Creating a Coaching Culture…an open letter to senior leaders written by Gregg Thompson.

Creating a coaching culture can be one of the most important contributions you will ever make as a senior leader and will likely be the predominant feature of your personal legacy. It can also be some of the most challenging, yet personally rewarding, work that you ever do. Great leaders always leave their marks deep inside their organizations. What do you want your mark to be?

So what is this thing we call organization culture? Think about culture as the way an organization is hard-wired. It’s what makes an organization distinctive. It’s the organization’s essence, its ethos. Tomes have been written about the source of an organization’s culture, and most researchers agree that it is likely created by the beliefs, values and aspirations that are shared by the most influential people in an organization, the senior leaders. While it can be difficult to pin down exactly what creates an organization’s culture, it is relatively easy to see the results. An organization’s culture is manifest in its unique norms and practices. The best description I have ever heard came from a former professor of mine who said, “It’s the way we do things around here.” How do your people do things around your organization, and how are these a reflection of your leadership?

Because the causal factors are so deeply imbedded, shaping an organization’s culture is extraordinarily difficult. Why go to all this work? Look around you. When you see an organization that is highly productive, innovative and nimble, it is likely driven by a coaching culture. People in this high performing organization are bringing their very best talents and energies to their work every day because others are encouraging them, challenging them, seeing the best in them, constructively confronting them…in short, because someone is coaching them.

So how do you know if you have a coaching culture? Here is a checklist to consider.

Do you lead a team or organization where:

1. talent, high performance and career acceleration are greatly valued?
2. people are excited about their personal and professional growth opportunities?
3. leaders are seen as trustworthy, selfless and competent?
4. people feel appreciated for their unique contributions?
5. well-intentioned feedback flows readily throughout the organization?
6. promises are readily made and faithfully kept?
7. difficult conversations are routine?

An organization has a true coaching culture when these are evident. Fortunately, creating a coaching culture, while perhaps difficult, is quite straightforward. By taking three bold steps, you can put an indelible mark on your organization and touch the work, careers and lives of every member of your organization in the process.

The tough part? The first step starts with you. You need to model great coaching. This is one thing you cannot delegate to others. You will likely need some good partners but you cannot turn this work over to others. You must be a great coach yourself. You need to model what you expect of others. And this does not mean you need to simply have more one-on-ones with your direct reports, give more sage advice or spend more time wandering the hallways. You actually need to become a great coach. You need to show up every day doing the things that great coaches do to earn the right to coach others. You need to be recognized as an authentic, competent leader who is deeply committed to the success of others. You need to form relationships in which others are inspired, challenged, appreciated and held accountable for their own performance and careers. You need to courageously dive into difficult, often emotionally-laden conversations that focus on critical topics such as aspirations, disappointments and shifting expectations. It all starts with you. If you are not willing to step up and set the standard for others, don’t bother with this initiative. This will simply be another passing program that will temporarily occupy your HR team, annoy your staff, amuse those already doing good coaching and enrich a few consultants.

The second step is to expect coaching throughout your organization by holding all other organization leaders, particularly your direct reports, accountable to coach their team members. A good way to foster this is to start measuring these leaders not on their own performance but, rather, on the performance of their direct reports. Strongly encouraging all senior leaders to participate in a high quality coach training program will not only build coaching capability but will also demonstrate your commitment to talent and personal development. Also, heavily skewing performance management and reward systems toward coaching excellence will ensure that coaching becomes part of your organization’s DNA and not just another managerial competency.

The third and, in many ways, the most exciting step is to expand coaching throughout the organization by encouraging every organization member to invite another to be their coach. Clear and compelling communication about the value of coaching and that every member of the organization is expected to coach at least one other member will set the stage for a shift towards a coaching culture. This each-one-coach-one approach will need to be supported by high quality coaching skills training.

As a senior leader, you make choices every day about where to best invest your talents, time and energy. If you want your work to mean something special and have a significant, lasting effect on others, consider building a coaching culture. You are the only one who can make this happen. Only you can take that first, big step!