Coaching clients to create a high-performance culture

[Much of the following is excerpted from our new book Coach!]

Recently I was having dinner with a client and he started talking about the culture he wanted to create. Like many leaders, he used some pretty general adjectives to describe the culture he wanted: fun, respect, integrity, being proactive — the usual suspects, really.

As we continued our discussion, it became clear that he was struggling with how to define and create the culture he wanted in a practical way. Fortunately, the Center for Executive Coaching has a coaching methodology for this issue. It is a powerful approach that works, and in the article that follows I share it with you. If you like what you read, please consider joining our coach training and certification program or, if you are a seasoned coach, getting our acclaimed Coach Master Toolkit.

Creating a high-performance culture is a lot like the flow of chocolate down one of those fancy multilayered chocolate fountains you see at weddings. Pure chocolate starts at the top, flows to the next level, and then the next level until it reaches the bottom. In organizations, we want to see the top model the culture, set expectations for the next level to do the same, all the way to the bottom—just like the chocolate fountain. Unfortunately, in many organizations, some layers of the chocolate fountain have something flowing that looks a bit like chocolate but doesn’t smell or taste anything like chocolate. The coach’s job is to help leadership develop consistent habits, messages, and performance throughout the organization—to make sure the chocolate is pure up, down, and across.

The process of coaching for a high-performance culture is simple. In fact, if you can coach one leader effectively, you can help an organization change its culture. The process involves starting at the top, coaching the top leader or leaders, and then coaching people in each successive layer to spread and reinforce the culture change.

Notice that this process is much simpler than the inauthentic and ineffective way that far too many organizations role out culture change. Many organizations make one of three mistakes:

One: The senior leadership team goes on a luxury retreat somewhere exotic. While swimming and playing golf, they come to an epiphany about how the culture needs to be. Then they come home and expect employees to make the change. Naturally, employees are cynical and resentful because leadership is dumping the hard work on them.

Two: Senior leadership hires a marketing firm to create all sorts of fanfare about the new culture. This turns the culture change into yet another expensive program that never seems to work. Employees see a lot of sizzle but very little substance.

Three: Senior leadership borrows a culture from a successful organization. They adopt the Toyota Way, the Ritz Way, the Disney Way, or whichever company’s way seems to be capturing the business world’s admiration at the moment. Unsurprisingly, the full culture never seems to translate, and senior leadership looks as if they are attracted to easy answers instead of the hard work of real change.

True culture change requires serious work from those at the top. The top leaders need to take a realistic look at how they are contributing to the current culture, how they are showing up as leaders, what they are tolerating, and changes they need to make to their own attitudes and behaviors. Most senior leaders don’t want to bother with this kind of work. It makes them feel vulnerable and is just plain difficult.

If you are lucky enough, however, to be working with leaders who understand the amount of work, introspection, and courage required to really change a culture, you can help them accelerate the change with coaching.

Again, the process is simple—if your client is coachable and willing to go through it:

Define the new culture. Coach clients on what they want the new culture to be. Also, what do they like and not like about the current culture?

Get specific by defining performance metrics. Culture is a fuzzy term, often described with descriptive words. Help your client get specific. If the client creates a new culture, how will performance change? What metrics can track success? For instance, when Paul O’Neill took over as CEO of Alcoa, he set a goal to be one of the safest companies in the world.

Similarly, I worked with an executive who wanted his nonprofit organization to be more entrepreneurial, but when we interviewed employees about this change, they had no idea what it meant to be entrepreneurial. The client had to define specific metrics so that everyone understood. In this case, the organization set targets for how much of the organization’s revenues should come from grants and fees from the general public as opposed to from government funding.

Get even more specific by defining key habits expected throughout the organization. A culture expresses itself through the habits and behaviors of its people. What new behaviors does your client expect from employees at all levels? Using Paul O’Neill as an example, he set the expectation that when any injury happened at Alcoa, a line of communication would notify each layer of management and then tell him, even if it meant waking him up in the middle of the night. Also, a team would form to make sure that whatever caused the injury never happened again. (You can read more about what O’Neill did in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.)

In the case of the nonprofit organization, the leader realized that he needed more of his program managers to start writing grant proposals and also to start charging the general public for the organization’s programs rather than offering them for free.

Work first with the top leader or a small group of leaders to model those habits and set expectations. Culture change starts at the top. Too often senior leaders expect the layers below to make changes first. That only creates cynical employees. Coach your clients to model the behaviors they want to see and also start setting new expectations to their direct reports. Behavioral coaching, described in a previous chapter, can be effective here.

Coach the top leader(s) to communicate the culture change to the next level. Once your clients start making changes to their own leadership, their direct reports should start to notice. As soon as the changes have become habits, leaders can communicate their vision for the new culture and performance expectations to their team. This process usually moves ahead through a combination of one-on-one and team meetings. Your client gives specific feedback to each employee during the one-on-one meetings, while team meetings give your client the opportunity to send a consistent message to everyone and get a dialogue going.

Repeat the process of modeling the new behaviors and habits and then moving to the next level and so on. Now you, or a colleague, can coach each member of the client’s team to start modeling new habits. Again, behavioral coaching works well here. Once this layer of the organization models the new behaviors, leaders can communicate their expectations to their direct reports, and the process repeats. The chocolate fountain metaphor works well because you and the client work with each level in the organization to ensure consistency and success.

As soon as your clients start making changes to their behavior, culture change can roll out rapidly, but if the client encounters resistance from one or more leaders or managers, you can use active inquiry to develop a plan to help your client handle the challenges.

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