The importance of coaching in leadership culture is undisputed today. Many organizations strive to create a culture where coaching is integral to Leadership. In such a culture, leaders are encouraged to coach their staff and employees to realize the full potential of each individual. The promise is improved organizational collaboration, higher potential utilization, and more compelling goal achievement. Coaching thus becomes an essential factor in a company’s success. But what exactly is behind the concept? Is it a trend that should be followed to be “up to date”? What are the pitfalls of building a coaching culture?
Navigating Through Economic Uncertainty
In recent decades, business and technology have rapidly progressed. At the same time, markets and customer behavior have also changed dramatically. Many management methods that can be observed in companies in 2023 are no longer up to date. Management guru Gary Hamel states in his book in 2007 that managers must adapt to new developments. Because otherwise, companies that can’t adjust to these new styles risk being swept aside, disappearing like the dinosaurs once did. Gone are the days of Taylorism, in which organizations were optimized like rigid machines and primarily trimmed for efficiency. If the response to constant and exponential change does not allow for flexibility, but rigid processes dominate, companies risk becoming fragile and overtaken by the competition. In the complex adaptive system theory, organizations are considered living organisms that evolve with the environment and can adapt. Agility and adaptability thus become a super-competence. This is because how we managed organizations in the days of industrialization no longer works.
Conditions have changed and require adaptive organizational structures, cultures, and leaders. The omnipotent leader manager who gives the impression of knowing and having everything under control is an illusion and has had its day because the complexity of our reality and tasks are beyond our cognitive capacities.
The leader as coach
As a coach, you help individuals and teams achieve goals beyond their current possibilities. In doing so, the coach gives impulses that enable new alternatives for action and lead beyond existing limits. Coaching introduces coachees to new behavioral and thinking alternatives to activate willingness, ability, and passion for learning and is focused on a goal and the client’s potential.
There are countless articles in the professional literature in which coaching is mentioned as one of the essential leadership styles. More than 20 years ago, Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author, pioneered it. In his article “Leadership That Gets Results,” published in Harvard Business Review (2000), he describes six “leadership styles.” He emphasizes that how we lead depends not solely on one’s leadership personality or individual temperament but on what style the situation calls for. To be able to choose the appropriate leadership style for the situation, emotional intelligence is required. One of the six leadership styles mentioned by Goleman is the coaching-leadership style, which is more related to personal development than to immediate work-related tasks. According to Goleman, this style works well when employees* know their weaknesses and want to improve, but not when they refuse to change their behavior. The understanding of Leadership is that of a catalyst who creates an appropriate environment and framework to empower others to make successful decisions. Modern management empowers teams rather than patronize them, and allows self-management and self-leadership. This empowerment of self-management further requires relinquishing responsibility and control and unlearning to limit obsolete leadership behavior.
The Increasing Importance of Coaching Culture in Organizations
Organizations are pursuing the goal of creating a culture that supports change, builds intent-based and forward-thinking leadership competencies, and achieves a high level of alignment between the goals and aspirations of the organizations and their employees.According to a 2014 survey conducted by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) in partnership with the Human Capital Institute (HCI), more and more organizations have discovered the value and great potential behind building a coaching culture. A culture that provides opportunities for employees and leaders to grow their skills, increase their value, and achieve their professional goals.
Good news for the coaching profession and its significant positive contribution to many levels. However, the immense rise in popularity of coaching carries equal risks beyond the most common mistakes. We may fall into the following traps with the best intentions without realizing the consequences. In particular, if you find yourself already with sufficient coaching competencies, use coaching as your primary leadership style, work in top management, and are considering hiring internal coaches, the following sections may be useful for you.
Hence, coaching is essential to a company’s success. So why do most attempts to create a coaching culture fail?
#1 You are not as good as you think.
The coaching style of Leadership is currently omnipresent and in vogue. Coaching is the most popular form of leadership development and has seen an average annual growth of 10 percent since the end of the last economic crisis. This trend shows no signs of slowing down, and demand for coaching services will continue to grow.
Because the term coaching is not trademarked, the professionalization of the ability to coach others appears to be available to everyone. Coaching is becoming a “container term” into which anyone can interpret whatever is needed to make their service offering seem as attractive as possible. The attribute “coaching” ennobles even those with little idea of its origin and application. So it’s not surprising that for many, coaching now stands as a diffuse catch-all term for all forms of personal consulting, and it’s unclear what it means or for whom it’s appropriate.
In my experience, managers usually answer questions about their leadership style by saying they see themselves primarily in a coaching role. They want to lead their teams and employees by supporting them in their personal development, creating a decision-making framework, and coaching and advising in challenging situations instead of prescribing solutions. Many traditional companies invest in human resources development, agile leadership training programs, or further systemic coaching training for their professionals to meet future challenges.
The pitfall lies in overestimating one’s coaching competence. It has been proven that many managers consider themselves to be good coaches without actually being so. They supposedly see no added value in investing in coaching education because, according to their self-perception, they are already competent. Due to false self-confidence, incompetent people make a competent impression. Colleagues who are self-reflective and know their stuff have doubts because they usually see several possible solutions. Two psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger described this phenomenon and observed that incompetent people fail to recognize their shortcomings in a particular skill and the skill in others.
In a 2016 Harvard Business Review study, executives were asked to self-assess their coaching competency and have their coaches assess it. The research found that nearly a quarter of the executives in the sample overestimated their ability as coaches. The data collected suggests that if executives think they are good coaches but are not, they are even worse than you imagine. Thus, for the further development of a leader, bursting your illusion of superiority could be of great benefit.
Coaching skills are a great asset for any leader. Taking a training course is a start. To become a good coach, it is advisable to leave your comfort zone, explore your blind spots, and develop an appropriate attitude of humility that allows you always to evolve. Research has identified eight core competences of professional coaches, widely recognized, regarded and endorsed within coaching communities, known as the EMCC framework. Among others, “Understanding self”, demonstrating awareness of your own values, beliefs, and behaviors and using this self-awareness to manage our effectiveness, and commitment to self-development are at their core.
#2 Coaching is not the answer to everything
Goleman emphasizes that there is no one size fits all. It’s much more about choosing the leadership style that maximizes one’s effectiveness in a given situation, he says. Consequently, not every conversation is a coaching conversation. Sometimes coaching just isn’t the right way to handle a situation. Nevertheless, it can be observed that the simplified theoretical view of six leadership styles tempts one to simplify the implementation in practice and limit oneself to one leadership style. This approach not only harbors the danger of triggering demotivation and productivity losses, but also means a loss of authenticity in one’s leadership behavior.
The most important task of effective leaders and managers is to realize when coaching is useful and when it does not work, and which other interventions are more beneficial. Coaching is considered only one part of the leadership spectrum.Several studies have found that successful leaders are able to switch styles depending on the situation, and they are also highly motivated, empathic, motivated, and have strong social skills.
Not only that. In the modern world of rapid, ever-evolving disruption, it’s no longer enough to rely on antiquated practices and mistakenly believe that style is an echo of personality rather than a strategic selection. Leaders have to sense when it is best to confront this new reality head-on and guide their employees in discovering how they can navigate these unpredictable changes with resilience and ingenuity. That is why companies are transitioning away from a strict top-down approach towards more supportive leadership strategies that empower individuals to take initiative while also providing them with guidance and support when needed. This style of leadership encourages higher levels of creativity, enthusiasm, and dedication within your workforce. The traditional role of a manager is gradually transforming into that of a mentor and coach, but it’s critical not to assume there is only one viable leadership style. Also, creating trust and a safe-space where the coaching leadership style can flourish takes time and effort.
#3 Becoming a coach doesn’t happen overnight.
In many training and executive education courses, topics such as agile Leadership, coaching executives, and self-organization are boldly brought to the fore. A gap between the more traditional status quo and a coaching leader’s new idealized target image can often be observed. Most leaders and managers are familiar with the modern understanding of Leadership and its vision. However, most of them need help to follow the path to this vision and put the theory into practice.
One of the main tasks of a manager is to help their employees to define and achieve common goals. This involves creating a working system enabling people to achieve the desired result. The role is about making other people successful by helping them discover new possibilities, experimenting, and guiding them along the way through, for example, the coaching style of Leadership. It is equally about reducing control, letting go of old habits, and empowering people to take control of themselves and make their own choices. But putting pure theory into practice without professional support carries risks for organizations. An abrupt, overambitious change in behavior to a new coaching leadership mindset can confuse and overwhelm employees and teams. It is already challenging to learn new things. Still, it is usually even more difficult, but also more effective, to let go of existing mindsets, behaviors, and methods, especially those that have made us successful in the past.
Let’s imagine that a manager completes a training course on “tomorrow’s leader” and decides to put this theoretical construct into practice as quickly as possible. The team, which has previously been led hierarchically or traditionally, is suddenly left to the promising self-organization to develop new potential, previously supposedly limited by the controlling leadership behavior. Instead of giving answers or instructions, questions are now being asked.
In this context, I like to use the image of a puppet master. They alone determine the movements and actions of the puppet—in our case, the leader. Suppose, symbolically, all threads are cut in the shortest possible time to transfer the team into self-management without the team having been used to it before. In that case, they risk triggering chaos and excessive demands and achieving the opposite. In many cases, managers (puppet masters) and employees (characters) must jointly enable a self-management transition and experimentation phase. It takes time for a culture to sustain change or to develop new authentic leadership skills. Instead of fast-forwarding, start where you are now. Continuous reflection and assessment of one’s leadership skills, introducing new habits, and creating space for learning moments can bring about lasting change.
#4 The fish stinks from the head
An organization that relies heavily on coaching is recognizable because the leadership style is valued and encouraged at all levels. It is especially important that leaders, whether team or C-Level, are actively involved in promoting coaching and willing to hire a coach themselves or take continuing education in the field. This allows them to form their picture and internalize what coaching is and the fundamental skills it teaches. They can use this new knowledge to strengthen their position as a compelling leader and promote the coaching culture in their organization.
Coaching can only be successful if leaders and managers are willing to be coached or bring a positive attitude. There may be many reasons leaders, and managers are reluctant to be coached. Still, it is essential to understand their reluctance and explore and acknowledge it rather than resist it.
#5 Homemade is not necessarily better
Coaching certificates or courses are also completed by people who do not intend to become full-time coaches. Their goal may be to use their newly acquired skills in their organizational environment. More and more companies are seeing the value in coaching and are building internal coaching competencies. Services that predominantly external coaches initially provided are now to be taken from an internal perspective. This is a bold and progressive step towards a coaching culture, yet it carries risks.
According to an ICF study, the broad knowledge of the corporate culture of internal coaches is valued, but the ability to maintain confidentiality, which is one of ICF’s core values and ethical principles, is rated lower. In most cases, internal coaches have less formal training than external coaches, so the competence of external coaches is found to be more significant.
The internal coach must consider their place in the system as a potential coachee and anticipate whether other factors might interfere with internal coaching. On the other hand, the external coaching person is likely to have a point of view separate and distinct from the day-to-day work of their coachee. These factors pose additional challenges for the internal coach, as constant attention must be paid to how the shared system affects one’s judgment and response to the coachee. Coaching activities in a toxic and dysfunctional organization present an even greater challenge, as it can be more difficult for the internal coach to pay attention to their emotional and psychological health. However, there are also some advantages for the internal coach. They know the organization well, the coachee’s work context, and their relationships’ extent. Identifying what issues need attention or are being avoided is usually easier. The shared context can lead to faster development of trust and rapport because the coachee feels understood in their coaching context.
The aforementioned ICF study concludes that companies that rely on external and internal coaches and managers with coaching skills take the more successful route. Coaches, whether internal or external, needs regular professional supervision, just as a leader who practices coaching as a leadership style. This creates a suitable framework for reflecting on and developing the coaching work done.
It is apparent that coaching can strengthen the responsibility and commitment of individuals and, in turn, increase the resilience and flexibility of the organization as a whole. The goal is to deal with today’s increasingly complex and demanding social context. After all, we can no longer rely on a paternalistic top-down management model. The key to building capacity for leadership development in organizations is for executives, managers, and leaders at any level to self-reflect on and learn from the factors that affect their area of the organization. Coaching leaders is, therefore, an essential aspect of creating a learning organization for future changes. Coaching can help access and build on positive resources in individuals and organizations. By encouraging people to find their own solutions and rise above, we can transform individual and collective performance far beyond the organization itself.
The above traps reflect, raise awareness and identify potential blind spots. They can support the success of coaching initiatives and build a coaching culture in organizations. Provided they are avoided.
Creating a Coaching Culture for Managers in Your Organisation, Forman, D., Joyce, M., and McMahon, G (2013) East Sussex: Routledge
Leadership that Gets Results, Daniel Goleman, Harvard Business Review, March – April 2000.