Yesterday, I co-presented at the NorthEast Wisconsin Association of Talent Development (ATD) along with Kerry Scherer of SECURA Insurance on Enhancing Your Coaching Culture and it inspired me to write this blog (with SECURA’s permission of course).

So, first, what is a “coaching culture”? A Coaching Culture is one that offers associates at all levels of the organization regular opportunities to grow skills, maximize potential and reach personal and professional goals. It is characterized by regular coaching conversations, encouragement, and asking before telling. Over the last 4 years, Kerry, SECURA leadership and I have partnered in our efforts to strengthen SECURA’s coaching culture. The results have been phenomenal!

Here is what we’ve learned.

1) Link your coaching culture to business impact
If there is not a clear link between having a strong coaching culture and specific business outcomes, you will not get the engagement and traction necessary to sustain any culture change; it’s that simple. With SECURA, our first step was to interview the CEO, Executive Team and HR leaders. We asked three questions: 1) what is the shift you would like to see? 2) why is this important? 3) How will we know we’ve been successful?

2) Create a communication strategy
Ensuring awareness and engagement is a critical, yet often neglected step. With SECURA, this was a learning experience and came later than we now realize was ideal. We learned how important a focused communication and marketing strategy is after a number of confused questions such as… “Wait, why are we doing this again?” “Why should I take my time for this program?” “How is this different from our Mentoring Program?… and the list goes on. We increasingly became aware not everyone was fully on board with the culture shift. Together we designed a marketing campaign, leveraging a change management approach that is known within SECURA, focusing on creating awareness and desire. This campaign consisted of a topic of the month related to Strengthening Our Coaching Culture, that included table tents, posters, email blasts and micro learning videos related to the topic.

3) Treat coaching as a job expectation for all
In order for a coaching culture initiative to stick, it is important for associates at all levels to understand that regular, candid and respectful feedback and coaching conversations are encouraged, expected and included in performance discussions. A place to start is to include coaching as a performance standard in all of your selection, employee engagement, development, succession and performance management systems. It is not enough to provide coaching training, there needs to be clear expectations and accountability for coaching behaviors to take hold.

4) Encourage risk taking and experimentation
A coaching culture can not exist in organizations where it is the norm to immediately dismiss, criticize, and fear new ways of doing things. When mistakes or failures occur, it is critical that the norm is to learn from it in collaboration with all involved in a supportive manner. In SECURA’s case, there were initially pros and cons in this area. The culture was and is incredibly positive and engaging, with highly supportive and considerate associates and managers. At the same time, it can be difficult for those who are taught to mitigate risk as part of their job, to begin to take risks with their development and careers. Great progress has been made to encourage associates to initiate conversations and experiment with new approaches.

5) Create the organizational conditions for success
We live in a world that is evolving at an exponential rate. Several have referred to it as the VUCA world… Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. With accelerating demands on businesses, leaders and associates, it is increasingly more difficult to build in the time necessary for growth and maximum effectiveness given these demands. Unfortunately, this is not the norm. Most are just struggling to keep up! That is why your organization must support more strategic and planful efforts toward growing and developing talent.
As an organization, it is important to instill norms and processes that encourage engagement, reflection, accountability and on the job learning. Some examples include: 1) encouraging white space between meetings… this is critical for reflection on what just happened and to plan what is next. It should also be encouraged to set aside time for planning and strategic thinking, 2) the expectation of preparedness… in order to establish an open, respectful coaching culture, it must be the norm to plan and prepare. This includes preparation meeting and discussions to maximize impact but also developmental planning and preparing for how you will approach particular situations differently than you’ve done in the past 3) identifying and pursuing on the job learning experiences. It has been shown that the way we learn is by doing. Strong coaching cultures encourage new experiences and put associates in situations that are outside their comfort zone in order to learn by doing.
SECURA is one of the best examples I’ve seen at encouraging on the job learning experiences. Specifically, they proactively encourage associates to take on roles in which they show interest that are often completely outside of their education and experience. Movements to and from the claims department, Finance, HR, Performance Development, etc. are quite common and encouraged.

6) Enhance feedback and coaching skills in leaders
There are many “Leader as Coach” type programs out there. Most have very strong content, however, unfortunately that vast majority do not result in sustainable changes in behavior, and even less in the organizational culture. It is a basic requirement that leaders learn to coach in order for a coaching culture shift to take place. While doing so, it is important to consider the big picture, and not assume that by training managers to be coaches you are changing a coaching culture. In order to truly enhance feedback and coaching skills, it takes much more than training. With SECURA, we leveraged a full growth cycle approach to help leaders not only learn coaching skills but to create new practices and habits to engrain those skills. For example, we encouraged and expected all leaders to have a Growth Plan they are regularly discussing with their managers, SECURA provided newly appointed managers with internal coaches, and we provided a set of coaching tools and micro learning segments for them to leverage as needed to maximize their coaching capabilities.

7) Develop your internal coaching program
Strong coaching cultures establish an internal team of trained coaches to provide coaching services within the organization. With SECURA, we have developed a group of 13 internal coaches from all areas and levels of the organization in advanced coaching skills. We provided a coaching process, and a set of coaching tools and exercises to use with their coachees at specified times in the coaching engagement. While ideally your internal coaches are certified by an International Coach Federation coach training program, that may not always be feasible for all. Providing your internal coaches with regular opportunities to enhance and practice coaching skills, while receiving feedback from an expert coach, is critical to coaching program success.

8) Expect and equip associates to own their development
This is an often neglected but critical component of strong coaching cultures. How often have you heard associates say “There are just no opportunities here”, “I am not being developed for the next role”, “My boss never asks me about my career goals”. While these are all valid frustrations, the next question to ask yourself is “What have I done to initiate these conversations?” “How have I prepared myself for my next career goal?” “What feedback and coaching have I provided to others in the organization, including my boss?”
With SECURA, we created the Own Your Development program and specifically reinforced the benefits and expectations for associates to initiate constructive developmental conversations, seek and provide feedback, and create and execute a Personal Growth Plan that has meaning and impact. We also provided all associates with regular opportunities to refresh learning principles and practice with micro learning video segments that are housed on their intranet and distributed to the associate base regularly as part of the Strengthening Our Coaching Culture communication effort.

9) Selectively leverage external coaches
Leveraging a small, trusted group of external coaches is a critical component of a strong coaching culture. Most often, external coaches are reserved for a) current senior executives b) those high potential leaders with a potential to become your future senior executives and c) those who hold pivotal roles, with a direct link to business success, with a developmental challenge that is less significant than their strengths.

When working with external coaches, it is important to balance at least 3 elements:

a) education with experience. While it might be ideal to have a coach who is Master Certified with ICF, a PhD psychologist or learning and development expert, multiple decades of experience coaching leaders in the role, have themselves held positions in the role, etc. That is just not likely, realistic nor necessary. The best external coach has familiarity with your business, industry and responsibilities, but more importantly an expertise in behavior change and coaching.

b) flexibility with standardization. A strong external coaching program includes a clear set of standards and processes your coaches follow, yet also allows them to leverage their strengths and insights to do what they feel is best for their coachees. Some areas that often benefit from standardization include: 1) a process for initial and ongoing alignment discussions with the coach, coachee, manager and optionally HR sponsor, 2) preferred assessments and 360 degree feedback process, 3) coaching plan template and expectations about with whom to share, 4) a reference back to organizational strategic priorities and 5) a connection to organizational competencies or performance standards. Any individual coach or coaching firm you work with should discuss and gain agreement on how to address these coaching success factors.

c) one source vs multi sourcing. As one who comes from large coach sourcing firms and now has a small group of trusted coaches I source to my clients, I can see the advantages and disadvantages of each. One thing I do not recommend is to allow anyone in your organization to hire any coach they want. As you can imagine, this results in lots of wasted money, time and other resources. Having a small group of trusted coaches who all follow some basic, standard guidelines yet also have the flexibility to do what they do best makes sense. If you do have one firm you trust to provide these coaches, the benefit is that they can educate coaches and leverage standards on: 1) organizational priorities and common issues and challenges 2) coaching processes such as assessments, 360 degree feedback, and alignment discussions, 3) a common set of tools, exercises and learning modules 4) tracking and reporting out coaching progress, and 5) impact measurement criteria and approaches.

10) Measure Impact.

With respect to measuring impact, it is important to keep in mind the following: 1) be clear about your success criteria up front and determine the best way to measure them 2) be clear about the differences between measuring satisfaction, learning, behavior change, perception change, bottom line results, etc. and why you would choose some over others, 3) provide clear and simple graphics of results. For example, these were the results with respect to the improvements in associate ratings of their manager’s coaching behaviors before the Strengthening Our Coaching Culture Initiative and 12 month later, after specifically working on a coaching related growth plan. As you can see, improvements were made on all behaviors, particularly Listening, Emotional Awareness, and Planning.