So you think you know what a coaching culture is?

a coaching scenario with a man and a woman
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Coaching cultures is a subject in growth. More and more leader, HR and development practitioners are asking for a coaching culture within their organisations. The reason for this is a matter for debate, but growing evidence, including from to the ICF, demonstrates that coaching improves individual performance and increases employee engagement.  

The concept of getting more from your people and avoiding recruitment costs is very compelling, and by extending that to a whole culture the results could be extraordinary.  

So what is a coaching culture?

Defining a coaching culture is the starting point for any organisation, in fact there are three questions that organisations need to ask prior to starting on a coaching culture process.

  • What is a coaching culture for our organisation?
  • What will success look like?
  • Where are we now?

This article focuses on the first question - what is a coaching culture? 

It is important for us to define coaching culture, as without an understanding of what it is we cannot create a strategy.  

There is one easy way of defining a coaching culture, which is what I consider to be the 'avoiding the issue' definition. The following are actual examples of coach culture definitions that don't deliver a good definition.

A coaching culture is:

  • A place where coaching is the default for all managers
  • An environment where coaching is used as the main method of management
  • A culture in which each member of the organisation understands and actively demonstrates coaching behaviours and characteristics so that it becomes a way of being
  • Where coaching is the predominant style of managing and working together, and where a commitment to grow the organisation is embedded in a parallel commitment to grow the people in the organisation (Clutterbuck and Megginson (2005))
  • Where coaching is part of the everyday work of all staff

Whilst academically accurate and unarguable, if there is a misunderstanding of what coaching is they fail at the first hurdle.

We therefore need a definition that transcends the use of the term coaching within it.  This definition also needs to avoid the normal corporate jargon that we are used to - conversely it should be a statement that is universally understood and generates a passionate response from all those in the coaching culture.

An organisation's viewpoint

It is difficult for an organisation to understand how to define its coaching culture. A number of factors come into play: how big the organisation is, how spread out its people are, current cultural issues and many more.

An example of an extreme definition of coaching comes from a UK-based but American-owned pharmaceutical company who believed that a coaching session was the time spent in the hour following a sales meeting debriefing the salesperson with with regional manager.

With this difference in understanding and some organisations seeing coaching as more 'tell' than guide, there is no way to work out which organisation is right and which is wrong. As such coaching culture definitions will be different for every organisation.

With this in mind have a look at the following coaching culture definitions in some detail and see how they resonate with you.

Here is the next set of definitions from organisations - read these in detail and consider the benefits and pitfalls of each of these definitions.

A coaching culture is:

  • An environment where an open, enquiring and collaborative behaviour is the default
  • Empowering high performance through all of its people
  • Across all interactions – we value and support transparent, reflective progress and development
  • A place that enables sustainable growth/success

All valid responses in their own way, however not sufficiently inspiring enough to change cultures and ways of working.

Breaking down a cultural definition

So what are we looking for in terms of a definition of what is needed to help us move our coaching culture forward? Similar to a company vision, a coaching culture definition can become a corporate statement that sits on the wall and doesn’t itself drive change.

We should look to make our definition one that not only clearly defines what we are doing, it is also so simple in its message that all stakeholders in a coaching culture are driven in the same direction.

There is also a practical element to a coaching culture definition. In order to be of value a definition needs to include such things as - 

  • Performance improvement – results
  • Conversations – where the rubber hits the road
  • People – the people who should be involved in coaching within the organisation

Here are some further coaching culture definitions that start to move in this direction

A coaching culture is:

  • A culture where people are encouraged and supported to recognise and play to their strengths to deliver organisation strategy
  • An environment where authentic leaders have amazing conversations that generate improved results.

These represent better definitions for organisations, but there is an element of corporate creation to these. It is not a call to action for the workforce to drive a coaching culture.

How not to define a coaching culture

A coaching culture is NOT:

  • An environment where people are told how to do things correctly in a safe and understanding way
  • A way of giving feedback that enhances the performance of the company

Sometimes companies just get their understanding of coaching cultures wrong. This may be due to their misunderstanding of what coaching is, most likely, or down to other political and strategic drivers that are shoe-horning their way into the coaching culture agenda.

Whatever the coaching culture is, it must focus on the coachee’s agenda for self-improvement and development. Anything with an element of tell, influence or possibly dictate is not appropriate in a coaching culture.

Definitions that work

It is difficult to come up with one definition of a coaching culture which will work across all organisations over the world due to cultural, political and environment differences.  

Organisations must themselves come up with a definition that works well for them.  Organisational coaching culture definitions that work for organisations include:

  • A coaching culture is a place where we understand that the support for the solution is embedded in those around us.
  • A coaching culture is a place where listening, and hearing, is the key to greater performance

With the above we are starting to make real progress in creating a definition that not only defines, but drives a movement of change and guides on where that movement needs to be.

A coaching culture is a hierarchy of equals

  • An environment where a hierarchy exists to ensure the message is passed up and down the chain in the appropriate way and we follow that
  • An environment in which we treat each other as equals on a human level regardless of earnings, hierarchy, knowledge etc
  • A respectful environment where authentic behaviour delivers greater performance through improved trust.

Sounds simple doesn’t it!

About Tim Hawkes

About Tim Hawkes

World Leader in Developing organisational coaching cultures

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