Susan Mawer

Coaching Culture as a Catalyst for Transformative Performance

Harnessing culture makes capital sense. Rethink the power of a coaching culture.

Culture is dead. Long live culture.

The idiom from the 1400s, “The King is dead. Long live the King.”, acknowledges the past while welcoming future possibilities. 

Corporate culture is exactly like this. In its traditional guise, rich in attractive intangibles and the unmeasurable, its days are done. But culture  carries the power and potential of renewal, so it still resonates in the rapid-paced vortex of today’s business context.

Talent leaders can no longer use culture as a catch-all to avert accountability. Equally, CEOs need to realise that a robust and relevant culture is fundamental to the company’s performance (and sometimes its very survival).

coaching culture bridges these positions. The importance of the company’s workforce is no longer debatable. Its collective talent is often the organisation’s most important asset, or the single, critical competitive differentiator. Only by shifting employees’ mindsets, and elevating their capabilities and agility, can a business survive change, thrive in the short term, and safeguard its profits and position on a longer horizon.

But people’s attitudes to employer organisations, and their views of work itself, have shifted. The Great Resignation may have been triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic – and it may now be fading in some countries and sectors – but it is symptomatic of malaise with companies that pay lip service to human-centric work.

The Quiet Quitting issue runs deeper. Problematically, at 23%, the most recent average worldwide employee engagement level is very low, and the trend shows only marginal upticks over the past 15 years. The estimated global cost of this lost productivity is $8.8tn, roughly 8% of the world’s GDP. The last, pre-pandemic gauge specifically for South Africa reflected a shocking 9% engagement level, with 45% of the country’s workforce actively disengaged. It can be assumed, then, compared to the worldwide average, that SA and its enterprises forfeit an even higher proportion of potential productivity.

The encouraging statistic is that best practice companies have hugely better engagement levels, consistently at 70% or more. They cultivate excellence precisely by embracing a human-centric ethos at the heart of their operations.

"The encouraging statistic is that best practice companies have hugely better engagement levels, consistently at 70% or more. They cultivate excellence precisely by embracing a human-centric ethos at the heart of their operations. "

So the logical culture guide is that people need to be holistically supported – their aspirations nurtured, their performance recognised, careers progressed, and their wellbeing considered. Coaching culture is the transformative solution.

What comprises a coaching culture? It is not, in isolation, mandatory training and study, watchful supervision, regular one-on-one sessions, mentorship programmes for everyone. It possibly involves all of these, and more. More holistically, it is an inclusive system which strategically embeds collaboration, connectedness, learning and improvement, both internally and in its approach to external stakeholders. The strategy aspect is key, because coaching culture has a goal: to gear individual and organisational performance and create increased, shared value.[1]

In practical terms the strategy translates into a performance ecosystem incorporating role-specific performance coaching, learning in the flow of work, career counselling and mapping, team upskilling, business development programmes, executive coaching, and employee wellness initiatives.

The ecosystem develops people towards work mastery. Emphases differ according to employee level, function and role: junior rising stars may be earmarked for mentorships; middle-management team leaders steered in aspects of collaboration; senior leadership in strategy and complex decision-making.

In his book The Fifth Discipline, MIT organisational systems academic Peter Senge notes that “[p]ersonal mastery is the foundation on which organisational learning is built”. A coaching culture, pushing the improvement and development of each employee, underpins the quest for mastery.

It also supports the motivation for change. Transformation – whether towards digital maturity, pivoting to a new business model, or to stay competitive in a disrupted industry – is top of the CEO agenda, worldwide.[2]

But the key word is motivation. This is the most significant predictor of success, according to leading psychology researcher Dr Anders Ericsson. It is in people’s nature to want to flourish, but what do we need to flourish? Intrinsic motivation flows from a combination of competence, autonomy and relatedness – that meaningful connection and sense of belonging.[3]

When intrinsic motivation knits together an organisation’s talent pool there is a far greater likelihood of a growth mindset, goal-orientation, and accountability for high performance. Motivation, overlaid with engagement, propels productivity to more than double that of employees who are simply satisfied.[4]

Real engagement

Engagement: often it is a catchphrase to paper over problems with a restless workforce. To grasp its proper meaning, consider the story of U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s 1962 visit to NASA to see how the moon mission was progressing. Introduced to the gamut of scientists and team leaders, he veered away to shake hands with a janitor. “What do you do here?” JFK asked in polite politician style. “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon,” the man replied, bemused.

The story is probably apocryphal, but it perfectly illustrates a coaching culture in operation, one in which every employee believes in the organisation’s purpose and takes pride in, and accountability for, their role towards achieving it.

It also provides a benchmark to know when a coaching culture is working: even the lowliest employees are advocates for the company.

Stories are moving, powerful even, but does culture deliver results?

The evidence confirms that it does. An Oxford University-affiliated study on listed companies concluded that those with healthy cultures are respectively 1.5 times and 2.5 times more likely to report 15%-plus revenue growth over three consecutive years, and to achieve increased market valuations each year. Intriguingly, the most significant culture inputs contributing to these gains were “a sense of community” and “executive investment in employees”. Although ranking lower, diversity, too, is one of the human-centric culture considerations driving improved outcomes.

Meanwhile, analysts and investors are demanding more detailed disclosure and information about organisations’ cultures in corporate reporting. Culture, it turns out, is invaluable despite being – for those who don’t keep a probative, open mind – supposedly unquantifiable.

And what about, specifically, a coaching culture? It should be enough to itemise just a few of the world’s elite, 10X companies that have a coaching culture: Airbnb, Ford, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Pfizer.

Still, what’s the bottom line?

Visionary corporate leaders are able to answer the question, “Where do you see the company in 20 years’ time?”. The related, practical and hands-on leadership requirement is to guide and steer – to coach – the company along the path to get there.

Daniel Coyle, in The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, writes that “culture is a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal…it’s not something you are, it’s something you do”.

And so culture needs to work for the company. The reverse is also true: a successful, ambitious business will not maintain productivity and results without nurturing the engine of high performance – a coaching culture.

Culture is dead; it is also re-announcing itself, and businesses should listen when they hear its bell ring through corporate corridors.

References

[1] Gormley, H., & van Nieuwerburgh, C. J. (2014). Developing coaching cultures: A review of the literature. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice,  [Taylor & Francis Online] and Hawkins, P. (2012). Creating a coaching culture: Developing a coaching strategy for your organization. [Google Scholar]

[2] Winning today’s race while running tomorrow’s, PwC’s 26th Annual Global CEO Survey, 2023. See p4, “change”, “transition”, “disruption” mentioned as significant challenges to profitability.

[3] Ryan, R.M., and Deci, E.L., Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being, in American Psychologist (January 2000, p70, extract here.)

[4] Bain & Company and The Economist Intelligence Unit research (2015), as detailed in Engaging Your Employees Is Good, but Don’t Stop There, Harvard Business Review (2015). Productivity of inspired employees is indexed 225 compared to baseline of satisfied employees.

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