The Intricacies of Creating a ‘Coaching Culture’

Professional coaching has taken the management world by storm. But more recently, the trend seems to be taking on new meaning. Instead of viewing coaching as a sort of transaction between individuals, many management thinkers have turned the concept into a broad notion of creating a “coaching culture.”

How did this come to be? A decade ago, coaching was associated with fixing the broken employee or leader. As more organizations used executive coaches and leaders saw its value, professional coaching began to lose its stigma.

For some, coaching became a status-imbued perquisite. Increasing numbers of coaching leaders recognized that coaching was more than a profession — it was a relationship and approach to communication that emphasized the initiative of the person being coached.

This shift in understanding was consistent with ideas on the need for leadership throughout an organization, the value of positive work environments and the importance of different modes of leadership. In short, many liked the idea of kinder, gentler bosses, and research began to show significant performance and organizational health benefits of using more coaching and less directing.

Running parallel to these ideas is the fact that succession planning and leadership development have become more top of mind for talent managers. The panic over succession for baby boomers and the recognition that few organizations are developing their leaders has contributed to an anxious need for building leadership development into the organizational fabric.

According to a 2014 University of North Carolina leadership survey, only 30 percent of senior leaders at the time thought their firms had a strong leadership pipeline, and just 21 percent said they were satisfied with their company’s bench strength. What’s more, the survey showed leaders lacked confidence in their firm’s high-potential talent; just 24 percent said their current high potentials were “leadership ready.”

Coaching came on as the antidote to this problem. What leaders saw in coaching relationships led them to wish that all relationships reflected some coaching dynamics. Organizations began to ask, “What if our culture was more reflective of coaching relationships?”

As a result, coaching definitions shaped by professional executive coaching gave way to coaching definitions applicable to the relationship of managers with their direct report or team leaders with their team. These definitions focused less on a particular set of activities or techniques and more on the creation of an enabling atmosphere or relationship.

At the Center for Creative Leadership, which works with firms and conducts research on coaching, there is hesitation to prescribe a “coaching culture” for any organization because the complex characteristics of any culture respond to the specific needs of that organization in context (Editor’s note: The authors work for CCL).

However, CCL research suggests the attitudes and behaviors associated with coaching approaches represent an important enabling element in corporate cultures associated with innovation, collaboration and learning agility — the outcomes of what leaders have come to think of as interdependent cultures.

Senior leadership of organizations demonstrating sustained success keep organizational culture as part of the conversation for all strategic planning. In addition, more recent models of change recognize continuous, rapid, multiple change as the real experience of all competitive organizations. Attempts at intentional change must recognize that this change will compete for organizational attention with multiple other changes.

One of the dangers associated with pursuing a popular approach is the temptation of trying to jump to a coaching culture when there may be little or no readiness within the organization. Below we’ve captured the complexity of implementing coaching approaches beyond external coaches.

Five levels are proposed, but four are sufficient to describe these experiences globally:

  1. Ad-hoc coaching, which lacks any effective management.
  2. Organized coaching, in which human resources or learning and development managers begin to centralize executive coaching policies and practices.
  3. Extended coaching, in which coaching skills are promoted for HR leaders and line managers, including mentoring or peer coaching programs.
  4. Coaching culture and coaching drive business strategy.

CCL has received multiple inquiries from organizations with little coaching experience that are hoping to jump to a coaching culture. The appeal is obvious, but unrealistic objectives in the face of inadequate experience, infrastructure and organizational acceptance result in resistance and disruption.

Cultural changes occur over long periods of time with many moving parts, and they require persistent attention to the development of both the structural and emotional support for change.

To build a culture more aligned with coaching attitudes, approaches, behaviors and relationships, it helps to think about using a coaching approach toward change.

Though coaching is often thought of in the context of individual relationships, it can be applied to group changes having significant individual impact. Culture change efforts can be enhanced by leaders who understand how to use coaching as a way to liberate the inherent energy of constituents eager for an organizational commitment to leadership development.

While the phrase “coaching culture” is pregnant with ideas about listening and expressing genuine interest in the contributions of others, these elements are not unique to coaching.

Coaching became popular as business environments sped up, with virtual and remote connections becoming characteristic of the professional world. The acceleration of technological, social and economic change far outpaced people’s ability to rely on normal human connections — friendship, time for reflection, the rhythms of habit — to give a sense of direction, meaning and identity.

In this context, coaching grew to fulfill the needs that societal change had undermined people’s ability to meet. Coaching provides a setting for thinking and setting priorities, as well as feedback necessary for professional growth.

Still, executive coaching is not the only way, or even the best way, for leaders to meet those needs. Healthy relationships of mutual respect, honest communication and genuine support not requiring the exchange of money are generally more dependable and sustainable.

Society has come to think that the characteristics labeled “coaching culture” are really more of a “leadership culture,” meaning a culture that values the development of leadership at all levels and in all parts of the organization. CCL, along with countless others in this industry, understands this is needed to ensure the success of companies today and in the future.

Leadership culture must be part of the overall organizational culture because the talent management department can’t do everything by itself. Every leader must be engaged in developing the leadership capabilities of those around them or future organizational growth cannot be assured.

Companies who are preparing themselves for the next 100 years recognize that focusing on leadership culture and cultivating leaders is the only way to affect success over time. Below are some practical steps these companies are taking.

Leadership strategy: The most promising sign relates to the efforts companies are making to give as much attention to their leadership strategy as they do to the rest of the business strategy. Lagging indicators, like financial measures, drive so much of companies’ business planning, but future success is dependent on the right people and atmosphere for creativity, commitment and engagement. A leadership strategy can shape the culture through creating structural and reward systems that encourage the kind of cross-boundary connections shown to increase innovation, productivity and growth.

Redefining the leader role: Top organizations make it explicit that taking on a leadership role involves developing others, and they align reward and recognition systems to reflect this expectation. Competitive advantage is increased when there is earnest intent on the part of every leader to develop the leadership capability of others. Leaders as coaches should be on the lookout for learning opportunities to develop others’ leadership capacity. This includes formal and casual mentoring relationships, but also planning challenging assignments, giving clear and kind feedback, and giving others room to solve problems on their own before resorting to direction.

Senior-team modeling: The culture needed in the organization as a whole is also desired in the smaller world of the senior executive team. Executive teams who have the respect of their people demand of themselves the kind of behavior and spirit they hope to see in the organization. These teams go public with their commitment to behaviors that support a respectful, collaborative climate and acknowledge when they fall short. They work at getting their own culture right and let their people know of their efforts.

Talent system modifications: While structure can’t change culture, it can undermine efforts to change. The most obvious structural impediments are reward systems that ignore the importance of climate and culture. There are plenty of examples of highly compensated executives who drive short-term performance through intimidation and have no regard for the long-term consequences to the health of the organization. Organizations with a long-term perspective realign talent management systems to support culture and value with as much emphasis as financial performance.

Coaching know-how: Perhaps it’s obvious that changing a culture to reflect a different kind of relationship must include learning opportunities for people in all parts of the organization, but the brain is biased toward telling rather than coaching. Neurological research has made us more conscious of the energy-conserving strategies of the brain. Telling people what to do requires less intellectual and emotional energy than engaging them in a thought process to advance their capability.

Also, few are naturally good at true inquiry and handling the emotional requirements of letting people struggle a little to come to their own creative solutions. Training in coaching skills to be used in mentoring, team leading, mutual development and joint problem-solving is fundamental preparation for a coaching culture or any form of culture that supports success in today’s complex, high-speed and competitive world.

Coaching culture may not be the right description for what an organization needs to thrive, but organizational cultures are lagging behind changes demanded by the explosion of communication, global competition, diversity of workforces and customers, and changes in the fundamentals of the world’s economies.

Successful organizations must be constantly attentive to the ways their culture helps or hinders the rapid adaptations required. Cultures demanding a top-down reliance on formal authority and insistence on hard-to-adjust processes will not last.

The hunger for a coaching culture is a logical response to the need for creativity and leadership emerging from all corners and levels of an organization. Ultimately, leaders must give constant attention to the quality of the relationships and the emotional climate  shaping the performance and future of their organizations.