A colleague of mine tells a story about one of her very first coaching clients. In addition to being a respected credentialed professional in his technical field, this client managed a technical practice group. The problem was that his organization was beset with acute daily conflicts and dissention. He felt that his lack of skill as a manager and leader must be exacerbating the situation, so he resolved to initiate coaching.
My colleague prepared quite carefully, interviewing the client at length before agreeing to coach him. The two of them created a simple but effective contract and commenced their sessions, all to be completed in a highly-intense manner over a three-month period. The work went extremely well; the client was open and active, voraciously reading, unflinching in the face of his own realizations and insights, and sincerely interested in becoming more effective as a manager and leader. In this relatively short period, he made major strides in understanding himself and making personal commitments to developing a more emotionally intelligent approach to leadership. After the three months of twice-weekly sessions, and excited to try out his new-found insights and developing skills, he returned to work.
Things did not go well. Not only did the conflict and dissention continue, but others in the office responded poorly to his new approaches to interpersonal communication and collaborative leadership. Partners and staff alike openly wondered what had “happened” to him, and were not trustful of his behavior. In order to restore a modicum of order, he regretfully found it necessary to return to a more directive, hierarchical, and authority-based management style. That certainly would not cure the organization’s ills, but at least it did not make matters worse. He eventually left that practice group to start another, building it from the ground up. Presumably he is happier in his new context, but I do not know.
The point of this anecdote is simple: people exist in their organizational context, bound within its mores and culture like flies encased in amber. Changing the perspectives and practices of single individuals is likely to have very little impact up against the strength of organizational culture. Moreover, as this gentleman experienced, no matter how dysfunctional an organization’s norms may be, when individuals change in a manner that is at odds with those cultural norms and then clumsily introduced, it will make matters worse, not better.
Coaches who coach individuals can improve the impact of their coaching by being overtly sensitive to these issues of organizational context. As we’ve seen from the anecdote (and as I have directly experienced in a wide variety of organizational contexts), no matter how objectively skilled a coach may be and how highly-motivated a client may be, the pair ignore the organizational context at their collective peril.
Objectively and over time, a developing personal skillset will certainly have value for the coachee. That said, it is critical to be sensitive to organizational culture and cultural challenges in order to assure organizational effectiveness in addition to personal development.
I believe it is critical to develop an understanding of an organization’s culture as a necessary part of preparation for a coaching engagement. That said, a less-than-scientific and highly-anecdotal poll of a number of fellow coaches leads me to conclude that very few coaches overtly explore organizational culture, either with their coachee or with other organizational resources (HR, OD/TD, more senior managers, etc.) Questions like, “What is it like to work here?”, “How do things get done around here?”, “What do people do to succeed in this organization?”, “What are the key traits of mainstream leaders in this organization?”, and “Can people successfully disagree here, and if so, how?” are simply a few examples of questions coaches can use to begin to better understand an organization’s cultural mores. Ideally, a coach should try to interview people both inside and outside the management chain.
In addition, it is essential to be overt about culture with the client, particularly toward the end of the coaching engagement. Coaches need to actively discuss likely cultural issues and then work with the client as they formulate appropriate strategies and tactics for successful “re-entry”. In my leadership development programs, we have inserted an entire afternoon devoted to back-at-work planning, with a specific focus on cultural re-entry.
Beyond this, though, lies the realm of Team Coaching, wherein all the members of a team are collectively coached in the team context. The beauty – and the great challenge – of team coaching is that axiomatically one cannot dissect the team in order to coach the “elements” individually. The team is an organism that must be coached as such. This doesn’t mean that individual behaviors and needs cannot be addressed. Rather, it means that much of the necessary coaching occurs within the team and during team interactions. Unfortunately, to date, very few organizations have been willing to devote the time and resources to this form of coaching. There is a strong tendency to view this approach as complicated and expensive. The reality can be very different, and those organizations that have made the commitment to true team coaching have reported transformations in cohesiveness and alignment, motivation, productivity, resilience, innovation, and flexibility. Team coaching is very much a new frontier in coaching. That said, its power is such that it is truly an idea whose time has come.