There are a lot of people in the human resources world talking about building a “coaching culture” and encouraging leaders to have more “coach-like conversations.” But how much do we really know about the work involved in making these shifts?

The focus on coaching culture comes out of a recognition that, more than ever before, we need leaders who can quickly adapt their mindsets and skillsets to respond to rapidly changing conditions.

Thanks to the pandemic, many teams are working from home, well away from direct contact with their leaders. There is also a whole range of challenges that existed prior to the arrival of COVID-19 that have not gone away. We still need to contend with multiple generations in the workplace and changing organizational priorities as we adapt to shifts in the social and environmental fabric of society.

To face all these forces, we need leaders who reject traditional top-down strategies in favor of collaborative approaches built on productive conversations. Leaders who can build strong individual connections with employees, establish safe environments for everyone, engage diverse perspectives, give regular and meaningful feedback, and – through all these tasks – demonstrate genuine empathy.

This is where coaching culture comes in.

To help cut through some of the misconceptions in this discussion, I’ve assembled a list of three ‘must-know’ qualities of a coaching culture that not only explain what it is but also why you should start building one right away. 

  1. It all starts with leadership. 


Leaders who adopt a coaching culture have an entirely different approach to conversations and relationships. They avoid the temptation to just tell people exactly what to do and how to do it. Instead, a coaching culture allows everyone to play a role in finding solutions. And that builds trust and engagement.

In a coaching culture, leaders serve as role models by sharing personal stories about the challenges they face, and the importance of getting feedback and support to ultimately improve. Leaders who share their own stories help embed the values of a coaching culture in the very fabric of the organization.

It’s also essential that senior leadership champion the coach approach. The executive team needs to explicitly state the reasons why it is important for the organization to adopt this new mindset, and be clear on expectations for leaders in terms of learning and applying new skills.

  1. Coaching culture needs a learning architecture


Although you want all leaders to have some grasp of coaching culture, that doesn’t mean that you should expect every leader to achieve the same level of coaching skill. A learning architecture needs to be established so that coaching skills can be matched with leadership roles to ensure that those who most need them, get them.

For example:

For the training of internal coaches, an organization may need to consider a relevant, coaching certification from entities like the International Coaching Federation. This will allow internal coaches to meet higher expectations around coaching skills and capabilities.

Learning architecture must also provide regular opportunities for leaders to practice coaching skills. The practice can take the form of regular meetings of leaders to discuss their coaching challenges, peer-to-peer coaching or even allowing your leaders to work with external coaches.

  1. Build a community to cement a coaching culture.


A community focus on coaching and continuously enhancing skills will ensure that coaching becomes fully integrated into the organization’s operation. Technology platforms can help leaders connect and learn from each other about how to handle specific coaching scenarios. This may also allow for tracking and reporting on formal coaching engagements, with both internal and external coaches.

As well, rewarding and recognizing coaching behavior can also reinforce the importance of coaching and celebrating its impact. 

Ultimately, coaching culture is about adopting a different way of thinking about our day-to-day challenges. It’s about quickly pivoting from intractable challenges to new strategies and solutions. A coaching culture is one of the best ways to create the conditions to generate new ideas while keeping employees confident and engaged.

Building a coaching culture will involve some hard work. It requires investments in training and external coaching. It also requires faith and commitment at the organizational level. The intimate details of coaching conversations must remain confidential. 

However, those organizations that make the investment in a coaching culture will see a very high return: employees who are more engaged, productive, and innovative.

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