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What is a Coaching Culture?

These days, I’m asked more often by my clients about how to create a “coaching culture”. But they don’t always have a clear idea of what that means – or even why they might want to create one.

In a coaching culture, most staff use a coaching approach in their daily life – with each another, and with external stakeholders and customers. A true coaching culture is just ‘part of the way we do things around here’. But it’s not all motherhood and apple pie. A coaching culture is about delivering results, improving performance and making the most of people’s potential. The emphasis is on delivering results and making each other (and the wider organisation) stronger and more capable. It’s NOT about having coaching conversations for their own sake, or as a diversion from other activities!

If you could be a ‘fly on the wall’ in a coaching culture, here’s what you’d see:

  • Managers looking for opportunities to help others to learn
  • People asking each other open questions
  • Employees at all levels having open, honest and supportive conversations with one another
  • People routinely giving one another feedback - supportive and critical
  • Managers coaching team members to help them develop, rather than just to tackle poor performance
  • Coaching and mentoring relationships forming spontaneously
  • Senior leaders with a clear vision that coaching and mentoring are at the heart of how we operate
  • Teams working with clear goals, roles, processes and relationships
  • Relatively few people will be ‘playing politics’
  • A pragmatic focus on delivering results and at the same time building the long-term health of the business

So, what’s not to like? Like many things in coaching and mentoring, a coaching culture is a simple idea but it’s challenging to put into practice. Developing and sustaining a coaching culture requires effort over time, and it’s only sustained through support and a clear vision from senior leaders. Senior leaders need to give up a fair amount of power to leaders and employees at lower levels. And they need to do this consistently.

A coaching culture isn’t utopia. A coaching approach just isn’t right in all situations. Organisations need to deliver results and there are times which demand 100% focus on immediate delivery – where coaching isn’t the right thing to do. As we often say, “You don’t coach someone out of a burning building”. The most important aspect of a coaching culture is that leaders have a good sense of when to coach others and when not to. Leaders balance the need to deliver results now with the need to build a healthy business that can deliver results for the future. A healthy coaching culture is a challenging but stimulating place to work – but it’s not a soft option. Leaders get the best from their people over a sustained period without ‘sweating the assets’ too much for too long.

Are all coaching cultures the same? No. A coaching culture in one organisation will look and feel quite different from another. Organisations have their own heritage, history, strategies, and business models – and all of these impact on what a coaching culture looks like. To bring this to life, let’s consider an FMCG business and an engineering business. They have very different competitive environments, different levels of complexity in the manufacturing process; and crucially, one is business-to-consumer and the other operates on a business-to-business basis. This will mean that the coaching cultures for each business must be quite different from each other.

How to create a “coaching culture”

The first step is to create clear vision for the culture. It doesn’t have to be a perfect picture but it does need to be inspiring! How will the culture help you deliver the strategy? What’s in it for leaders – and for all employees? How will it benefit your customers/ shareholders?

It’s also important to know where you’re coming from. You can conduct a ‘readiness audit’ to find out how much coaching and mentoring are already happening in your organisation. And how receptive people are to doing things differently.

And it’s important to have some first steps. In the early stages of creating a coaching culture, there’s often more reliance on external coaches and external support. But this reliance soon drops away as you train a cohort of internal coaches and/or mentors – as well as leaders who use a coaching approach in their daily lives. This trickles down to how employees treat each other.

Creating a coaching culture takes time but doesn’t always take a lot of investment if it’s done in a savvy way.

This article is based on material contained in Coaching and Mentoring: Practical Techniques for Developing Learning and Performance.

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