I have found that a growing number of businesses are talking of the need for a coaching culture. Drivers for this include a shift to meet the requirements of increasing responsiveness, agility, collaboration, stakeholder relationships, leading millennials and the ongoing challenge to develop a growth mindset. It has made me think about what we mean by a coaching culture and how it serves a business.

Take Helen (whose name I have changed) a senior leader who recognised the challenge she faced in her organisation required a new coaching culture if overall goals were to be achieved:

Helen said: “Well when we said we want a ‘coaching culture’ I think we meant that we want to be developing all our people. But I do not have time to coach everyone in my team and may not have the best skills to do it. One of the things I focus on is identifying needs and partnering people in the team to work together on their development.”

Whilst the senior team she was part of had identified the development of a coaching culture as essential to achieve their stretching vision, they recognised there was not enough shared understanding of what this really meant and how they needed to respond individually.

What is a Coaching Culture?

My friend and former colleague, Prof Peter Hawkins has written a helpful book (Creating a Coaching Culture, McGraw Hill OU, 2012) in which he defines a coaching culture;

“A coaching culture exists in an organisation when a coaching approach is a key aspect of how the leaders, managers, and staff engage and develop all their people and engage their stakeholders, in ways that create increased individual, team and organisational performance and shared value for all stakeholders.”

Key elements are that:

  • a coaching approach is used in both individual and team dialogues.
  • you will get more from people by engaging with them on issues and opportunities rather than telling them what to do.
  • significant challenges need collaborative responses to identify solutions and deliver them
  • people want to grow and develop through their work so challenges are opportunities for learning and engagement.

It is not about turning every conversation into a structured coaching process bound by formal ground rules of best coaching practice. It is about seeing things from a generative mindset, being open, curious and wanting to leverage the widest thinking to address complexity and energise purposeful action.

What might this mean for Helen? And for the senior team around her? There is no doubt that to achieve their newly generated vision they will have to shift the culture of the organisation to be less directive and more engaging/empowering. This is not in the DNA of the business. What got them to where they are now will not be enough to achieve their ambition.

There is some challenge around how accountability is seen. Historically people have had clear goals and targets and underperformance is not tolerated for long. If senior leaders see an emerging problem, they tend to dive in to sort it, protecting their own performance numbers, rather than coach their team through it.

Helen is doing many good things to support the development of a coaching culture. She has a large and diverse team, spread internationally. She recognises that a focus on developing people is key to the achievement of the vision and that she does not have to do it all; she can leverage people in the team and beyond to help develop each other.

But a coaching culture is more than just developing people. It develops the capacity to truly engage with and focus on others, coming alongside them to see the world through their eyes and helping them to move forward. It’s about a deeper understanding of the dynamics in teams, between teams and groups. It’s about seeing things systemically and understanding how you might influence for change; through questions, challenges, confronting and acting as needed.

Ralph Stacey (Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics; The Challenge of Complexity; FT Prentice Hall) and others have described an organisation as a series of conversations; both within and at the boundaries.

Developing a coaching culture is about shifting the quality of conversations to make them more generative and effective. Generating this shift is a significant challenge and in my accompanying article. “How to Develop a Coaching Culture”, I explore some ingredients for making this happen.