The term "coaching" has become a catchall buzzword encompassing all kinds of consulting, counseling and management concepts and activities. Coaching is in fashion!
Unfortunately, as with any idea that becomes popular, the underlying potential of "coaching" as a new paradigm of management and leadership can be diluted and become a distinction without a difference. Specifically, the word is often now used as a metaphor or sometimes synonymous with supervision, counseling, mentoring, and the traditional role of manager.
Most of us know from personal experience that a relationship with a coach is not the same as a relationship with a traditional manager. We know from experience that we listen and respond differently to a coach and we are often empowered to accomplish more with a coach than we accomplish when relating to a traditional manager. It is not surprising that historically in virtually every field of human endeavor where performance is the objective, "coaching" has been an integral aspect of the design of the game and the more professional the players, the greater the demand for coaching.
The need to create "coaching cultures" in our organizations is more pressing than ever. This is because a coaching culture is based on distinguishing, empowering and coordinating individual commitment and action.
The need to clarify and integrate coaching competencies into our existing roles as leaders and managers is essential. The reason for this is that in most organizations today, leaders no longer have the luxury of time or the capability to maintain the illusion that they "control" the decision-making and actions of the people who work in the enterprise.
Coaching is not a replacement for solid management skills, but a new context, a new way of observing and relating to people and action --- a different way of being.
From a perspective of action, coaching and leadership are virtually synonymous. Both the coach and the leader are always engaged with other people, they work exclusively in a medium of relationship and conversations, and they are both working to create through others a "future" that is unpredictable and unprecedented. For coaches and leaders, the future isn't a goal, it is a reality NOW and their job is to bring forth what is missing or what needs to be eliminated so that their vision can be manifested in the world.
Learning to "be a coach" or "be a leader" requires more than appropriating new techniques or understanding a new model. It requires a fundamental shift in how one observes their world, themselves and other human beings. This shift begins when we consider that all human beings normally behave and act based on how our world "occurs" for us, not because of the "way it is". For example, we can all find situations in our own experience where our actions were inconsistent with what we "knew' to be the case such as in continuing to smoke, running away from something because we were afraid even though no real threat existed or making a decision which we knew to be wrong at the time, but rationalized or justified making it anyway.
As a premise, we could say that coaching enables people to change the way the world "occurs" for them. When this happens, there are possibilities and actions available that are not available otherwise. We often hear organizational leaders speaking about the need to change people's "mindsets", to get "buy-in" to some radical new approach or to overcome historical ways of working. We can also see myriad examples of frustration and costs associated with trying to explain, justify, or rationally argue for change only to find that people are more often than not acting and behaving in the same ways they did previously.
The key to creating a "coaching culture" or any new culture is in exploring the phenomenon of commitment. If our reality is a function of our actions and our actions are a function of our commitments and we only commit to what is reasonable and feasible, then we will obviously be generating more of the same.
It is not possible to coach someone or for that matter to be coached in the absence of authentic commitment. I distinguish commitment here from wanting, wishing, trying, hoping or any other notion such as "what is realistic" that we sometimes substitute for commitment.
It isn't practical or logical to coach someone who isn't committed to accomplishing something "unprecedented" in his or her experience. Coaching is inherently about achieving breakthroughs and a breakthrough is something that hasn't occurred before - a new level of competency or new action or unprecedented result.
Commitment is a phenomenon that while clear in almost everyone's direct experience when it is present, is generally unexamined and somewhat mysterious in everyday living. Two basic premises in our work is the view that:
a) everyone is always committed to something whether they are aware of it or not and
b) often our commitments are cultural in nature, that is we've become committed to interpretations and practices given us from the past and relate to them as "truths" without rigorous examination or choice.
In a coaching culture, the commitments to the future come first and then the planning is about how to accomplish or deliver on those commitments. One must be willing to authentically commit to a breakthrough BEFORE there is evidence that it can be accomplished or it can never be accomplished except as a consequence of "good luck" or some other circumstantial explanation.
Specifically, we might summarize the competencies of coaches (or leaders) as involving the following elements. A coach:
- Commits to and builds powerful, committed and trusting relationships
- Is grounded in an awareness of and responsibility for their own "blind spots"
- Grants total freedom, choice and power to those they coach --- is vulnerable
- Is more committed to the others commitments and results than the person being coached is --- an unreasonable stand FOR the other person
- Generates bigger possibilities for breakthroughs and accomplishment
- Is focused on listening for commitment and action
- Observes the others behavior and conversations for inconsistencies with the stated commitment or possibility, often revealing unexamined commitments and beliefs
- Formulates and offers interpretations and practices to align actions and commitment in a context of the organization's vision and values
- Manages conversations and moods of people involved in the game is able to "generate" new conversations to displace old ones and doesn't fix people, but allows them to be responsible for their own moods and interpretations.
- Uses breakdowns, constraints, adversity, mistakes or undesirable results as "positive" information and as "assets" for improving performance or as raw material for creative inquiry and design of new processes and practices
- "Comes from" the point of view that the results have already been accomplished and has a creative relationship with the future --- does not play the game to cope with circumstance or find out what will happen --- is inventing the future
- Operates with clarity and consistency of his or her own commitments and "walks the talk" at all times --- speaks and listens commitment
- Maintains an active relationship and dialogue with his or her own coach --- "pushes the envelope" of their own thinking, actions and accomplishment
These are "contextual competencies" in that they all relate to distinguishing what is missing or what is occurring in the background of a situation. One question that has particular relevance to organizations, however, is "can they be systematically learned or are they simply natural qualities that one must be 'born with', acquire through fortuitous circumstances of life, or appear only when there is an organizational crisis?"
The answer is clearly "yes". These competencies can be systematically learned and mastered. Qualities and abilities such as committed listening, having compassion, living as one's word, being responsible, generating trust, creating possibilities and so forth are obviously desirable and often attributable to others --- however, they can be elusive when we try to learn them ourselves or teach them to others.
These kinds of qualities and abilities all have to do with our way of being, with who we are as committed human beings. Normally, when attempting to develop these qualities in others, we are often perceived as "preaching" them as virtues.
Knowledge and pre-existing processes can be taught. Ways of Being or "contextual competencies" can be coached. Learning to be a coach is primarily to learn a different way of Being. When this occurs, the above competencies are obviously appropriate and with practice tend to develop quickly and naturally.
If the focus shifts to "what are people's commitments" and "how are they 'seeing' their situation", it becomes obvious that many other interpretations are possible such as, "success depends on satisfying customers and other stakeholders including our families". In this context there isn't a problem, just a commitment and other questions such as "how do I satisfy all my stakeholders in the time I am committed to working. This in turn will often reveal new strategies, missing competencies and networks of people who might help. A new context or cultural "opening" doesn't proscribe action or solve problems, but leads to new thinking and actions depending upon the commitments of those involved.
Creating a "coaching culture" involves a multi-faceted strategy.
Being Responsible for the "Box". This involves various methods for displaying or "showing" the existing culture. This is the "box" often referred to when challenging people to "get out of their box". This is more than simple description and is the result of questioning conventional wisdom and revealing AS CULTURE many of the hallway conversations and points of view that are widely shared within the organization but rarely addressed.
For example, if we ask, "what does everybody know about the way things get done around here", people will begin to articulate this conventional wisdom such as "you must get the boss's permission before you do something or you will be punished". This kind of generalized belief can persist even when the boss has encouraged risk-taking and independent action.
The result of this step is the recognition that our culture is not a problem but is the phenomenon that blinds us to possibilities and actions that would allow us to create an "unpredictable" future.
Creating a bigger Game. It is important for the leadership of the organization to undertake a serious learning process and open themselves to being coached with respect to "what is the future we are committed to creating?". This usually is in the form of an organizational vision, but not one created as a "picture of the future" but as a ground of being from which to organize and align actions on a day-to-day basis.
The result of this step is the alignment of the top team on the "game we are playing" and an authentic commitment to learning and changing themselves as appropriate. They are committed to "walking the talk" and demonstrating new ways of being as models for the rest of the organization.
Walking the Talk. To anchor the foundation and sustain "new ways of being" requires a company solidify its new culture through design of processes and practices consistent with this new worldview.
Coaching isn't a onetime relationship or intervention. In most fields, the more competent and more professional a player, the more their demand for and reliance on coaching. In a coaching culture, coaching isn't a role, but the practicing of coaching competencies in every situation. Everyone is open to both giving and receiving coaching as appropriate to their abilities and concerns. My partner Karen is my coach in some domains and I am her coach in others.
Coaching is a partnership between human beings in which one person can empower another to accomplish more than is possible on their own. When commitment and actions are aligned, the coach is able to assist in creating larger and larger possibilities and learning becomes an "upward creative spiral".
Continuous Learning. Creating culture is to continuously transfer coaching capabilities and responsibilities through continuous learning and through the organization's practices for recruiting and for moving people between jobs, including transferring accountability when people retire.
In a coaching culture, everything that everyone is doing comes down to:
a) What am I committed to accomplishing.
b) With whom am I coordinating commitments.
c) What do I see is missing or in the way to fulfilling our commitments.
d) What possibilities and actions am I committed to now?
In a coaching culture the organization is seen as a network of people coordinating commitments for the sake of accomplishing a common future.
The "coaching approach" allows an organization to get at what is beneath all the things that are traditionally in the way of becoming the organization that they want to be. It goes beyond addressing symptoms or problems or putting a band-aid on what is wrong.
Coaching creates sustainable positive changes in "the way things are". The ontological underpinnings of this approach, which deals with the nature of being, allow people to experience themselves and their world more directly and have a more responsible relationship with whatever they see is limiting them.
In a coaching culture an environment is created in which context is just as important as content and becomes the main lever for creating a future that is not already constrained by the past. Coaches accomplish this by distinguishing all the background "conversations" that usually stop people and keep them trapped in their reasons for not having what they say they want.
"Coaching competencies" are the practices that allow a person to be effective in the domain of context or culture. Coaching an organization's members to learn them in practice and move toward mastery in these areas leads to having an organizational culture where commitment to clarity and results in more important than the historical and unexamined attachment to reasons, justifications, control and predictable outcomes.
Creating a coaching culture is the fastest and most sustainable strategy for an organization committed to continuously reinventing itself and for being successful in a complex and globally interconnected world characterized by constant and unpredictable change.