Coaching for culture change


written on April 8, 2015

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

One of the biggest challenges for executives today is creating change within their organisations. In many cases it’s, as the French say, plus ça change – just more of the same thing. More than 50 per cent of change programs have no impact, 10 per cent have a negative impact and only 37 per cent have a total positive impact. Considering the resources that go into these change programs, that is a poor result.

So the question is, why do change programs fail? The big stumbling block is often culture and the natural human resistance to change. We like the familiarity, habit and certainty of our existing culture. Culture here means the values, beliefs and behaviour patterns.

Leaders themselves often lack the skill to learn from change and go with it, let alone demonstrate these skills to their team. Leaders do not know how to make the change happen or try to force it on unwilling employees. Or there is insufficient readiness, with no building of readiness, or sustained momentum from short-term wins or consolidating improvements.

If change is difficult, and organisational culture hinders change further, how can we create effective cultural change? This is where coaching comes in.

The role of coaching

It is early days in the evolution of applying coaching in organisations, especially to improve culture. Some organisations have started to create a ‘coaching culture’, where they coach senior executives in coaching skills to pass onto their teams. But is this aligned to an agreed set of values and behaviours relevant to achieving the strategic goals of the organisation? Or is it creating a coaching culture for the sake of it with no clear link to a strategic goal?

Some use coaching selectively on key individuals to improve performance or deal with an executive’s problems. But change in an individual is not going to effect change in culture. Change in culture occurs at a group level and that’s where the coaching needs to be across all leaders to role model agreed values and behaviours and linked to the strategic goals.

I’m proposing a new model where a coach comes in as part of a change management program to evolve the culture by coaching leaders and leadership groups in role modeling the new values and behaviours linked to the change program goals.

Ask yourself these questions about culture and coaching in your organisation:

  • Are we considering the cultural aspect of a change program, even if the reason for it is something else, like technology or relocating?
  • Are we using coaching for the sake of it, or is it linked to a specific change or strategic goal?
  • Do we want a coaching culture to increase performance, or have we properly defined the type of culture we want and we want to use coaching to create and encourage it?
  • How do we measure the progress of cultural change?
  • Is the cultural change we want widespread, or only within executives?
  • Do we want to build long-term coaching capacity within the organisation or use a coach for a change program?

Evolution not change

I often use the word ‘evolution’ instead of ‘change’ because change is rarely rapid and, if it is, there is usually a drop in engagement or retention levels. When evolving a culture, you don’t want to lose the aspects of your business that are successful, so any new ideas and behaviours you introduce need to blend with what already works well.

Culture changes and grows from the inside out. If you use a holistic strategy where systems, structures, rewards and opportunities all support the cultural coaching, then coaching is a powerful aid to change behaviours and evolve culture.

Sanofi – a case study

There are not many examples where measured coaching as I’m suggesting is used to change the culture of an organisation to agreed behaviours aligned to strategic goals. One pretty close to the mark is Sanofi Canada, a healthcare business that relocated its headquarters from an old fashioned building full of closed offices to a modern open-plan environment. After four months in its headquarters, its employees were satisfied, engaged and taking advantage of new technology to collaborate. An increase in informal communication made the business much more transparent and efficient.

How did they do this?

  • The executive committee, human resources and a team of change ambassador agents started a powerful dialogue
  • They took several small steps to build capacity through new technology, increasing employee interaction and role modeling in small groups from the bottom-up
  • They paid specific attention to emotional aspects of the employee’s experience.

Even though only 25 per cent of the company’s teams – 60 actual teams – were coached through the process, the whole of Sanofi felt the impact and the company saw high engagement in all divisions.

They used a combination of surveys to measure the team coaching. The purpose of coaching was to help employees solve problems, encourage innovation and to continuously improve. It also set out to energise the culture by simplifying processes and engaging employees. Last, it increased their capability for leadership and for demonstrating the crucial behaviours and values.

The results were surprising, given the speed of the change. The overall engagement index moved from 62 per cent in 2012 to 90 per cent in 2013. Every work group measured in the survey – the overall employee population and 19 other work groups – increased its engagement scores.

I believe the use of team coaching was the difference that made the difference. It was team coaching that focused on the emotional wellbeing of employees, as well as providing them with the expected behaviours and values. Team coaching also increased the capacity for leadership, and ultimately employee commitment to the company.

AHRI has a coaching and mentoring report which reveals a snapshot of organisations where coaching and mentoring practices operate.

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