As a long-established business coaching firm AltusQ has been well placed to observe the increasing use of coaching techniques and methodologies as tools for supporting and developing leaders. Needless to say we’ve been delighted by the improved profile and acceptance of coaching generally – but we have also noted that things don’t always pan out as expected.
A case in point is the popularity of training managers in coaching skills which has become a standard inclusion in many management fundamentals programs going under names such as “Manager as Coach”, “Quality Conversations” and “Leader as Coach”. The intent of these programs is commendable but typically the impact is limited if it is only the manager who is being trained. As one client reported, “it took 3 days for their staff to knock that coaching approach out of their manager after the training”. Managers, no matter how they are trained, are not superhuman. They are unlikely to be able to drive real cultural change within their organisation if everyone around them is still wedded to the status quo.
Another practical problem with trying to drive coaching skills into an organisation is the unavoidable fact that many senior executives are still inclined to cynicism about such things. Appearances matter and “soft” skills like coaching are just not something that some managers can embrace (yes) especially if the said manager has not already been coached themselves and is therefore not “sold” on the benefits.
The net result can all-too-often be a coaching initiative that fails to deliver the promised ROI. From our selfish point of view the biggest problem posed by these failures is that they tarnish the reputation of business coaching generally. Se we’re on a mission to demonstrate how to use coaching in ways that reliably lead to real lasting cultural and ultimately commercial changes.
Attacking the problem on two fronts
People are inherently social creatures who take their behavioural cues from those around them. This fact suggests that, to change an organisation, we need to focus on the relationships between individuals at least as much as we focus on the individuals themselves. One way to do this that we have had great success with is to combine coaching skills training delivered in a team environment with a well-structured mentoring program.
The most effective coaching programs promote change in one of our most habitual behaviours – our communication. At a practical level most of the communication that matters takes place within teams. It is simply more efficient and impactful to teach coaching skills in a team context where real leadership issues, roadblocks and inter-personal dynamics can be dealt with.
A well-structured mentoring program is synergistic with team-based coaching because it leads to improved communication beyond teams – as well as providing a way to introduce coaching skills to senior executives who, in our experience, can be less accepting of “coaching skills training” as such. Mentoring also provides an opportunity for mentors to practice new skills in a less-threatening environment, with someone outside of the mentor’s political and reporting structures.
One thing we can’t emphasise enough though is that these initiatives need to be carefully planned, structured and managed. Experience has shown us clearly that there is a right way (and many wrong ways!) to run these programs.
This blended approach leads to:
- Widespread diffusion of coaching skills and concepts across the organisation
- High levels of program engagement, from the most senior mentors down to the most junior team members and mentees
- Sustainable change, arising from a pattern of cultural reinforcement rather than cultural resistance.
Fundamentally what we are saying is that organisational inertia is a powerful force. Up-skilling one manager at a time, no matter how valuable the skills involved might be, is rarely going to be able to make enough of a dent in that inertia to make a lasting difference. It is essential to shift the context in which people are operating as well as shifting the thinking of the individuals themselves.