At a coaching event held a number of years ago, the term ‘coaching culture’ was used in every conversation about coaching by, it seemed, everyone. If we were to have rung a bell every time the term was used, it would have sounded like the Lutine Bell was rolling down the staircase of the Shard.
By Sam Humphrey and Karen Dean
As eclectic coaches, we believe that there is no one right way to coach. Indeed, coaching is not always the best solution for any given situation.
As Daniel Goleman’s work on organisational climate shows, great leaders have a mix of leadership styles and it’s this which positively impacts culture.
As experienced coaching consultants, researchers and practitioners, we hold this view firmly. So, we’re curious about the Utopian appeal a coaching culture seems to hold for organisations. We’ve noticed that this term is growing in use, particularly in professional services firms, and we’re familiar with the allure of it.
For many, the first experience of being coached is often epiphanous. It can leave you feeling slightly giddy and blinded by the ‘aha!’ moments, it can give you crystal-clear clarity on an issue and the confidence to move forward in a meaningful way. Coaching can be addictive and most people convert to it quickly and easily.
While we’re coaching converts, we also know that not every issue is best served by coaching – we don’t want to be coached out of a burning building! An interesting debate can be had on the topic, ‘Is everyone is coachable?’
We’ve seen many coaching initiatives being commissioned on the back of one senior leader having this epiphanous coaching experience and believing that everyone should – and will – experience the same.
We believe there needs to be a stronger business case to justify the coaching initiative. This needn’t be an arduous task. What is it that organisations believe having a coaching culture will deliver for them? What is the purpose of a coaching culture and what are the pitfalls and opportunities that must be navigated if you want to shape your culture in this way?
For us, this two-part article is intended to provoke, support and guide the custodians of a coaching culture to enable them to shape it with integrity.
Who are you?
In our experience, there are many custodians of a coaching culture: HR, L&D, executive committees, a bespoke steering group, internal coaches, a keen stakeholder or a sponsor. The list goes on. The custodians in any organisation would include not only the sponsors and stakeholders, but also the recipients of it, so the numbers can appear far larger than initially thought.
As you begin to think through who these people might be, you also start to highlight the numbers, their role, impact, needs and expectations.
In every organisation we’ve worked in, without doubt, the key success factor in implementing a coaching initiative has been having a dedicated person to drive it. Not a figurehead, not a sponsor, but someone on the ground making things happen. No matter how bought-in an organisation is to the initiative, no matter how many great stories and successes there are, it needs to be driven – and on a continual basis.
As the manager of the initiative, it can be helpful to appreciate your mindset in relation to this role. Could you be described as ‘an evangelical coaching charity worker’, fighting for the cause, but on a voluntary basis with little power or real influence over the organisation? Or, as a ‘baby minder’, the one left holding the baby with no-one else to help you?
Regardless of whether your role is a clearly defined formal one in the organisational hierarchy or an ‘in addition to my day job I look after coaching’ role, your mindset is vital in shaping a coaching culture.
As Henry Ford once said, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you are right.”
Ensuring you have a positive mindset and setting yourself up to succeed is paramount. Your mindset will ultimately govern every conversation, meeting and action you take.
Capability is also key for those who will be doing the coaching. Are they an ‘enthusiastic amateur’ or a ‘master technician’? Reviewing where your coaches are on their coaching mastery journey will influence how you chose to approach this work. How much of it will you do yourself? How much needs to be led and/or delivered by others? What capabilities can you leverage in yourself and the broader organisation? Where are the gaps? Do you bridge them or mitigate their impact?
When you then look at the mindset and capability of the other formal and informal custodians of a coaching culture, you can see how important it is to think carefully about your coaching culture networks – what they are, who is in them and for what purpose.
In Ibarra’s book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, she describes three different types of network:
- Your operation network A good one will give you reliability in what you do
- Your personal network A good one will give you kindred spirits
- Your strategic network A good one gives you connective advantage
Reflecting on your networks and setting them up with appropriate purpose and membership will have a dramatic effect on shaping a coaching culture. In one organisation, a small number of leaders were seen as the key movers and shakers in any organisational change. Everyone knew that if they adopted the change, it was a good thing and that they would be wise to follow suit. This small group of people could literally launch or sink any change in their organisation.
In this instance, thinking wisely about which network they are in and how best to engage them in any change was critical to success.
What’s this for?
Establishing a coaching culture needs to have a clear purpose. Exploring the questions in the box above: What is the purpose of a coaching culture? will help you/your organisation work out your purpose.
Understanding the context and its opportunities and threats facilitates the creation of a clearer vision for success. One which takes into account past history and future potential. This gives rise to strategies for achieving specified goals. The strategies may involve people, products, services, partners, marketing, purchasing, operations, sales, technology, finance, etc.
It is important that a passion for coaching does not stay in a coaching bubble. It needs to be a catalyst for achieving outcomes for the whole firm. Coaching is an enabler and methodology for getting things done.
Strategies determine the principles which drive behaviour. Putting ‘our customers at the centre of our business’ is an example of a principle that will demand dialogue with mutual respect, listening and responsiveness. It is fertile ground for deploying coaching skills.
If ‘innovation’ was a core proposition then ‘empowering people’ to share and implement their ideas may need a coaching style. A coaching approach would build confidence, facilitate creativity and fertilise ideas.
Team coaching might ensure robust and relevant discussions and better decision-making. Implementation is then made ‘easier and more cost-effective’ as a consequence.
The delivery of coaching will arise from what the people need in order to do their work well. Supporting executives and partners to influence and inspire stakeholders may best be delivered by external executive coaches. Unlocking efficiency may require the ‘manager as coach’ approach. Building high-performing teams may be the remit of the internal coach or a specialist external provider, or both working together.
What do you mean?
When engaging in any conversation on ‘coaching culture’, the first place we go is to ask, “What do you mean by coaching culture?”
Both these words can evoke very different meanings for people, so exploring the underlying meaning and intent of this phrase can often unearth great significance and direction. If we take the word ‘coaching,’ there is probably a more generally agreed position about what this is and what it is not. There is ongoing dialogue about the differences between the following:
- Facilitating a conversation
- Asking questions
- Contracted and confidential
However, being armed with a definition of what coaching looks like, makes it easier to then think about the infrastructure you would need to deliver it.
In the next issue: Part 2: Next steps – establishing a coaching culture
Sam Humphrey is based in London, heads the coaching practice group at Møller Professional Services Group, Cambridge, and is managing director of Grit. She has been involved in coaching as both an internal and external professional for more than 15 years and brings this experience to her work as a coach, consultant, researcher and supervisor. She is studying for a professional doctorate in supervision.
Karen Dean is an executive coach with 24 years’ experience and a qualified coach supervisor and coach mentor. She is managing director of Diabolo and an associate of the Møller Professional Services Group, Cambridge. Karen is the originator of me:mycoach™ for online CPD supporting new and developing coaches. She is currently pursuing MCC accreditation with ICF.
What is the purpose of a coaching culture?
- What makes having a coaching culture so important?
- What about other desirable cultures that are equally valid and potentially vying for resources and priority: the safety culture, the quality culture, the learning culture?
- The organisation exists within a context or eco-system. What is happening in our world at this time?
- Who are our customers/clients? What products or services do we want to offer? Who might supply these and what potential partners might assist us? Who is our competition? What makes us special?