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Executive Coaching and Building A Coaching Culture

In the recent Talent Management magazine there was an interesting article titled: Intricacies of Creating A Coaching Culture.

In the article the authors (Emily Hoole and Douglas Riddle) thoroughly explore the organizational efforts at reducing the use of external coaches and moving towards building an internal executive coaching structure. While the concept sounds promising the authors appropriately caution that the implementation can be more difficult than it first appears.

As the need for leadership development grows more and more important, organizations have been steadily increasing their use of executive coaches.  This has helped build leadership pipelines and provide a strong retention tool for high potentials.

Hoole and Riddle point out that this has led to what they see as an evolution of organizations looking to create a “coaching culture” where they begin to imbue executive coaching techniques and language into the talent management process:

As a result, coaching definitions shaped by professional executive coaching gave way to coaching definitions applicable to the relationship of managers with their direct report or team leaders with their team. These definitions focused less on a particular set of activities or techniques and more on the creation of an enabling atmosphere or relationship.

The authors, who both work for the Center for Creative Leadership, raised a cautionary flag that creating a “coaching culture” is complicated and nuanced because of the complexities surrounding corporate culture.

However, CCL research suggests the attitudes and behaviors associated with coaching approaches represent an important enabling element in corporate cultures associated with innovation, collaboration and learning agility — the outcomes of what leaders have come to think of as interdependent cultures.

Senior leadership of organizations demonstrating sustained success keep organizational culture as part of the conversation for all strategic planning. In addition, more recent models of change recognize continuous, rapid, multiple change as the real experience of all competitive organizations. Attempts at intentional change must recognize that this change will compete for organizational attention with multiple other changes.

It is important to note that cautioning organizations around the build-out of a coaching culture is not simply self-serving rhetoric for firms providing executive coaching (like The Frontier Group).  The authors point out those organizations who try to jump start a “coaching culture” find the execution problematic.

Their solution is to approach this culture shift by recognizing:

  • Cultural changes occur over long periods of time with many moving parts, and they require persistent attention to the development of both the structural and emotional support for change.
  • To build a culture more aligned with coaching attitudes, approaches, behaviors and relationships, it helps to think about using a coaching approach toward change.
  • Though coaching is often thought of in the context of individual relationships, it can be applied to group changes having significant individual impact. Culture change efforts can be enhanced by leaders who understand how to use coaching as a way to liberate the inherent energy of constituents eager for an organizational commitment to leadership development.

It is important to note that coaching is not the only to drive culture shift. The goals of building relationships of mutual respect, honest communication and genuine support does not necessarily involve coaching. What it more closely represents, as Hoole and Riddle point out is:

Society has come to think that the characteristics labeled “coaching culture” are really more of a “leadership culture,” meaning a culture that values the development of leadership at all levels and in all parts of the organization. CCL, along with countless others in this industry, understands this is needed to ensure the success of companies today and in the future.

Leadership culture must be part of the overall organizational culture because the talent management department can’t do everything by itself. Every leader must be engaged in developing the leadership capabilities of those around them or future organizational growth cannot be assured.

Companies who are preparing themselves for the next 100 years recognize that focusing on leadership culture and cultivating leaders is the only way to affect success over time.

The authors point out that there are some very practical steps these companies are taking to move more towards this leadership culture.

Leadership strategy: The most promising sign relates to the efforts companies are making to give as much attention to their leadership strategy as they do to the rest of the business strategy. Lagging indicators, like financial measures, drive so much of companies’ business planning, but future success is dependent on the right people and atmosphere for creativity, commitment and engagement. A leadership strategy can shape the culture through creating structural and reward systems that encourage the kind of cross-boundary connections shown to increase innovation, productivity and growth.

Redefining the leader role: Top organizations make it explicit that taking on a leadership role involves developing others, and they align reward and recognition systems to reflect this expectation. Competitive advantage is increased when there is earnest intent on the part of every leader to develop the leadership capability of others. Leaders as coaches should be on the lookout for learning opportunities to develop others’ leadership capacity. This includes formal and casual mentoring relationships, but also planning challenging assignments, giving clear and kind feedback, and giving others room to solve problems on their own before resorting to direction.

Senior-team modeling: The culture needed in the organization as a whole is also desired in the smaller world of the senior executive team. Executive teams who have the respect of their people demand of themselves the kind of behavior and spirit they hope to see in the organization. These teams go public with their commitment to behaviors that support a respectful, collaborative climate and acknowledge when they fall short. They work at getting their own culture right and let their people know of their efforts.

Talent system modifications: While structure can’t change culture, it can undermine efforts to change. The most obvious structural impediments are reward systems that ignore the importance of climate and culture. There are plenty of examples of highly compensated executives who drive short-term performance through intimidation and have no regard for the long-term consequences to the health of the organization. Organizations with a long-term perspective realign talent management systems to support culture and value with as much emphasis as financial performance.

Coaching know-how: Perhaps it’s obvious that changing a culture to reflect a different kind of relationship must include learning opportunities for people in all parts of the organization, but the brain is biased toward telling rather than coaching. Neurological research has made us more conscious of the energy-conserving strategies of the brain. Telling people what to do requires less intellectual and emotional energy than engaging them in a thought process to advance their capability.

Poole and Riddle conclude that while building a coaching culture may be a challenge for all organizations the future demands of the explosion of communication, global competition, diversity of workforces and customers, and changes in the fundamentals of the world’s economies will lead them to find ways to improve and adapt their culture.

As the authors appropriately conclude:

The hunger for a coaching culture is a logical response to the need for creativity and leadership emerging from all corners and levels of an organization. Ultimately, leaders must give constant attention to the quality of the relationships and the emotional climate shaping the performance and future of their organizations.


Emily Hoole – Group Director of Global Research and Evaluations – Center for Creative Leadership 

Douglas Riddle - Global Director of Coaching Services and Assessment Portfolio - Center for Creative Leadership