Creating the right coaching culture can contribute to a better performing workplace.
Coaching is widely used in many organisations, yet the question of ROI (return on investment) seems to be a conundrum.
That coaching adds value is clearly not in question, as most coachees/clients will attest to. The gap, however, is in the business/mission connection. What is the value of coaching to performance improvement in the bottom line?
Before rushing to develop models of quantitative ROI, it might be necessary to acknowledge that the science of coaching doesn’t naturally lend itself to hard numbers. Coaching is a science and an art, given the intense, intimate human connection between coach and coachee, which cannot be easily captured in a balance sheet. This doesn’t invite esoteric coaching by novices who aren’t able to explain the science of coaching nor does it invite an accounting analysis only.
DNA of coaching
Beyond the individual performance improvement based on hard targets, coaching does bring other value to the team and organisation. These are at the level of organisational culture. The magic of coaching is that inherent in this discipline is a set of core practices that ‘by default’ contribute to a better performing workplace that is also more human and genuinely engaging.
Coaching effectiveness depends on rapport building and a genuine listening to the other. In this interested and curious space that is free of judgement, the coachee (individual, team or organisation) is confident to experiment, innovate, challenge paradigms and realise potential. In this space, human beings are treated with respect and care. It is not a ‘wishy-washy’ space where people are singing ‘Kumbaya’. It is a place that is clear about strategy, operational plans and current and desired performance. It’s a place where hard conversations happen; where senior managers have the courage to challenge, encourage and take tough decisions and not beat about the bush because of the insecurities they bring into their roles.
Coaching and culture
How do we get to this culture of high performance and care that is sustainable and not just a fad? Coaching, in light of this challenge, has to be integrated into the learning, performance and development plan of the organisation. It cannot remain an HR hobby or the exclusive territory of licenced coaches. It cannot be a quick fix for line managers that do not take responsibility for solid performance management. It cannot be a nice add-on to executive development programmes with an outsourced coaching component. Coaching at an individual, team and organisational level has to be integrated into the core business/mission of the organisation.
For this to happen in a sustainable way, organisations have to be deliberate about creating a coaching culture. Culture is simply defined as ‘the way we do things around here’. So what does a coaching culture look like in and amongst a host of other competing cultures in an organisation? How is coaching culture different from ‘high performance culture’, ‘best practice culture’, ‘collaborative culture’ and ‘innovative culture’? Coaching culture in my view is connected to all of these culture choices an organisation makes in that it is an enabler. In a way it is a ‘meta-culture’. It’s there not an end in itself but in service of the strategy and culture choice of an organisation.
In the table, I describe coaching at individual, team and organisational level, and suggest that building a coaching culture requires an integrated approach across all levels using both expert coaches and organisational coaches both as peers and line managers as the most desirable state.
Coaching only at an individual level has limited impact in shaping a coaching culture in the organisation. I will illustrate the impact and reach of coaching by looking at Executive Level Coaching. Typically, an external coach is hired to work with the executive team as part of a new culture or strategy drive towards high performance. Most often executives would go through an intensive one-one suite of coaching conversations to improve their personal effectiveness. This has mixed results depending on the readiness and motivation of coachees to be part of the ‘programme’. Value is hopefully experienced by the executive team. Often this level of executive coaching is not explicitly connected with executive team effectiveness, which means that individual effectiveness does not automatically translate to team effectiveness.
I have worked with several executive teams where the CEO and/or executive directors have been through coaching, but this does not manifest in team effectiveness. What is missing is the need to expand coaching to a wider level – manifested in team coaching. At this level the focus is not on individual targets and personal effectiveness but on the value addition of the executive team as a collective ‘the sum of the parts’. Individual effectiveness no matter how brilliant is trumped by team effectiveness. Often teams calibrate to an equilibrium which might not bring the best out of the team.
This equilibrium is not in targets, results and strategies – it is in manifested in the group dynamics. Patrick Lencioni describes well the five dysfunctions of teams and its corollary for effectiveness. At this level, teams can become inward looking because of the powerful unspoken dynamics that consume team time and energy. Skilful team coaching opens up collaborative space for teams to genuinely work together for a common goal.
Finally, coaching at an organisation level acknowledges the group systems nature of organisations which is manifested in the organisational culture. This is the level that shows up the organisation as it is – in all of its strengths and weaknesses; in all of its clarity and contradictions; in all of its talk and action. Change at this level of organisational culture is most powerful given the systemic impact. Coaching at this level cannot be done by ‘fly-in’ executive coaches both because of cost and sustained impact. Neither can it be done only with internal coaches who are embedded in the larger system already. At this level, coaching becomes part of the culture of learning and performance of the organisation.
Building on individual and team coaching, coaching culture can be expanded through the line management structure which will cover all parts of the organisation. All line managers are required to plan, organise, lead and control. Line managers can be taught to do their core work which is primarily people-centred through individual and team coaching. Here the scope of coaching is defined by the work that has to be delivered with the line manager coaching the team to bring their best. As this coaching practice becomes a way of working around here, the DNA of a coaching culture is further strengthened.
Strategies for creating an enabling coaching culture
1. Coaching culture as an integrated delivery mechanism – part of the organisation’s OD strategy
Integrate coaching with other people-management processes. In order for coaching to get traction in the organisation, it needs to be better integrated with people processes such as learning and development, talent management and job competency models and business strategy. This is from a HR/OD functional perspective.
2. Culture as part of OD strategy driven by the business/mission priorities
Link coaching outcomes to the organisational strategy, showing a clear business case for coaching. Ideally, creating a coaching culture is viewed as a ‘business’ initiative rather than just as a ‘people’ initiative. This requires ownership and accountability for coaching results at senior level. HR/OD executives need to locate coaching in the business strategy and not as an HR intervention so that shared ownership moves from functional to executive space.
3. Capability building to ensure sustainable coaching practice and desired culture change
Be clear about the value of coaching at different levels (individual, team, organisational); the role and value of: internal and external coaches, peer and line coaches. Agree coaching standards for the organisation for the different mix of coaches and clarify their scope of coaching engagement with mechanisms for internal and external referral based on coaching competence and also the need for professional and peer supervision. Provide the requisite skills training for coaches internally.
4. Celebration of success through coaching as opposed to command and control
Recognise and reward coaching culture behaviours. This can be done in individual performance discussions; through team incentives and for line managers and peer coaches that are investing in getting results through coaching. Highlighting role models and the positive outcomes produced by these new behaviours reinforces the desired culture of collaborative working.
Dr Stanley Arumugam is a Leadership Advisor at Action Aid International, www.actionaid.org/south-africa.
This article appeared in the September 2015 issue of HR Future magazine.