Developing a coaching culture


The Workhouse Museum – Ripon Museum Trust

This article first appeared in the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) Summer newsletter 2017. Reproduced here with permission of AIM.

Given the rapid pace of change experienced by the UK museum sector, having a workforce that is prepared to adapt and respond is critical. Recent research commissioned by AIM and other partners, Character Matters: attitudes, behaviours and skills in the UK Museum workforce, highlights two key challenges.

They are how to develop the ‘personal qualities’ and skills of the existing workforce, and how our organisations can become ‘more flexible, agile and entrepreneurial and supportive of their workforce?’

Greater use of coaching and offering leadership training to a wider range of staff are recommended by the report, and AIM member Ripon Museum Trust’s experience of this highlights how museums can build their resilience by adopting a coaching culture and ethos.

Ripon Museum Trust (RMT) is a small independent museum group with three sites that tell a story about law, order, poverty and social justice – the former courthouse, prison and police station and workhouse. Alongside the museum’s core staff team of three, more than 100 volunteers deliver the museum’s activities. In 2015 RMT was awarded a grant from Arts Council England’s (ACE) Museum Resilience Fund to develop its leadership skills and culture with the aim of making best use of all the human resources available to the museums.

A central aspect of the project involved a four-day coaching and leadership skills course developed by Relational Dynamics 1st for a group of staff, trustees and volunteers. The course offered a foundation in coaching skills and approaches (active listening, effective questions, the GROW* framework, setting and reviewing goals), and training in advanced communication skills including giving feedback, difficult conversations and building trust.

The group explored styles of leadership, and were encouraged to develop their self-awareness and understanding of others; what we refer to as ‘relational dynamics’. Participants also practiced coaching and being coached by one another, individually and via group coaching or ‘action learning’.

What is a coaching style of leadership?

A coaching style of leadership encourages and requires all of us to be involved and take responsibility for achieving success through developing high levels of trust and distributed decision-making, recognising and supporting everyone’s potential and focusing on improving performance at an individual, team and whole organisation level.

In a workplace with a coaching culture we:

share a sense of purpose

are clear how our roles contribute to the bigger picture

are willing to try new things and go the ‘extra mile

have autonomy in how we deliver our work, and,

take pride in doing our jobs to the best of our abilities.

External evaluation of the project revealed how coaching skills are already improving RMT’s resilience. Through developing a core set of organisational values and associated behaviours, RMT was able to clarify its vision and clarity of roles, and job satisfaction increased during the lifetime of the project. RMT now enjoys higher levels of trust between staff, volunteers and trustees which enables greater autonomy which in turn leads to a culture where people feel motivated to test new ideas and take the initiative.

The legacy of the project continues and staff and volunteers now have the skills and tools to continue their own development; for example the museum director has created an action learning set for other culture and heritage leaders in Yorkshire, and museum staff now deliver a half-day ‘coaching skills for leadership’ course in-house which forms part of the induction for new volunteers.

RMT’s coaching approach led to articulating and measuring the museums’ impact through research, and using study trips to increase awareness of how other museums are working with volunteers. The learning generated directly contributed to a successful £400,000 application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to acquire a new building which formed part of the original Workhouse.

RMT is bringing its coaching approach to how it develops this new site, and is planning to recruit a ‘collaborative curator’ who will ensure the wider community is involved in developing a shared vision for the redevelopment of this new site by piloting new uses in partnership with the local community.

Further information: 

*GROW – Goal, Current Reality, Options, Will – a widely-used coaching framework developing by Sir John Whitmore and Carol Wilson.

Want to know more about the project? Arts Professional also published an article in 2016, including RMT’s work with Relational Dynamics 1st.


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