Coaching Culture Change – Danger Ahead


An interesting post on the Edinburgh Coaching Hub got me thinking last night about coaching and culture change, two topics close to my heart. The Hub held a session recently on this – sorry I couldn’t make it! The KL-Edinburgh commute is a killer:) – and from the posts, it seems to have stirred up a lot of useful thinking and questions.

The Hub is full of fantastically experienced and truly insightful coaches – the kind that got us all into coaching in the first place – and they have clearly covered how impactful coaching can be in working through fear and confidence issues with culture change as well as roadmapping and soundboarding change roles, action plans, and frameworks. Where I would like to add my two Ringgits’ worth is on one of the lurking dangers – expectations of leadership. This stems out of a couple of coaching projects I am familiar with – no names, no pack-drill – and experiences shared by coaching colleagues.

As with any organizational initiative, if senior leadership is doing no more than pay lip service to the question of culture change, then any change project is doomed from the start. The bosses might be saying all the right things but are they doing them too? Are they committed to the journey or are they role modeling contrary behaviours?

If we then throw coaching at lower levels into the mix, then we have a potentially explosive situation. Effective and challenging coaching leads to greater self-awareness, exploration of values and goals, and also consequently to heightened expectations. Coaching might be a useful mechanism for transitioning employees out if they do not fit the organizational culture or direction, but what if it is the very senior leaders themselves who are out of sync?

The middle manager coached through a culture change project will soon realize if the leadership is not walking the talk and will grow increasingly frustrated at the disconnect between espoused calls for change and subsequent inaction. As I have seen firsthand, such an employee then usually does some walking of their own – out the door.

So what can we do as coaches when we are called in on culture change initiatives? We can and should tackle all the points identified above, but I believe we also have a responsibility to highlight potential dangers – not just in the contracting phase but also in any coaching of the senior leaders themselves. With all the tenacity of performance consultants, we should be digging and drilling down to clarify…

– Are senior leaders visibly 100% committed to leading the culture change initiative from the front?

– Are they fully aware of their roles and responsibilities in the change initiative and their impact?

– Do they understand and agree with the need for the change initiative and its objectives?

– Do they speak and act as one on everything to do with the culture change initiative?

– Have they mapped out what the new organization and their own roles in this entity will be with the new culture?

– Have they addressed all potential consequences and obstacles?

– Are they therefore hand on heart willing to go wherever this change initiative will lead?

– Are they prepared and indeed have signed up to be coached themselves along the way?

If there is a whiff of sulphur with any of the answers, alarm bells should start ringing – and it is we as coaches who should be ringing them.

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.