Today’s leaders are expected to work well with people. This expectation includes being able to help people to grasp the courage to act, develop new ideas, take risks, and “make the changes that we know in our hearts are essential and right in the world” (Robertson, 2015, p. 15). A strong mentoring or coaching relationship is one way of supporting people to do this. As a result, globally, a wide range of organisations — including schools, kura, and early childhood centres — are developing a coaching culture (Weekes, 2008).
These organisations hope to realise a wide range of benefits for educators, students, and the wider community including personal (and professional) growth (Hay, 1995); resilience in the face of change; support of innovation and ‘passion projects’; and the fostering of leadership and personal effectiveness. Coaching, when framed as an approach to communication where the empowerment of the people being coached is emphasised (Hoole, & Riddle, 2015), helps create positive learning environments. It also helps incubate a range of leadership approaches — something that research findings indicate have significant impacts on performance and wellbeing, as well as associated health benefits (Hoole, & Riddle, 2015).
What is a coaching culture?
At its root, a coaching culture is a model that structures and helps define the parameters of what effective interpersonal interactions look and feel like within a school, kura, or centre. Coaching would not be the only approach used in the organisation, but it would be used wherever appropriate. These structures and parameters are firmly underpinned by the values of the organisation, and can support the development of agreed ways of communicating, collaborating, and working together (Behavioral Coaching Institute, 2007).
However, sometimes, coaching may have a negative reputation within an organisation because, for instance, managers have previously used it as a performance management tool rather than as a genuine way to support professional learning and development. In these cases, a concerted effort will be needed to reframe coaching to help ensure that it is perceived positively, and part of this will be to support managers to develop their own coaching skills.
A well-established coaching culture will be one where coaching methodologies are ‘normalised’ within the organisation. For instance, it will be the preferred way of having conversations (Hoole, & Riddle, 2015). When this occurs, all people within the culture “fearlessly engage in candid, respectful coaching conversations, unrestricted by reporting relationships, about how they can improve their working relationships” (Crane, 2005, para. 3). These conversations will make use of coaching tools and the language of coaching to become part of the everyday way of working together. As a result, everyone values coaching as an integral part of personal and professional development — as a way of continually learning, improving practice, and positively contributing to the organisation’s goals.
The importance of providing a coaching programme to develop a coaching culture
An integral part of nurturing a coaching culture within a school, kura, or centre is ensuring that staff and students / ākonga are provided with formal opportunities to develop their own coaching skills. Otherwise, the tendency is for people to default to the neurologically energy-efficient approach of telling, which “requires less intellectual and emotional energy than engaging …[someone] in a thought process to advance their capability” (Hoole, & Riddle, 2015, Para 29).
A coaching programme will help staff and students / ākonga develop conceptual connections and explore implications for their organisation and the wider community. The long-term nature of the resulting changes can make a large-scale impact on everyone’s wellbeing, as well as how well the organisation functions.
Coaching managers will need to be coached themselves prior to taking on a coaching role. They will also need the ongoing support of their coach to help them continue to develop strong coaching skills, and to use integrity and patience to build the trust with their coachees. A coaching manager’s “ability to deeply listen is just as important as asking the questions that count” (Robertson, 2015, p. 12), especially where the goal is to ensure the coachee feels “sufficiently safe to move away from covering up any perceived areas of weakness” (Robertson, 2015, p. 12).
It takes time to develop a coaching culture (up to a year or 18 months) because people need to be comfortable within the culture, and this provides sufficient time for everyone to develop the necessary coaching skills (The Open Door Coaching Group, 2012).
By definition, a manager is not ideally placed to work as a coach or mentor for someone who is reporting directly to them. Robertson (2015) advises that vulnerability, power relations or conflicts of purpose “can adversely affect the relationship” (Robertson, 2015, p. 12).
What does the development of a coaching culture look like in practice?
Midtown School has a focus on across-school change, plus a desire to sustain the changes by implementing a coaching culture. After some robust discussions, the decision was made to go for a combination of face-to-face, whole school Professional Learning and Development, combined with virtual mentoring and coaching support for the leadership team who would then help to nurture a coaching culture throughout the school. Using the suite of products and services that CORE Education has available, the school decided to go for four face-to-face sessions (once a term), which were also supported by 18 months of uChoose virtual mentoring sessions for the leadership team.
Over the first six months with their virtual mentor the leadership team planned how they were going to introduce, support, and build sustainability into the coaching culture focus. They surveyed the staff, students and community, and gathered feedback data. The data provided some great insights into where people were most enthusiastic, plus, where the main support was going to be required. Alongside the planning, the leadership team with their mentor, worked with a range of coaching tools and approaches, trialled them with their teams, and then reflected together on how it went, and what they might change.
During the second half of the year working in the uChoose programme, after a whole-school session that focused on coaching, the leadership team rolled out some ‘quick dip, how to’ coaching sessions. Although it was a slow start, groups within the school started to increase their deliberate acts of coaching and coaching conversations, with some positive results.
In the new year, after 16 months of working to develop a coaching culture, it was clear that things were starting to consolidate, and it was noticed that:
- There was a school-wide identity with, and commitment to, the development of a coaching culture, with all staff and ākonga / students knowing most of the goals, as well as the contributions they could make in achieving them.
- There was increased enthusiasm and commitment to the overall school change initiative, with leaders and champions emerging from both the staff and the students / ākonga. They were jumping in to develop ‘passion projects’, initiatives with ‘an impact’, projects that were helping to enhance multicultural perspectives and practices, and as well as sustainable initiatives within the community.
- Several staff reported an increase in confidence in their interactions with each other, the students / ākonga, and the community.
- There appeared to be fewer humdinger’ arguments — although important, sometimes challenging conversations occurred more frequently.
- Positive feedback was offered more frequently, and was as objective as possible by removing the ‘personal’, while also ensuring that it was relevant.
- Staff and students who were new to the school were supported by a recently established initiative that helped them identify their strengths, find their place and to grow within the school
A coaching culture will not solve all an organisation’s challenges, nor will it guarantee that change will be successfully implemented and sustained. However, a school, kura, or centre with a strong coaching culture is likely to encourage a positive working environment, cross-community innovation, increased productivity — and lead to increased personal and professional growth and wellbeing. This in turn can help ensure that the organisation remains responsive and nimble in today’s world of fast-paced communication, diversity, global competition and change. Are you up for it?
Behavioral Coaching Institute. (2007). Establishing a coaching culture. Retrieved from http://www.1to1coachingschool.com/Coaching_Culture_in_the_workplace.htm
Crane, T. (2005). Creating a COACHING CULTURE – today’s most potent organizational change process for creating a “high-performance” culture. Business coaching worldwide ezine, 1(1). Retrieved from https://www.wabccoaches.com/bcw/2005_v1_i1/feature.html
Hay, J. (1995). Transformational Mentoring: Creating Developmental Alliances. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.
Hoole, E., & Riddle, D. (2015). The Intricacies of Creating a ‘Coaching Culture’. Retrieved from http://www.talentmgt.com/articles/7627-the-intricacies-of-creating-a-coaching-culture
Robertson, J. (2015). Deep learning conversations and how coaching relationships can enable them. Australian Education Leader 37(3). 10-15.
The Open Door Coaching Group. (2012). How do I build a coaching culture. Retrieved from http://www.opendoorcoaching.com.au/how-do-i-build-a-coaching-culture
Weekes, S. (2008, July). Catch on to coaching. The Edge. 28 – 32. Retrieved from http://qedcoaching.fastnet.co.uk/pdf/catch-on-to-coaching-ilm-edge-article.pdf