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Transitioning to a Coaching Culture

By Peter Hawkins and Barbara Walsh

Many CEOs and HR Directors we have spoken to over the last few years are very proud of the growth of coaching in their organisations. At the same time they are concerned about the benefit to the organisation – how they can sustain the offering and evaluate the return on their investment.

The HR Director of a large retail organisation proudly recounted how they had a strong panel of external coaches, had developed and trained a community of internal coaches, and had trained many of their managers with coaching skills. When asked how many coaching conversations took place every week in her organisation she responded: “there must be thousands worldwide”. When asked how her organisation derived learning from those thousands of coaching conversations she appeared shocked and had no answer.

People often construe a coaching culture to mean an organisation where a lot of coaching takes place. These are not the same thing. A coaching culture is about more than the coaching inputs taking place – it’s crucially about the alignment of these inputs to create individual, team, organisation and wider system value-creating change.

“A coaching culture exists in an organisation when a coaching approach is a key aspect of how the leaders, managers and staff engage and develop all their people [at all levels] and engage their stakeholders, in ways that create increased individual, team and organisational performance and shared value for all stakeholders.”  Peter Hawkins: Creating a Coaching Culture (McGraw Hill 2012).

Too often coaching is seen as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. To benefit from coaching an organisation needs to develop a coaching strategy that starts with the end in mind. This needs to begin with the organisational strategy, and be based on an understanding of how the organisation’s current and future stakeholders need to develop to create greater value for all stakeholders.

This strategic understanding can then address how the organisation’s culture, and within that its leadership culture, needs to be different in order to deliver this strategic development. Only then can it address the question: “How can coaching most effectively assist this necessary cultural development?”

It is no longer enough for coaches to deliver coaching that is primarily valued by the individual coachee. Coaching must also deliver organisational learning, development and value to the coachee’s stakeholders, and in the broader scheme of things, to the organisation’s stakeholders. Coaching needs to have a much stronger systemic orientation.

Where organisations are using a number of coaches to work with multiple individuals and teams, there should be a suitable mechanism for feeding back cultural patterns and emerging trends that come to light through coaching conversations in a non-attributable way (thereby preserving the appropriate confidentiality). This information will assist in identifying where and how change needs to take place and is vital to organisational learning. Without it the organisation loses much of the value to be derived from coaching.

An effective mechanism for harvesting this information is by utilising the services of a qualified and experienced coaching supervisor to work regularly with all of the external and internal coaches working in the organisation. Leading coaching consultancies will provide this service as part of a consolidated service for managing coaching within and on behalf of organisations.

Organisations with their own established processes for managing coaching can contract directly with a reputable coaching supervisor, making attendance at supervision sessions mandatory for coaches engaged by the organisation. (Coaching supervision has the added benefit of assisting the coaches to manage ethical dilemmas which arise from time to time, and maintain a balanced approach to their work).

Success brings with it many dangers, including complacency, which can in turn become arrogance. It may also induce less motivation to change and adapt and failure to notice that the ecological niche in which you operate is changing faster than you are. The business literature is full of cases where ‘excellent’ companies who were leaders in their market, failed to adapt and their success vanished before they knew it.

If you are number one in your sector, you can be slower than less successful companies to notice and respond to critical changes in the wider marketplace. By the time the impact of these changes is evidenced through a decline in financial performance, it is too late. Well-known examples include Olivetti who were market leaders in typewriters, IBM in mainframe computers, Kodak in print photography, and Tesco in supermarket retail. All were blinded by their success and failed to see the changes taking place in their wider ecology.

If you are a market dominator you need to be actively listening to and engaging with all parts of your wider stakeholder ecology to understand and create the market needed for tomorrow. Valuable information will emanate from the various coaching conversations taking place in your organisation. The learning that emerges is a valuable resource for identifying potentially problematic issues and responding to these before they become a crisis.

Professor Peter Hawkins is Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School in the United Kingdom, and a Non-Executive Director of Metaco Consulting in South Africa ( He is the author of several best-selling books on the topics of Systemic Leadership and Coaching.

Barbara Walsh is a Director and Principal Consultant with Metaco Consulting. She has an MSc in Coaching and Behavioural Change and is a credentialed Executive Coach, Systemic Team Coach and coach trainer.

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