Too often, leaders think that they are responsible for making most, if not every, decision in their organizations. Perhaps their ability to make good decisions has played a large part in advancing to a position of leadership, so they continue on that track. Perhaps they enjoy the power or control that they feel in making every decision. Or maybe they just don’t trust the people around them to make good decisions.
Often, making decisions at the top seems the most expedient thing to do. Whatever the reason, “the buck stops here (and only here)” is the way that many leaders operate.
When describing a leader’s role in his 1974 book Management, Peter Drucker listed five specific leadership roles, as follows:
1. Setting objectives
2. Organizing the group
3. Motivating and communicating
4. Measuring performance
5. Developing people
Our task here is not to examine each of these roles, but rather to notice that making every decision is not among the five.
One responsibility that is part of the five, however, is developing people. The way leaders develop people shapes the quality of the decisions their people make. In the book Built to Last, Jim Collins describes successful companies as having talent “stacked like cordwood.” One of the best ways of developing people and building that talent pool is by incorporating coaching into leadership—in other words, build a coaching culture within the organization.
Culture within an organization can be thought of as the ways we work together and treat people both within and beyond the organization. According to Richard Daft in The Leadership Experience, culture can be defined as the set of key values, assumptions, understandings and norms that are shared by members of an organization and taught to new members as correct. Culture is not a statement but a practice throughout the organization. And culture flows downhill. Especially in small- to mid-size enterprises, the behavior of the leader(s) of the organization becomes the culture of the organization.
A coaching culture, then, is a set of behaviors in which the skills and practices of coaching become a primary means of interacting. These skills and practices include: demonstrating value placed on those people with whom we interact, practicing humility, listening to understand and asking powerful questions.
These powerful questions are not leading or judgmental, nor simply advice wrapped with a question mark. They are questions seeking to know real thoughts from the real person. This coaching culture, built upon humility and valuing others, could be considered a subset or a specific form of servant leadership.
Characteristics of a Coaching Culture
Beyond the four distinctives—valuing others, practicing humility, listening well, and asking great questions--here are some telltale signs of a coaching culture:
- Multilevel and same-level coaching.
· Team-oriented posture, a sense of mutual ownership; it is an “all for one, one for all” mindset.
- Open, frequent, constructive communication from all stakeholders, both up and down the organizational structure as well as peer-to-peer.
- Consistent, high-quality feedback, at all levels.
- A common coaching practice and language
- Input sought and freely provided without regard to hierarchy
- Leaders that are positive role models.
- Clear alignment and integration of human resources
- A pervasive attitude of servant leadership or serving one another
A coaching culture is not nirvana nor an environment where everyone always gets along, and no one is ever unhappy. But it can grow to be an organization where all people are valued and where team members at all levels have space to grow, receive honest and helpful feedback, and pursue professional goals. And the end result is that the team members’ and the organization’s goals become more closely aligned.
Building the Culture
There are many benefits of building a coaching culture for the organization and the people in the organization, including:
- Empowered and engaged team members.
- Team members feel supported and are willing to take calculated risks.
- Increased productivity.
- Change moves faster and with less resistance.
- Increased buy-in or motivation as team members make or participate in decisions that they then implement.
- High employee satisfaction and commitment.
- Low employee turnover.
- Being an organization that people want to join.
For many organizations, moving from status quo to a coaching culture can be daunting and difficult. And making a half-hearted or poorly executed attempt can cause serious damage to existing relationships, as the gesture can appear manipulative or improperly motivated. So, moving to a coaching culture is not for the faint of heart or those unwilling to experience substantial personal growth and change.
The best way to begin developing a coaching culture is to cultivate strong coaching skills within a small cadre of motivated leaders, remembering that culture flows downhill.
Coaching within an organization generally takes place in three modes: spontaneous, invited or structured coaching. This well-trained cadre of coaching leaders might then begin by using short, spontaneous coaching whenever they see an opportunity. This spontaneous coaching is much like the idea of providing feedback on the spot. In this case, the practice is to explore decisions and actions as we see them, in order to build and sharpen the decision process.
Eventually, people within the organization will begin to recognize this behavior as the new norm. The coaching cadre can then begin converting requests for direction or advice into invited coaching discussions. Over time, people will value the developmental advantage and begin asking for structured coaching. They will also begin following the role models they have witnessed. As this develops, it will become time to introduce a coaching vocabulary and teach coaching skills more broadly in the organization. Eventually, if done well, this new mode of behavior will work its way into most (likely not all) people in the organization, and you will begin to see the results in the way that people interact and work together.
Ken Vaughan is president of New Horizon Partners, Inc., a business strategy consulting and leadership coaching and development organization.