Coaching to change culture

by Steve Garcia, June 14th 2012  

Executive Coaching is one of the most effective ways to develop people and increase performance. Recently, for example, we worked with one client to show that coaching increased productivity by 15%. Not surprising, American companies spend a fortune on executive coaching: more than $1 billion annually according to one HBR study.

Given that coaching is such a powerful tool to change behavior, a natural question is "Can coaching be used to transform organizational culture?" After all, culture change is fundamentally about changing employees' behavior. While coaching has traditionally been applied specifically to individual development, some forward-thinking companies have come to the conclusion that "Yes, coaching can be used to transform culture." What's more, you don't have to coach everyone to do it.

For example, one consumer packaged goods (CPG) company used executive coaching as a tool to build a more innovative culture. In this instance, the company chose to coach project managers who lead new product development (NPD) teams. Through the project managers' interactions with marketing, R&D, supply chain and other functions, the coaching's impact rippled out across the rest of the organization. Several lessons are apparent from this company's and others' experiences using executive coaching to transform culture.

Begin with the End in Mind

Describe the culture you wish to adopt in precise, behavioral terms. One pharmaceutical client wanted to transform its R&D function from one focused exclusively on science to a culture that better integrated science with business acumen. We worked with this client to make explicit the specific behaviors, such as cross-department collaboration and accountability for business results, that best defined the new, preferred culture.

Target the 'Right' Population

Coaching everyone in the organization is cost-prohibitive. The good news is that it's not necessary. Invariably, there are groups whose behavior influences everyone else's. In the case of the previously-mentioned CPG client, the company determined that NPD project managers could be leveraged to affect innovation across the organization. Similarly, the pharmaceutical company described chose to focus executive coaching on senior R&D leaders whose decisions and actions would affect the much larger R&D population.

Align Coaching to Preferred, Future Culture

Traditionally, the goals of executive coaching are defined by coach and coachee in private. This has led some to refer to the field of coaching as the "Wild Wild West" because it's seldom clear to the coachee's employer--the company paying for the coaching--if or how the coaching is benefiting the company. In contrast, when coaching to change culture, the goals of the coaching are pre-established: live the company's preferred culture. The coach and coachee work within this context to help the coachee adopt the specific behaviors that define the "to-be" culture.

When applied in this manner, executive coaching can be a powerful tool to transform culture.

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