Category Archives: Performance Management

Coaching Cultures

Organizations where coaching skills are infused in day-to-day practice have “higher employee engagement and stronger financial performance.” So says a 2014 International Coaching Federation (ICF) research report.

As I see it, more traditional approaches to leadership development involve three components: leader training programs, formal mentoring, and/or coaching offered to senior leaders (and sometimes to a select group of rising stars.) Comparing these three components highlights special features of coaching.

  • Coaching is a partnership in which the coachee sets or, even where HR or Talent Management is involved, co-creates her/his goals. The coach, using skills and frameworks he/she has learned, co-creates paths for learning
  • In contrast, “training” means that the program developer—not the learner—determines the learning objectives and creates a course of study.
  • Although mentoring is more organic than training, it is still teaching. The mentor guides learning from her/his own experience and expertise in a particular area.

pink tree blossomsIt’s great when organizations offer training programs, formal mentoring, and/or some coaching. I wish more organizations had all three! Fundamentally, though, I would like all managers to be able to use a coaching approach to supervising employees. And I would like to see more employees have the experience of coaching.

Why? Beliefs that underlie coaching cultures build resilient organizations.

  • People’s strengths, resources, and experiences are the wellsprings of growth.
  • Inquiry and exploration are important both for employee growth and business outcomes.
  • Both coach and coachee are learners. Everybody is a learner; work is about learning every day.
  • Supervision is collaborative.

According to the ICF report, organizations with strong coaching cultures share several attributes.

  • Coach training and coaching skills training are dedicated line items in the corporate budget.
  • Leaders and managers use a coaching approach to supervision.
  • They have coaching skill training that has been approved by an an accrediting organization (such as ICF).
  • Both internal and external coaches are certified. Certification entails completion of a course of study approved by a certifying organization, adherence to ethical standards, verification of coaching experience, and ongoing continuing education.

Especially if your resources are limited, you may not think a coaching culture is within reach. Don’t give up; here are ways to get started.

  • Help managers and organizational leaders learn more about coaching. For example, there are important differences between leadership coaching, consulting, mentoring, training, and sports/wellness/voice coaching.
  • Host brown bag lunch discussions where leaders compare their mental models of coaching.
  • Invite a panel of coaches to explain and demonstrate aspects of their practice.
  • Discuss the supervision practices you now use, such as performance reviews. What assumptions about supervising, teaching, employee motivation, and correcting underlie your current practices? What would be different if managers adopted a coaching stance as the norm?
  • Offer a coaching skills course so managers can learn to use a coaching approach to supervision.
  • Support one or a few employees at a time to enroll in an accredited coaching program. (I’m happy to offer recommendations.)
  • Create a multi-year plan for building a coaching culture, and welcome small steps. Some experts think that with large scale change, it may actually be better to implement the change over a period of time.

As organizations grow more complex, people at all levels need the very skill sets that coaching encourages and teaches: the capability to heighten self-awareness, cultivate critical and strategic thinking, see from multiple points of view, and communicate with people who are very different from oneself.

For Sustainability, Develop People

shutterstock_282591626“Stark underinvestment in leadership development undermines nonprofit leaders” and weakens their organizations, a new report by Third Sector New England warns.


The over 1,000 leaders and board members surveyed strongly support the need for sustained professional development for staff.

  • Leaders “who do invest in professional development were significantly more likely to think their organizations have enough bench strength” for sustainability and leadership transitions.
  • But staff professional development is a budgeted line item in just over half the organizations surveyed in New England.
  • Although acknowledging the value of coaching, just over half of leaders have invested in coaching.

What can you do in your organization? Here are some approaches I use.

  • Create a culture based on learning, embedding learning in every work process. The Learning Compass, based on David Kolb’s Learning Cycle and the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory 4.0, provides an excellent basis because you can use the Compass in business process improvement, problem solving, decision making, innovation, planning, team development, and communication.
  • Create a performance management system based upon facilitating growth, not evaluating or “appraising.” Teach managers to approach supervision as coaches. Of course, all managers need a firm understanding of what a coaching approach is and is not, and they must be supported with skill development.
  • Build bench strength by targeting rising leaders for formal mentoring and coaching. Peer problem solving, using methods such as the tuning protocol (adapted for using in the business sector) or the GROW coaching model, teaches coaching skills and fosters creative solutions to day-to-day work challenges. These problem-solving processes are especially powerful when facilitated by a certified coach who helps the group deepen its awareness and be more intentional about skill-building.

The Third Sector (TSNE) report points out that with baby boomer Executive Directors retiring, nonprofits’ lack of succession planning is a serious problem.

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of the 877 internal leaders surveyed said they intend to leave the organization in one to five years.
  • Almost two thirds (64%) do not believe there is an internal leader who can succeed them.
  • The report calls for preparing for leaders’ departures by developing “deep sustainability,” including strong leadership systems. No organization should be dependent upon individual leaders.

Here are steps to strengthen your leadership system.

  • Imagine what would you be missing if the Executive Director or CEO were to leave next month? What if your top four or five leaders were to suddenly leave? This exercise will focus your attention on the need to identify the capabilities and skills that your organization must have in order to thrive. You and your board will likely also experience a sense of urgency about developing people and creating systems that are not individual-dependent.
  • Create a plan for developing leaders. It is all right if it is not a comprehensive plan. When change is complex, sometimes more incremental approaches are even preferable (Senge et al, 1999).

These examples may help you see what I mean.

  • Recognizing that she would leave before long, one CEO worked with her senior staff to consensually re-configure job responsibilities so that one team member became COO. Over the next year, that person grew in her ability to lead all aspects of the organization. In addition, all senior team members identified and trained direct reports to step into new responsibilities.
  • Another organization created distributed leadership by first training about 10% of staff, including some supervisors, some managers and two senior leaders, in Culture of Quality Improvement (CQI) methods. Once these folks became certified, they further “seeded” shared leadership by heading up CQI project teams with manager and non-manager members, some of whom became the next cohort to receive training in CQI.

The TSNE report decries “the paucity of resources to support the success of nonprofits” in the Northeast and throughout the country. It challenges the long-held belief that low overhead for nonprofits is good management. Starving leadership development is, in fact, shortsighted, inefficient, and ineffective. In order to serve others, you have to take care of yourself and your staff.

Managers and Leaders are Different?

The tired claim that managers and leaders are different has serious consequences for the way we treat people and run organizations.

First, what is the alleged difference between a manager’s and a leader’s roles and capabilities? Guru Warren Bennis put it this way,

The manager administers; the leader innovates.
The manager maintains; the leader develops.
The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it. (Bennis, 2003)

In other words, a manager sees that projects and programs get done. A leader has strategic vision, originality and the ability to inspire.

Bennis went on to make the case that managers can become leaders—but the either/or distinction stuck—and not just in business schools. Haven’t you heard a supervisor say something like, “she’s a competent manager, but not a leader” or, “he’s just not leader material?”

Such beliefs, whether voiced or not, put blinders on our own vision, constrain other people and limit our organizations. Here is how.

  • Because an employee’s job duties focus on managing programs or projects, we imagine she/he does not possess or cannot learn strategic thinking.
  • We make hiring and promotion decisions based on rigid ideas about what management vs. leadership competence involves.
  • We inadvertently compromise our ability to retain valuable employees.

shutterstock_134350289I propose that we see every employee as a leader—actually and potentially. This view activates the Pygmalion Effect wherein you, as a leader, are like the mythic artist Pygmalion. The human figure he sculpted became real when he fell in love with her. Similarly, your belief in our employees’ leadership potential activates that potential.

Here is a true story about leaders who encouraged leadership behavior in an employee: Even after several improvement cycles, a hospital Quality Improvement team could not bring the post-operative infection rate down to the target. After they invited more levels of staff onto the team, a custodian noticed the small pile of scrubs in the dirty laundry bin and wondered aloud if changing scrubs more often would make a difference. When providers began to change their cover-ups unerringly, the infection rate declined. The custodian’s careful observations, critical thinking and initiative showed leadership in action.

I invite you to explore your assumptions about leadership—what it is and who shows it. Then, analyze the way you develop leaders in your organization. For example:

  • Take a hard look at how you manage performance. “Appraisal” practices are often judgmental and punitive. Recreate a system that focuses on learning and appreciative leadership.
  • Create an organization-wide mentoring system.
  • Provide an external, credentialed coach for all executives (for example, all VP’s; all C-suite executives.)
  • Make sure every person promoted into a supervisor role learns how to supervise with a focus on learning. Provide a variety of ways to learn—with a mentor; with a coach who is not in the chain of coachee supervision and not from HR; by reading and reflective writing/discussion; through communities of practice; through courses.
  • When you form project teams, include staff at all levels so they learn to collaborate, identify problems, find root causes, and design and implement solutions.