A Research Paper By Beth Williams, Early/Mid-Career Coach, UNITED STATES
Coaching in the Workplace Journey
I embarked on my coaching journey at a time of change within my organization. I had toyed with the idea of coaching for a while, frustrated by the fact that most coaching seems to be targeted at upper management within organizations. I felt that while executive coaching is valuable, some of the resources were misplaced. I always wondered, “if we are to build pipelines of future leaders within our organization then shouldn’t THEY be getting coaching too?” Well, it seems that someone had been reading my mind. Shortly after I began ICA, I was in a meeting where it was announced that our organization was committed to creating a “culture of coaching”. The idea was to be able to provide coaching at all levels of the organization. Managers, supervisors, and leads would be given the tools to ask powerful questions of their associates to assist in their growth and development. I was thrilled! It got me thinking though–what does a culture of coaching look like within an organization? How do we get started? What do we need to make this happen? I did some research and here is what I found.
The Case for Coaching in the Workplace
What is coaching? The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as, “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity, and leadership.”[i] This sounds like what all organizations are trying to achieve, doesn’t it? Empowering people. Unlocking potential. What business wouldn’t want that from their employees?
The business world changes and evolves rapidly. Organizations are constantly trying to gain or maintain their competitive edge. More and more organizations are realizing that their competitive edge lies within their workforce. Gone are the days of the “’ command and control’ style of management”. Today’s organizations realize that “employees who are coached to performance rather than managed to performance are more committed to and invested in the outcomes of their work and achievement of organizational goals.”[ii] According to research conducted by the Institute of Coaching, coaching employees:
- Empowers individuals and encourages them to take responsibility
- Increases employee and staff engagement
- Improves individual performance
- Helps identify and develop high-potential employees
- Helps identify both organizational and individual strengths and development opportunities
- Helps to motivate and empower individuals to excel
- Demonstrates organizational commitment to human resource development[iii]
If the above is true and there’s so much value to coaching, why don’t more businesses invest in coaching for their employees? Typically, coaching budgets are reserved for senior-level management. “After all,” writes Terri Klass of Forbes Coaches Council, “if an individual has reached a senior position and is overseeing a team of other professionals, they are deserving of individual coaching to help them keep growing.” But increasingly, research has shown that mid-level managers are critical to organizational transformation. Often the pipeline or succession plan of an organization is filled with high performers who are, “promoted for their outstanding technical skills without any formal leadership skills training.”[iv] This is where a change in the approach needs to happen. As mentioned before, coaching early on in an employee’s career helps improve performance leading to a high potential pipeline of engaged staff. It helps identify strengths and areas for continued growth and opportunity and it helps inspire people to excel in their current and future roles. In fact, research suggests that “leadership coaching delivers an ROI of 5.7 times the cost.”[v] A wise investment to be sure.
Coaching mid-level managers is valuable, but what about others within the organization such as individual contributors, line staff, associates, etc.? What about those that aren’t on the management track or maybe are new to the organization. What can coaching do for them? Justin Rosenstein and Carly Schwartz, in their article for Wavelength, suggest that coaching can be a useful tool in:
- solving problems
- developing and achieving long-term goals
- improving performance[vi]
As the adage goes, “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” That’s precisely what coaching can offer to associates. Coaching does not seek to provide answers to clients. Coaching operates with the assumption that the client already has the answers within themselves. It is through coaching that the client explores and finds the answers for themselves. Not only does this take the burden off managers to have, or find, the answers but it allows associates to have greater buy-in to proposed solutions. It improves communication, and commitment to an organization, project, or team. It helps employees feel valued and heard. According to the Institute of Coaching, coaching helps associates:
- Establish and take action towards achieving goals
- Become more self-reliant
- Gain more job and life satisfaction
- Contribute more effectively to the team and the organization
- Take greater responsibility and accountability for actions and commitments
- Work more easily and productively with others (boss, direct reports, peers)
- Communicate more effectively
So, your organization is sold on coaching—now what? Leadership sees the value in coaching at all levels but how does an organization create a culture of coaching? What does it mean to have a “coaching culture”? Where do you start?
Creating a Culture of Coaching
What does it mean to have a “coaching culture” within the workplace? To answer this question, I turned to my friend and colleague Lisa Nunes. Lisa is the Chief Learning Officer at our organization and the executive spearheading our corporate transformation. Lisa stated that a coaching culture is creating, “…an environment where leaders work with their teams to identify their strengths, match to their work, and engage in continuous feedback/dialogue…Employees are equipped to do their roles and inspired to grow and reach higher levels of achievement.” Similarly, a 2020 article featured on the Unboxed Technology website defines a coaching culture as, “…when an organization leverages coaching practices that enable managers to coach, motivate, and develop employees.”[vii]
According to the article, there are a few key ingredients that make up a coaching culture:
- Establish coaching across the board
- Explain the ‘why’ behind coaching
- Find a coaching program
- Hold leaders accountable
Cultural change within organizations is never an easy task, so how do they start? According to Lisa Nunes, “Start at the top. If top leaders do not truly understand, believe, and advocate…it will not work. Those leaders need to start conveying and modeling the importance and the practice of it. Then you convey to your whole employee population…train and develop your leaders, and place reward mechanisms to reinforce/reward for leaders…” Leaders, from the top down, need to understand the business case for coaching in the workplace, model the behavior, and be held accountable through engagement surveys, KPIs, and leader impact evaluations.
So, let’s say leadership is on-board. They know the value of coaching. They have seen it in action through their executive coaching sessions. Now what? Here’s where the real cultural shift comes into play. According to Joshua Shultz, Psy.D, of positivepsychology.com:
“In order to build a coaching culture, it is important to first teach managers how to be coaches themselves. Many coaches and consultants teach the managers they work with how to use coaching skills such as active listening, asking the right coaching questions, and setting actionable goals.
A coaching culture results from managers who are trained as coaches and can capitalize on brief exchanges to provide timely, in-the-moment coaching.”[viii]
Teaching managers how to actively listen, ask the right questions and help set goals ultimately sends positive messages to associates. It tells them they matter, that they are valued and provides psychological safety for employees. In turn, this leads to greater performance both at an individual level as well as a team level as well as creates an environment where employees feel better equipped to do their jobs, handle difficult situations and feel a greater sense of autonomy. Again, we go back to the adage, “teach a man to fish…”
In addition to the value that it has on staff, managers also benefit from coaching not only by being coached but by coaching others. One study suggests that leaders “…who received six months of coaching increased their effectiveness by 55% when rated by their peers.” Coaching also,“…allows the leader to elicit the strengths and knowledge of the people they are leading. This frees leaders to focus on the big picture, prevents micromanaging, and allows employees the opportunity to prove their competency.”[ix] Through coaching principles such as active listening and asking powerful questions, leaders not only empower their employees but also become more effective leaders. By investing a bit of time into learning how to be effective coaches, they ultimately free themselves of the time needed to solve smaller and less strategic problems, allowing them to focus on more strategic priorities and initiatives.
Coaching at all levels of an organization provides tremendous value. So why aren’t more companies adopting a coaching culture? According to ICF, there are several missteps that organizations make when implementing a culture of coaching that will ultimately lead to frustration and abandonment of the change. These include:
- Developing a coaching culture is untethered from the organization’s strategic goals.
- People in the organization aren’t upskilled in coaching.
- Coaching isn’t structured and woven into the learning and development process.
- Senior leaders aren’t driving the coaching culture.
- There isn’t the right balance between individual coaching, group coaching, and team coaching.[x]
The theme that emerges from these missteps is a lack of thoughtful planning and intentionality when it comes to cultural change. Each of these missteps comes from either a lack of understanding of what coaching is and is not or a lack of intentionality when implementing the program. Cultural change is never easy and should be well thought out.
Planning, alignment, and structure are key to any organizational change. Coaching is no different. Without the proper alignment to strategic goals and objectives, without the proper buy-in and direction from leadership, without the proper knowledge, skills, and abilities to implement any cultural change is doomed to failure.
The Future of Coaching in the Workplace
What does the future of coaching in the workplace look like? According to a 2020 Forbes article, the time for coaching in the workplace is NOW. COVID-19 brought with it uncertainty and disruption. The way we did business before is no longer an option. In times of disruption, it is necessary to think outside the box. Today’s leaders and the leaders of the future need to:
- Believe in and know how to harness the collective wisdom
- Involve and include their people in problem-finding and solving
- Unlearn the need to know or provide answers
- Make a constant choice to explore and discover in order to adapt to this VUCA environment[xi]
These all happen through coaching. Actively listening to associates, asking powerful, thought-provoking questions, creating an environment of safety where employees feel comfortable sharing knowledge and ideas, and delving deeper into issues are the tenets of coaching. These hallmarks are also the way forward for enhanced business performance and employee engagement and performance in a virtual workplace. There has never been a more opportune moment to invest in a culture of coaching.
The Value of Creating a Culture of Coaching in the Workplace
The future of the workplace is changing rapidly. Coaching is becoming more of an integral part of that future. Increasingly, organizations are seeing the value of creating a culture of coaching. Investing in human capital through training, mentoring, and coaching gives leading companies a competitive edge and more and more businesses are taking notice.
However, changing a culture is not a small undertaking. It must be well planned and well-executed. Alignment with corporate goals, vision, and strategy are essential to success, as is having a leadership that is committed to the change. The Center for Creative Leadership has a model called DAC (Direction, Alignment, and Commitment) that explains when effective leadership happens. I would submit, however, that this same model can be applied to organizational change as well. The model, seen below, shows that without the proper direction, alignment and commitment true leadership cannot happen.
The same is true for a change. Without direction and clear outcomes creating a culture of coaching is impossible. Without alignment to the overall corporate goals, and strategies creating a culture of coaching is impossible. And finally, without the commitment from leadership guiding the change, creating a culture of coaching will be impossible.
Creating a culture of coaching benefits the organization, its people, and ultimately its bottom line. The case for cultural change is clear. I am looking forward to being a part of my own organization’s transformative journey and using my coaching skills and knowledge to further the change in our people and the way we do our work.
[i]International Coaching Federation, 2022, About Page, January 14, 2022
[ii]Integral Global, 2021, Blog: “Why Workplace Coaching and Why Now?”, January 14, 2022
[iii]Institute of Coaching, McLean, Affiliate of Harvard Medical School, Date Unknown, “Benefits of Coaching”, January 14, 2022
[iv]Terri Klass, 2019, “Coaching Isn’t Just For Executives”, January 14, 2022
[v]Justin Rosenstein and Carly Schwartz, Date Unknown,” How to coach teammates: A key responsibility of effective leaders”, January 14, 2022
[vi]Justin Rosenstein and Carly Schwartz, Date Unknown,” How to coach teammates: A key responsibility of effective leaders”, January 14, 2022
[vii]E. Sprague, 2020, “Why a Strong Coaching Culture Matters Now More than Ever”, January 21, 2022
[viii]Joshua Schultz, Psy.D., 2021, “What is Coaching in the Workplace and Why is it Important”, January 21, 2022
[ix]Joshua Schultz, Psy.D., 2021, “What is Coaching in the Workplace and Why is it Important”, January 21, 2022
[x]Maryanne Bateup, ACC, 2021, “5 Missteps Organizations Make When Trying to Build a Coaching Culture”, January 21, 2022
[xi]Lin Tan, 2020, “A Coaching Culture Is No Longer A Choice, It’s A Necessity”, January 21, 2022
[xii]Leading Effectively Staff at the Center for Creative Leadership, 2020, “Direction + Alignment + Commitment (DAC) = Leadership”, January 21, 2022