ve learned that to be a better coach, you have to be a better person. I’m fond of saying that the roles of Scrum Master and Agile Coach make you a better person. If they don’t, then you’re not doing it right.

Here are a few other important things I learned that may help you on your journey:

The Medium Is the Message

Don’t be intimidated by the Scrum Alliance CEC or CTC applications. Yes, they ask a lot of you, but take a closer look. Inside those questions are the instructions for how to become an Agile Coach. There are questions about experience, tools, frameworks, opinions, and philosophies. And within each of them, you are given the opportunity to show not just your knowledge, but also who you are as a person and how you may show up as a coach.

Don’t think of the questions as a test that must be answered correctly, but as opportunities to build your foundation as an Agile Coach. Each question is a brick in that foundation. You may have all of the bricks you’ll need. You may not. But you’ll never know until you spend time getting to know the application and becoming familiar with your vision of you as an Agile Coach. Relating that vision to reviewers is the key to a successful application.

Learn How to Express Yourself

Your reviewers will be looking for a viewpoint—your particular vision of agile coaching. And while you may have very strong opinions about your areas of understanding, being able to tell that story in a relatable way is another matter altogether.

I highly recommend joining a mentoring/coaching program designed to help CEC/CTC applicants better understand the application process. There are many out there. Some are free. Others have fees attached. Either way, working in a cohort or one on one with a certified coach will help sharpen your vision and your ability to tell your story.

There are more than 30 Scrum Alliance CTC and CEC mentors and programs to choose from.

The Process Is Meant for Growth

Even if you don’t have all of the foundational bricks necessary, the process won’t end with a rejection. No door will be slammed in your face. Your reviewers will take the time to give feedback on both your strengths and weaknesses. They’ll ask for clarity on some questions and provide praise for others. They won’t hold your hand and do the work for you, but they will guide you as you seek to shore up your application.

While CEC and CTC may feel like clubs with an elite membership, the process isn’t designed to create the greatest number of rejections. It’s designed to create the greatest Agile Coaches. Listen to the feedback, do the work, and you will grow.

Ask for Help / Give Help

You can’t complete this journey on your own. Along the way, you will need teachers, mentors, and friends to help you shed light on unknowns and reaffirm your strengths. I can list more than 20 people who had a major impact on my ability to achieve this certification.

Get to know more people. The application requires involvement within the agile community. That community is an invaluable resource. Get out there and get to know them all, both beginners and experts alike. You never know who will be able to help you take that next step.

Give as you receive. If you’re considering becoming a Certified Agile Coach, you probably already know a lot about agile coaching. You might not have that certification yet, but you’re a lot farther along than most others in the community. Be generous with your knowledge and experience just as you are asking others to be generous with theirs. One of the best ways to sharpen your opinions and practices is by sharing them with others.

How Does All of This Relate to Your CEC Journey?

While I started the article by saying that no two CECs have taken the same agile journey, I’ve also tried to highlight the commonalities we all share.

We were all once not Certified Agile Coaches.

We all had people whom we helped and who helped us.

We all went through similar application processes.

We all had no idea whether we could do it or not.

We could. We did, and so can you.

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