How To Create a Coaching Culture
Updated: Apr 10
"Focus on getting the culture right; the results will follow."
James Kerr - Legacy
Google is famous for its workplace culture.
A coaching culture is at its core. Google's manager research revealed their best managers are effective coaches.
In a highly competitive market, great culture is not optional, it's essential.
Culture change is slow and can feel impossible.
But when you get the culture right, great things happen.
Southwest airlines prove this point.
"Competitors can buy all the physical things. The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty — the feeling that you are participating in a crusade."
Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines
They have created a culture their employees love.
4% voluntary turnover
#1 lowest number of customer complaints
85% of employees say they’re proud to work for Southwest
Better business results. Happier customers and employees.
This guide is written for HR leaders, senior managers and change agents. Leaders who want to learn how to create a coaching culture.
It’s split into three parts
👉 Part 1 - WTF is Culture? An exploration of culture and why it’s so hard to change.
👉 Part 2 - The How. A collection of tools to help you start today. Jump here if you are ready.
👉 Part 3 - Resources. A collection of recommended books to go deeper and broader.
For anything to change, someone must act differently.
Let’s begin. 🚀
Part 1 - WTF is Culture?
What is Culture?
“While successful culture can look and feel like magic, the truth is that it’s not. Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”
In 1984, General Motors were struggling to deliver. The culture was toxic. The workforce would drink and take drugs on the job and absenteeism was up to 50% on Mondays. To get back at “management” workers would often sabotage the very cars they were building, leaving bolts and soft drink cans in panels to rattle and annoy customers. (This American Life)
To turn their culture around, General Motors sought help from the best, Toyota. Together they opened New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., aka NUMMI.
The results are legendary.
Within a short period of time, the NUMMI plant became one of the best.
How did they do it?
"The typical Western approach to organizational change is to start by trying to get everyone to think the right way. This causes their values and attitudes to change, which, in turn, leads them naturally to start doing the right things."
"What my NUMMI experience taught me that was so powerful was that the way to change culture is not to first change how people think, but instead to start by changing how people behave — what they do. Those of us trying to change our organizations’ culture need to define the things we want to do, the ways we want to behave and want each other to behave, to provide training and then to do what is necessary to reinforce those behaviours. The culture will change as a result."
At NUMMI they changed how people behaved which transformed the culture.
It demonstrates that culture is what we do.
Culture is behaviour.
Why is culture change so important?
"Great cultures win the best talent."
If your culture sucks, people will leave. Research from Robert Walters has found that almost three quarters (73%) of professionals have left a job because they disliked the company culture.
Even worse, employees stay but disengage. According to Gallup, 15% of workers surveyed in the USA are actively disengaged at work.
Culture also impacts employee health.
“I started learning more and more about the connection between well-being, resilience and productivity [and] realized that this idea that burnout is the price we have to pay for success is simply a complete myth.”
With the great resignation underway, with a bad culture, you lose good people. You also struggle to attract the best talent.
When you are known for a great culture, the word spreads. Your employees become brand ambassadors, sharing stories about how the workplace is helping them do their best work.
Why is culture change so difficult?
"People don’t resist change, they resist coercion."
Changing culture is one of the most difficult challenges leaders face. It’s easy to read about culture, much harder to get positive results.
There are two reasons it’s so challenging.
First, culture from the outside looks like a simple problem. But it isn’t.
Culture change is not a software update to be installed. It is however often treated like one.
Organisations roll out “manager as coach” training programs, in an effort to change the management culture.
Culture is not changed in the classroom.
There are no “best practices”. There is no recipe to follow.
"Get your values off the wall and into the room."
The second reason it’s hard: culture change requires behaviour change.
Changing behaviours is hard.
Just think about the last habit you wanted to form. How is it going?
I find it a challenge to floss every day.
Never mind adopting new behaviours in the workplace. In an environment where sticking to the status quo is rewarded.
Behaving differently in the workplace is scary and dangerous.
Don’t develop a coaching culture.
Instead, grow the culture that's right for your context.
A common leadership mistake is copying culture.
One of the most copied is Spotify.
The “Spotify Model” has become legendary. I’m sure you can even get a certification in it.
It probably won’t work for you. Your context is different.
It might have never worked for Spotify in the first place:
Spotify doesn’t use “the Spotify model” and neither should you.
The same caution should be exercised with a “coaching” culture.
Just because a coaching culture works for Google, doesn’t mean it will for you.
There are no shortcuts to developing a great culture. You must discover what makes sense in your context.
Here is how you do that.
✏️ Exercise: Go To Gemba
The term “Gemba” comes from Japanese, and it means “the real place”. In Lean management, “Gemba” is the most important place for a team as it is the place where the real work happens.
Quite simply, for rock bands, the “Gemba” is the recording studio. For Formula 1 teams, the “Gemba” is wherever the car is. For manufacturers, it’s the factory floor and so on. In other words, it is where the real work happens, so you can observe and analyze it.
Before you start changing culture, you need to understand the context.
How does your organisation behave today?
The best way to do that is to observe behaviours at Gemba. Especially in crucial moments.
In Formula 1 that might be the pitstop.
Go and observe significant situations in your organisation.
Ask these questions:
What business outcome do you need to achieve?
What are the existing behaviours of your organisation today?
If you changed nothing, are the outcomes being achieved?
Once you have answered these questions and a few more, you’ll be ready to explore further.
What is a coaching culture?
It is best described in behaviours.
But what are coaching behaviours?
For some, it means telling people what to do. Usually in order to resolve some
underperformance. For others, it means performing the role of team therapist. For others, it’s something reserved for the most senior members of the organisation.
This creates a problem.
When behaviours are not clear, people do what they have always done.
Simply put, a coaching culture is where coaching behaviours are done consistently, especially under pressure.
You must get specific.
✏️ Exercise: What is coaching?
Ask your team to describe specific, observable coaching behaviours.
It’s harder than you’d think.
A common answer is “listening”
But that is too vague.
What do you observe when someone is listening? How do you know when someone is listening?
Examples might be:
Team members pause before speaking, to create space.
Teams members say “Tell me more....”
Team members summarise what they’ve heard.
It is in the high-pressure moments that culture is really formed.
Consider this scenario. Your team has just delivered a major software update and significant issues have been found.
A) Jump in and solve the problem for the team
B) Don’t solve it yourself, but tell the team what to do.
C) Trust the team and ask “How can I help?”
In this example, a coaching culture might be demonstrated more by answer C. Although every situation is unique.
The choice you make create the stories that follow. It's these stories that spread the culture.
Culture is what happens when managers leave the room.
✏️ Exercise: Define Your Trademark Behaviours
A trademark behaviour is one that you commit to unequivocally. When a situation gets tough and everything else disintegrates, these trademark behaviours remain in place. Your commitment to these behaviours, through thick and thin, makes for high performance.
Define three behaviours that will become the trademarks of your culture.
These will become the core of your culture.
Here is a story about why trademark behaviours are so important:
Paul O’Neill’s tenure at the helm of Alcoa is now the stuff of legend.Introduced to a group of investors and analysts in October 1987, he didn’t talk about revenue and expenses and debt ratios and earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation. “I want to talk to you about worker safety,” he told the Wall Street crowd.“Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work,” he continued. “Our safety record is better than the general American workforce, especially considering that our employees work with metals that are 1,500 degrees and machines that can rip a man’s arm off. But it’s not good enough. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.
”When one attendee asked about inventories and another asked about capital ratios – the standard vocabulary for these kinds of sessions – O’Neill returned to the same theme.“I’m not certain you heard me,” said the new CEO. “If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”
In the example, “safety” is the trademark behaviour.
Over O’Neill’s tenure, Alcoa dropped from 1.86 lost workdays to injury per 100 workers to 0.2. By 2012, the rate had fallen to 0.125.
Surprisingly, that impact extended beyond worker health. One year after O’Neill’s speech, the company’s profits hit a record high.
Now you are ready for part 2.
Part 2 - How To Develop a Coaching Culture?
Before we start, two reminders:
You cannot think your way to a new culture.
A “coaching” culture might not be right for you.
“There are three ways to change behaviour: have an epiphany, change the environment, change habits in tiny ways.”
When changing behaviour, the epiphany gets a lot of airtime. We love the turnaround story.
A remarkable moment that changes a company forever.
Companies often invite an “inspirational” speaker to create that moment when the leadership team finally “get it”.
This creates a high amount of motivation. But motivation is fickle.
A couple of weeks on and change doesn’t stick.
Instead, the two biggest levers for culture change:
Change the environment, to change behaviours, to change culture.
Change the Environment
It is easy to underestimate the influence the environment has on behaviour.
We believe we are rational individuals, acting based on our internal values.
However, very often it is the environment that drives behaviour.
“A bad system will beat a good person every time.”
If the environment remains stable—you sit at the same desk, you attend the same meetings, you use the same tools—then you repeat the same behaviours automatically.
When the environment is changed, you behave differently.
This does not mean bean bags in the office or moving to an open-plan office.
The environment refers to the system. The rules, rituals and routines of the workplace.
A few factors have an outsized impact on behaviour:
How people are promoted
How people are compensated
How people are treated when they fail
How people are handled when they behave badly
"A culture is defined by the worst behaviour tolerated."
Let’s explore this trademark behaviour: asking questions.
Who gets promoted in your organisation?
Is it the experts who tell everyone want to do?
If that is perceived to be the behaviour that gets rewarded, don’t be surprised if people don’t ask questions.
You must adjust the system to encourage desired behaviours.
✏️ Exercise: Force Field Analysis
Pick a trademark behaviour. For example: asking questions.
Now brainstorm what works for and against that behaviour.
What makes the behaviour easy?
What makes the behaviour difficult?
Taking this exercise further, consider what happens in high-pressure moments.
How would this make the behaviour easier or harder to do?
Your role as a leader is to change the environment. To make desired behaviours the easy, natural and obvious thing to do. All the time, every time.
You cannot think your way to a new culture. You must act your way there.
Creating a coaching culture involves changing behaviour.
There are many ways to change behaviour. What I’ve found most successful is consistent small over time.
To do that, there are 4 ways to change behaviour:
Make it obvious.
Make it attractive.
Make it easy.
Make it satisfying.
✏️ Exercise: Apply the 4 Laws of behaviour change
Let's explore an example.
The trademark behaviour you want to develop in managers is:
Asking coaching questions in one-on-ones.
Using the 4 laws of change might look like this:
Make it obvious: Coaching questions are visibly on-hand during the conversation.
Make it attractive: Storytelling of the benefits a coaching style can bring.
Make it easy: Coaching questions are shared in advance with the team member.
Make it satisfying. Ask “What was most useful for you?” at the end to surface positive feedback.
Now complete the exercise for the three trademark behaviours you identified earlier.
How can you make them obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying?
Who will help or hinder a coaching culture?
“The business of business is people.”
Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines
We are social creatures. Heavily influenced by people around us.
We view a behaviour as more correct to the degree that we see others performing it.
Canned laughter (laughing track) causes viewers to laugh longer and more often. It is more effective in poor jokes.
Bartenders seed their tip jars with a few dollars to give the impression that tipping is the norm.
Bystander Effect – individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present; the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help.
Therefore, any culture change is a social one.
Influencers don’t only exist on Instagram. They exist in your organisation too.
You must work with the following:
The close - what is my immediate team doing?
The many - what is the wider departments doing?
The powerful - what are those with status doing?
Particularly important are leaders in power positions.
Let’s explore another trademark behaviour, listening.
A middle manager is asked to present to the senior leadership team. During the presentation, they are interrupted. Several leaders are multi-tasking on emails. Another leaves halfway through.
This does not demonstrate listening.
Returning to their team, what story will this middle manager share?
It will certainly not be a story that emphasises listening as a trademark behaviour.
✏️ Exercise: Find Your Influencers
Identify people who fall into each of the influencer categories:
Go and observe how they behave today. What are their trademark behaviours?
If you observe a need for change, involve them in defining trademark behaviours and shaping the environment.
If these people do not change, your culture never will.
How do you scale a coaching culture?
The larger the organisation the more difficult culture change is.
When you lead a company of thousands, culture change feels like an impossible task.
There is one tool, humans have used for thousands of years, that will help you scale.
Culture is “the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves
The problem. Many leaders are terrible storytellers.
This is especially a problem in technology organisations. The analytical bias leads to presentations of facts and figures.
When people tell stories, behaviour becomes contagious.
Like him or not, Elon Musk has an unparalleled track record in bringing to life big ideas.
His story-driven ideas at the heart of Tesla, The Boring Company, Neuralink, Open AI, Hyperloop and SpaceX are told in a way to capture people’s imaginations and win their support.
✏️ Exercise: Telling Stories
For each of the trademark behaviours, find stories that demonstrate that behaviour in action.
This is one story I heard from Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines Chairman, Kelleher, heard that an employee’s son had been killed in a car crash. The employee was in Baltimore and his family was in Dallas. Kelleher had a plane that was about to be taken out of service for routine maintenance rerouted to land in Baltimore, pick up the employee, and get him back to his family immediately. “Stories like that make me proud to work for this company” the pilot shared.
Remember to combine this with your social dynamics. We listen to stories more from people who are most influential.
Your senior leaders are the chief storytellers.
Part 3 - Resources
The 13 best books to help you change culture:
Culture Change Books: