What is a coaching culture?

“I arrive at work feeling good about the day ahead, clear about what needs to be achieved and a little nervous about whether I’ll manage to make it all happen – because we’re launching a new event tonight for local press and community stakeholders. Walking through the open plan office on the way to my desk I hear the happy buzz of purposeful conversation between colleagues who are excited about tonight and getting on with preparations.

I used to dread walking into the office as a colleague was always ready to pounce and would need me to make a decision about something urgent that I’d not yet had time to think through. These days people just seem to get on with things much more, and need my input far less.

Last time we had an event like this I was worried for weeks before. Would enough people turn up? Would anything go wrong? We had frequent problems with the caterers and so I always had to clear my diary on the day on an event to check-in with front-of-house staff and be on hand to sort things out at the last minute. No-one else seemed to keep on top of things and unless I inspected things myself I couldn’t be sure the standard would be good enough. It took a lot of my time checking-up on people and making sure things were right, even when I’d given really clear instructions people still seemed not to follow them.

We also had this perennial problem with local press turning up and not being treated well. The press officer used to get really frustrated because he’d arrange press interviews and check everyone’s diaries in advance but then on the day itself the exhibition curator was always too busy installing work to spend time being interviewed. I lose track of the number of times I was pulled into arguments about whose fault it was.

Tonight’s event though was the idea of the exhibitions team. They were keen to create a specific welcome event for local press and key stakeholders and the press and marketing team have been happy to work with them. It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this; we have got a few things wrong but we’ll know how to do it even better next time. What has impressed me most is the willingness of everyone to try a new idea and make it happen – people have really given it 110% this time.

Now I trust everything is going to plan and if there’s a problem that I need to resolve I can rely on my colleagues to let me know. Most of the time if there’s a problem my colleagues sort it out amongst themselves anyway, without my help. To be honest they are closer to the action and often know better than me what’s the best way to resolve things. I can concentrate instead on the meeting I have later this morning with a potential new patron. It used to be hard to find time to get out of the office and explore new opportunities, but I am doing a lot more now I have less fire-fighting and checking-up to do. It’s beginning to result in some new funding relationships and partnerships that could have a real impact on the organisation in the longer-term.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? This is the kind of story I often hear described when I’m talking to senior staff and ask them to describe the work context they are hoping to create, or when I’m working as a organisational development consultant with cultural organisations. The picture is surprisingly consistent both in terms of the culture people want to work in, but also the culture they currently find themselves inhabiting.

Far too often I hear about workplaces where people are demotivated by overly-prescriptive and critical managers and unnecessary hierarchies. Managers and senior staff frequently feel over-whelmed by their responsibilities and unable to ‘get their heads above the water’ to engage in the more strategic, important aspects of their role. Too often they feel they are fire-fighting and being drawn into decisions that should be taken closer-to-the-ground. When compounded with the tendency of non-profits to over-stretch themselves, people begin to demand for clearer priorities (or more resources).

Instead, most people aspire to working with colleagues who are highly motivated, independent and good at what they do. Line-managers want to work with staff who can be trusted to get on with things. Most line-managers want staff to come up with ideas and solutions too. Staff want to feel trusted to make things happen without having the check-in and to be able to trial new things without fear of making a mistake.

These are all features of a ‘coaching culture’. A coaching culture is an approach based on the values of coaching and the skills that underpin it, such as highly developed communication skills. Coaching values include:

  • Delivering results – striving to improve
  • Empowering – encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves and being non-directive – respecting individuals’ autonomy and diversity.
  • Increasing awareness of your impact/ performance

So what does an organisation with a coaching culture look like in action?

An organization with a coaching culture supports individual and organizational learning. Having a clear training strategy and investing in training is important, but so is valuing internal reflection which is more about making time to review than finding money for courses. Managers use coaching approaches with their teams, encouraging people to generate ideas and solutions and to take ownership of what they do. This means staff tend to be both highly-motivated, clear about the propose of their role and where the fit into the organisation’s plans and they also feel their time and talents are being well-used. Staff surveys would be one indicator of this high level of engagement, but low staff turnover, happy staff wanting to go the extra mile are easy to spot in any organization. In a coaching culture lots of ideas are generated at every level of the organization.

An organization with a coaching culture is ambitious, and aware of the impact it achieves, what it does well and where it can improve. Being clear about goals enables staff to know when they’ve done well, which means they feel proud and motivated to do more. Conversations about what is working and could be better happen frequently and easily at all levels of the organization, including with external partners and audiences.

Sounds like a great place to work to me! And given that coaching enables organisations to deliver better results, it’s not surprising that across the commercial, public, and non-profits sectors many organisations are developing coaching cultures.

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