Together for Children is using coaching as a catalyst for culture change and transformation. Jenny Whitfield reports


Sunderland-based not-for-profit organisation, Together for Children (TfC), partnered with The OCM in August 2021, to deliver an ambitious organisation-wide coaching programme focused on shifting culture, improving leadership, and transforming performance.

The OCM is a UK-based global coaching and mentoring organisation, providing coaching services and consultancy, plus accredited qualifications and training.

In 2017, Sunderland Council Children’s Services received an ‘inadequate’ rating and TfC was established in response. Its remit was to transform the quality of service provision, providing services to improve the lives of children, young people and families on behalf of the council. Its vision is to keep children safe from harm and ensure they’re given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. 


Key challenges 

Annual employee surveys and ongoing exit interviews revealed that TfC’s management and leadership behaviours, particularly when it came to conversations and performance management, needed improving. Additionally, there was a high number of grievances raised by employees, each taking an average of 120 management hours to resolve. 

A large-scale organisation-wide cultural shift was needed, including the improvement of relationships between individuals and departments, as there were many fractured relationships and tensions
between functions. 

TfC wanted to put coaching at the core of its cultural transformation, to improve performance and lift colleague engagement by enabling leaders to have the skills and confidence to engage in both supportive and challenging conversations. 

TfC CEO Jill Colbert aimed to use the development of coaching skills to sustain much-needed behaviour change, bringing about improvements for the sake of employees, and the children and the families of Sunderland. Coaching was to be the cornerstone of an entirely new approach, not just for TfC, but also for children’s services.


The OCM and TfC ongoing partnership

Ed Parsloe, CEO of The OCM, had been looking for a not-for-profit organisation to partner with and in conversation with TfC’s learning and development manager it became clear that it would be an ideal organisation for The OCM to support. 

The fee for a programme of this size would be too costly for a children’s service provider and out of TfC’s budget so The OCM agreed to partner with the organisation on this project on a largely pro-bono basis. 

Parsloe says, “Our ambition for coaching is huge and we passionately believe in its power to transform the lives of individuals, teams and organisations. We’d been searching for a client with social impact at its core to demonstrate this transformative potential through a pro-bono and not-for-profit project where they could unleash the full range of coaching services. 

“So when we learned about the work of Together for Children and the journey the organisation had been on, we knew we’d found the perfect partner.


The programme

The challenge was to design a holistic coaching programme that helped sustain the transformation Colbert and her team had started and catalyse a continued shift in culture to one with coaching at its heart. Embedding coaching skills broadly across the organisation would act as an enabler for the new performance management strategy and support the desired cultural shift.

Throughout, the partnership was focused on how to achieve the greatest impact for TfC, so identifying and measuring relevant success criteria was crucial. The teams agreed to focus on key metrics where increasing leadership capability and improving the quality of conversations through coaching would significantly contribute to shifts in staff survey scores. 

If the project could evidence increases in staff engagement, in morale, retention rates, and well-being, and reduce grievances over the long-term, it would be clear that the goals had been achieved.

The OCM delivered a bold, organisation-wide coaching programme that involved one-to-one coaching, team coaching for the senior leadership team, as well as the development of coaching skills in more than 120 leaders. As a result, all TfC leaders are now externally trained coaches, believed to be unprecedented in UK children’s services. 

One TfC leader says,  “We work in a highly regulated environment where we’re constantly being externally moderated, assessed and measured. We didn’t have the time not to be doing our day job. Team coaching allowed us to take a breath and step back from things and to collectively review where we were at, and challenge some of the behaviours we’d just learnt to accept.”  

Other councils and children’s services are now learning how TfC made the leap from a rating of ‘inadequate’ for five years, to ‘outstanding’ using coaching and mentoring as a catalyst for change. The OCM also helped TfC hone its strategic value and reground itself with purpose.  

Colbert says, “We wanted the philosophy and culture to be underpinned by those crucial coaching conversations we’d had. This included principles around speaking to each other differently and understanding each other and what improvements we could still be making and working on.” 

Many senior leaders found the one-to-one coaching beneficial which, combined with the team coaching, ensured a shared clarity of the overall destination for the organisation and improved the senior leadership team’s understanding and commitment to members’ roles in leading the changes needed. 

As the organisation moved forward on a journey of improvement, personal coaching provided an opportunity much of the team needed to refresh and challenge some of their thinking. For many, coaching enabled teams to acknowledge they needed to take better care of themselves.  

TfC now has an internal coaching pool that has helped foster a ‘listening’ culture, improve team dynamics, and ‘take the temperature’ of the workforce and act accordingly.


Culture shift

The OCM suggested coaching the senior leadership team, (both individually and collectively), to begin to create a coaching culture to help deliver the desired transformation. 

The two organisations worked closely together to tailor the programme to ensure that TfC’s goals were met. Working initially with the senior team, The OCM made sure leaders were well positioned to support the organisational shift to a coaching culture. 

The next stage was to tailor and deliver action learning workshops, in conjunction with the online skills programmes, for the extended senior leadership team, and the team managers to develop their coaching skills to support the new performance management strategy and enable them to have challenging conversations (Thrive at TfC).  

One leader says, “Coaching hasn’t been a quick fix, it’s taken a lot of time, effort, and investment from everybody across the company. But the feeling of being invested in, being challenged, and pushed to think differently about how we can achieve success has changed our way of thinking.”  



The leadership coaching skills programme was delivered through a blend of The OCM’s ELECTRIC Online programme and virtual action learning workshops of 10-15 participants. 

The ELECTRIC programme is an easy-to-apply coaching framework for everyday conversations. Many found this coaching training of huge benefit, and it was an investment of time that brought an element of discipline across the organisation. Within the learning groups and discussions, colleagues were testing and refining their coaching skills, which then changed conversations. 

The accredited coaching programme with live-action learning sets, enabled managers and senior leaders to use coaching skills as part of their everyday leadership style and approach. It impacted styles of leadership, management and listening which fed into wider teams in management sessions and one-to-one sessions.    

Colbert says, “To get everyone through this programme was a real achievement and showed that there was a willingness and a commitment to improve.” 

TfC wanted the philosophy and culture to be underpinned by those crucial coaching conversations that had been undertaken. This focused on principles around speaking to each other differently and understanding each other and what further improvements could be made and worked on. There is a sense now that conversations are of real value.  

TfC’s partnership with The OCM has allowed for a rapid development of new practices at TfC which within a year introduced a whole new performance process while the organisation was being externally moderated and inspected by Ofsted. 

The coaching training programme also taught managers how to use leadership and listening skills to empower team members to find the answers to problems themselves. 

Completion surveys from all those trained included extremely positive feedback from leaders with comments such as, “As a manager I feel I have a more supportive and beneficial approach to conversations with colleagues”; “I feel better equipped to help colleagues to help themselves to find the solution and be more autonomous” and “I listen better, don’t leap in with my own solutions and ask more open questions.
I feel like a better manager.”

As leaders began to take a coaching approach almost as their preferred way of engaging with teams, they started to notice that team members were also adopting that approach with the families they were working with, creating a real sense of empowerment.

Colbert says, “We’re consistently using the language of coaching as part of our everyday practice.”

Even more revealing is the data from the key metrics identified at the start of the project. The annual TfC staff survey shows exceptional results, with improved leadership communication up 39% from June 2019 to June 2023, morale up 28%, career development and career progression opportunities up 20%, and a rise of 17% in employees stating they envisage remaining in their role next year. 

In relation to disciplinaries and grievances, which directly relates to staff using coaching skills to have difficult conversations, in 2020 there were five live disciplinary investigations and three live grievances. Today there’s currently only one live grievance. 

Through the coaching programme, we’re delighted that TfC has achieved its aspirations of attracting and retaining talent and most importantly, be accredited by the external regulator as ‘outstanding’ and maintaining that accreditation. TfC can now ensure that children’s services across Sunderland are delivered by a suitably qualified, and experienced workforce. 

The programme was recently recognised and praised by the HR and learning and development community, with The OCM winning the Highly Commended Award for the Best L&D initiative at the 2023 CIPD People Management Awards and the GOLD HCM Excellence Award Winner 2023 – Leadership.   


About the author

  • Jenny Whitfield is a consultant coach-mentor at The OCM