#2 Creating a Coaching Culture

In today’s episode, Pilar talks about how to create a coaching culture, where we make room for people to grow and solve their own problems – and that includes changing your own leadership style. 19:29mins


Coaching was almost a buzzword a decade ago – we started to realised that one size of training doesn’t fit all and that a really personal approach to development was probably a better investment of organisation’s money. Better to employ a coach to help with behaviour change (especially at the senior level, when it’s more difficult to identify the problems we need to address), than send everyone on a course.

Now, during today’s coffee, I’m not really interested in talking about employing external coaches or even how to work with internal ones, that’s a different conversation. What I wanted to share with you today is whether it would help us to create a coaching culture in our teams and organisations.

“Ok, you’re almost creating another annoying buzzword”, I hear you say. Sorry, yes, you’re right. I’ll explain what I mean by that. And though the Learning and Development world uses ‘Coaching Culture’ to mean the use of external coaches and coaching practices and tools by managers, I’d like to go further than that – further and broader.

I suppose I’m talking about building an environment where we are all encouraged to solve problems ourselves, by taking the time to reflect, by asking ourselves and others questions, instead of immediately looking for answers from others. And let me be a bit more specific on this too. Rather than looking for quick fixes which actually, might not even be addressing the real problem, because we haven’t even had time to identify what the real problem is, we should be asking the right questions. (For more on coaching, check episode 8 from the 21st Century Work Life podcast.)

So for me, taking a coaching approach as a manager, or a team member, means asking questions before coming up with solutions to other people’s problems. And that is really hard. Especially if you are in a management position where you have been traditionally led to believe that you are there to make sure everyone does a good job and solves everyone’s problems. And if you’re someone used to working in a very hierarchical organisation, then you’ll be used to managers solving your problems for you and you might have heard “that’s management’s problem”.

Asking Questions

Now asking questions is not easy. For one, I’ve come to realise that people sometimes are suspicious of questions. I’ve run workshops when I’ve asked after an exercise,”Ok, how was that, how did that make you feel?” And people have indeed, told me whatever and then they’ve followed their answers with, “Is that what you were looking for?” To which my answer was, I wasn’t looking for anything, I just wanted you to share how you felt, that’s why I asked.

But we are way too used to leading questions, when people who know they can solve our problems pretend they are asking questions, when all they’re doing is leading us to verbalise what is actually, in their heads.

So that’s the first barrier to a coaching approach to management: on the whole, we’re not used to being asked questions, real questions where our answer is not right or wrong, is just our answer.

And asking questions takes time of course. What’s faster to say, “Oh yes, if it’s not working for you in that way, try this, that’s how I do it.” In some situations, that might be the best course of action, but in others, it might actually be better to stop and ask, “So why do you think it’s not working?” or “What exactly is not working?” etc you see what I mean. It will take ages, won’t it… But if you never take time to help people identify themselves how they can move forwards (and “they” is very important, it’s about how they would move forwards, not about how you think they should) if you never take the time for people to figure it out for themselves, then you’ll end up as the problem solver – and then when you go on holiday, you’ll be checking your emails every day.

Now, before I carry on, I know that sometimes we want people’s opinions when we ask for help. There is nothing more annoying than asking for someone for help and them replying, “Well, how would YOU do it?” “I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you! But I hope that you know what I mean…”

As always, if you are in a position of formal authority, you will be role modeling behaviour in your team. Group norms will form around what you are perceived to be doing ,like it or not and no matter how flat your organisation is or how much of a “non bossy boss” you are. So if you are seen to be asking questions and you are really interested in supporting people to find the answers for themselves, people will start to do this. And yes, I know that there will be many instances when this approach will not work, because not everyone is perfect and although most people do want to do a good job, some are just problematic, so feel free to share your concerns around any of this or even better, share your stories here in the Comments section.

So, coaching culture, all about asking questions, about probing to identify the real problem before jumping in to give advice. A quick reminder of open questions, they’re preceded by What, How, When, Who and Why. And this last one is the most difficult one because Why sometimes feel like we’re accusing someone – Why are you doing that? Why did you decide to go down that road?

But we can change all that, can’t we? [PS that’s not a real question either, just trying to get you to agree with me…]

So why is a coaching culture useful to have in your team? [Now, I could pause this and let you answer it for yourself, go on, give it a try… Although really, this is a rhetorical question because I’m about to give you the answer, or at least, my opinion…]

Unfortunately, you’re going to have to trust me on this one because for the life of me, I haven’t been able to find any data on this. I found some stuff on the coaching culture I was mentioning earlier, which is all about bringing in external coaches, but nothing around what I’m talking about here – so if you do have the data handy, either way, because if I’m wrong I also want to know, then let me know.

But let’s see what you think of my argument.

Things are changing faster than ever before. Processes that we have been using for ages start to become irrelevant. Surely you want people to stay nimble, to be trusted to solve their problems, to innovate? You don’t want people to think that only managers can identify problems, see opportunities to improve things. But people need to be trusted. And now that we’re starting to work from anywhere, or that we’re able to not be office bound for work, this becomes even more important.

A Story from Work Rules

(Recommended Reading Bonus)
I’ll tell you a bit about the coaching approach in virtual or hybrid teams in a moment, but before I do that, let me just share a quick story from Work Rules.

I love this story by Laszlo Bock from Google – if you had coffee with me last week, you might remember me recommending the book. It’s not at all a story illustrating a coaching conversation, but I think it illustrates where we want to get to. Laszlo Bock talks about a time at McKinsey & Company when he had a manager, called Andrew.

I’ll read the story to you:

“In 1999, we were serving a financial services company and doing one of the first e-commerce projects our firm had ever done. (Remember “e-commerce?) I brought a draft report to him and instead of editing it, he asked, “Do I need to review this?” I knew deep down that while my report was good, he would surely find some room for improvement. Realizing this, I told him I wasn’t ready and went back to refine it further. I came back to him a second time, and a second time he asked, “Do I need to review this?” I went away again. On my fourth try, he asked the same question and I told him, “No. You don’t need to review it. It’s ready for the client.”

He answered, “Terrific. Nice work.” And sent it to the client without even glancing at it.”
Now wouldn’t it be great if we all worked with people like that? With managers who trust us and with people we can trust?

Of course, there are many other things that need to be in place for this to work – good recruitment, great skills etc etc But I hope you see my point. It would have been very easy for Laszlo’s manager to pick up the report, make lots of corrections to it and then send, here you go. But isn’t this a much better way of working? What signals does it give out? What kind of behaviour does it encourage?

The Virtual Team Bit

Right, I won’t pause too much here because my cup of coaching culture is getting cold, so let me move onto why this kind of team culture is becoming even more important now, why as managers, we have to stop trying to solve problems for everyone and support people to learn by themselves, on the job.

Now that people are starting to work from home, now that it’s more normal to work with others across the globe, now that “virtual teams” are becoming so common that I can just see we’re going to drop the word “virtual” very soon, we have to find ways of people working independently. I don’t mean in isolation, it’s very different, I do mean that our interactions become more purposeful and our teams and organisations become flatter.

Everything I’ve been talking about so far can be done online too. Your emails can have more questions in them – next time you’re commenting, giving advice on something in writing, read through and ask yourself, what kind of behaviour am I encouraging here? Is there a different way of approaching this? What questions are going to help them, or even help us, to come to a better conclusion?

And if you’re posting on a collaboration platform, this becomes even more important, as your behaviour is then public, and therefore, you’ll likely be role-modeling.

And as you can see from my suggestions, ask yourself lots of questions too.

Take a breath.

The most important thing about this “coaching stuff”, whether we’re talking culture, management style or even working with external coaches, is that we actually stop to think, to reflect, to ask, to correct or to sustain. That is the most important thing. Everything else, the questions, the tools (if you must use them!) even the coaching sessions if you want to make them more formal, that all comes later. The first thing you need to do is acknowledge that stopping is important, that giving space to your team members to grow is important. Then the difficult part comes, which is figuring out the kind of questions that are going to help the person to figure out and understand the nature of the problem.

Recommended Reading

Well, I think the café is getting busy, so I’d better go. But if you’d like to keep the table, I can recommend you grab “The Coaching Habit” by Michael Bungay Stanier. He talks through the kind of behaviours that will help to make asking questions a habit, and he makes the case for this really well. In all honesty, it’s not the kind of book I usually recommend (a bit too much “this is how you do it” for my liking), but if this is something that you would like to explore, then it’s worth reading.

So, I’d love to know what you thought of this episode, I’d love to know what other topics you’d like me to cover in this podcast. And, I might as well say this now, Virtual not Distant has indeed been set up to help managers and team leaders of virtual teams, or those in transition , through training, coaching – yes, the external coaching type – and team facilitation, which is like team coaching. The idea is we help you to sort it out for yourselves, because you’ve usually got the answers, you just need the space and permission to work them out, and then, we move on. It’s a terrible business model, we come in, help, make you self-sufficient and move on, but hey, I have to practice what I preach. So, my little management challenge today is to keep an eye out and see if you can catch yourself trying to solve other people’s problems, when actually, it would be better for them to solve it themselves.

Let me know how you get on and I hope you’ll join me for another coffee soon.

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