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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Building Coaching Culture in a Crisis

This post is the third post in the "Training in Turbulence" series, focused on talent development during COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting workplace coaching, forcing those of us who work in talent development to reconsider what we mean when we talk about "coaching culture." Suddenly, the old goals no longer seem as important. The old coaching scripts no longer seem as relevant. So where do we go from here?

The past: The few coached by the fewer

To understand how coaching must change in this time of crisis, we must first look at how we practiced coaching in stable conditions. In the decade before COVID-19, coaching was primarily provided to business leaders. Some companies had started to experiment with peer-to-peer, in-the-moment coaching models, in an attempt to infuse the practice of coaching throughout all levels of the organization.

Still, the most commonly practiced form of coaching was in service to senior leaders. Structural rigor defined the practice, rendering coaching as something that sat on the periphery of most organizational cultures. Some estimates suggest that executive coaching created over one billion dollars in annual economic activity before the pandemic. Prior to 2020, 53,000 coaches provided formal, 1:1 guidance to managers and executives. Two-thirds of all coaching practitioners focused their business on executive-level coaching. By contrast, only one-third of coaching practitioners worked with non-manager employees. Why the disproportionate focus on executives, a level of professional attainment to which only 7% of workers aspire? Perhaps because executive coaching is a relatively lucrative practice, with practitioners billing an average of $400/hour.

Executive coaching practitioners were and still are highly-credentialed. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is among one of several credentialing authorities to the coaching profession. To attain their certifications, one must complete over 60 hours of formal training and over 100 hours of formal coaching experience. Holders of ICF’s highest credential, the Master Certified Coach, complete 200+ training hours and 2500+ hours of coaching experience. Such credentialing expectations have spurred the development of a cottage industry dedicated to professional coaching. Myriad universities and business schools now offer professional coaching certificates, provided for a substantial tuition fee. While these training and credentialing standards provide necessary standards to a relatively new profession, they establish an implicit expectation that being a coach requires expenditures of energy, focus, and finances. The popularity of the executive coaching model conditions us to imagine coaching as a professionalized activity deployed to support a small percentage of our workforce.

The future: The many coached by the many more

In the wake of coronavirus, the bottom may fall out of the executive coaching market as companies look to reduce fixed expenses. But even if the executive coaching market doesn’t contract, a recession-ready workforce requires a different approach, one that began to emerge before the pandemic.

To develop talent amidst disruption and volatility, today’s L&D professionals must seek to integrate coaching practices, indeed even habits, at all levels of the organization. The talent developer in turbulence must move away from an overreliance on formal, executive models and enabling everyone to be a coach.

In this era of anxiety and uncertainty, our workplaces need coaches capable of converting negative sentiment into creative, goal-directed action. Our workplaces need such individuals not just in the C-suite, but in every operation within a company’s portfolio. To quote best-selling author Michael Bungay Stanier, the training professional must now work to ensure that everyone in the organization becomes more “coach-like.”

Unfortunately, few have yet to see the value in being “coach-like” in the workplace. We’re not even at the point where every manager is comfortable in coaching their teams. Coaching remains the practice of credentialed, full-time practitioners. There are five full-time coaching practitioners for every one manager or leader who uses coaching skills in their day-to-day work. This lack of involvement with coaching comes despite a 2014 finding from CEB (now Gartner) suggesting that an integrated approach to coaching, in which individuals provide in-the-moment coaching to one another, can increase performance by 12.2%.

Michael Bungay Stanier on coaching in a crisis

Quarantined in my house in Madison, WI in March 2020, I sat down for a Zoom call with coaching expert and best-selling author Michael Bungay Stanier. I asked Bungay Stanier, the author of The Coaching Habit and The Advice Trap, how the practice of coaching might evolve, and how talent developers could support coaching in uncertain times. As we talked, Michael maintained that coaching in a time of coronavirus would require the development of coaching habits and practices for everyone in the organization.

Michael shared that coaching in a time of uncertainty is about helping one’s peers to differentiate data from judgment. “Those who are coach-like, regardless of whether they consider themselves actual coaches, help others to separate fact from feeling,” said Bungay Stanier. “It’s only when coaches help separate fact from feeling that they can help to determine an effective set of actions. The most powerful coaching questions that we all should be asking in a time of anxiety and ambiguity are ‘What do you know to be true?’ - And as a follow-up, what are you going to say yes to, and what are you going to say no to?”

In a workplace characterized by apprehension, everyone is going to have moments in which we will act on that which is objectively false. Coaches are those who can ensure our actions rest upon a solid foundation.

“Someone who is coach-like prevents their peers from being swept up in a wave of active uncertainty and anxiety,” suggests Bungay Stanier. “They facilitate action based on the data. They recognize that every action requires saying no to something, for example, anxiety, and saying yes to something else, for example, self-care, breathing, and grounding oneself in the truth.”

Michael recognizes that in moments of uncertainty, even those who aspire to be coaches struggle to maintain a posture of curiosity and inquiry. There are two harmful tendencies in these situations. The first tendency is to stop asking questions. Without coaches who ask great questions, all of us struggle to find the best possible course of action. The other tendency is to launch into advice-giving, what Bungay Stanier refers to as the “Advice Monster.”

“Part of what drives advice-giving and receiving is a hunger for certainty,” says Bungay Stanier. “So, COVID-19 and other crises will surely awaken our Advice Monsters. In these moments, there’s a wiring we have where we’re all hungry for a sense of certainty, even when that certainty is misguided.”

While professional coaches are often reknowned for their ability to give great advice, coaching and advising are intrinsically different practices. Whereas coaches empower individuals to find their own, unique path to goal attainment, advisors provide recommendations based on someone else’s experience. Author Henry Kimsey-House summarizes the two practices as follows: “Advisors stand in front of you and face you. You ask them their opinions and they give them to you, based on their experience and background. Coaches, however, stand next to you, facing the same direction, and look to the horizon saying, ‘Where do you want to go?’”

Advice isn’t problematic in and of itself, though its applications are limited, particularly in an economic climate when nearly everyone is facing never-before-seen challenges. For Michael Bungay Stanier, the problem with advice is that it implies that the one receiving advice is inadequate to meet the challenges of the times and that they are somehow not “enough.”

In a recent TedX Talk, Michael describes how giving advice implies that the other is not “smart, wise, fast, moral, or experienced enough.” For Bungay Stanier, the best-case scenario is that the recipient ignores the advice. The worst-case scenario is that it leads to a certain level of learned helplessness. With the need for individuals and organizations to take bold, innovative, and pragmatic actions amidst a time of recession, we need to pull coaching back from the entrapments of advice.

Bungay Stanier clarified that there remain cases in which some advice could be useful during an appearance on Hallely Azulay’s TalentGrow Podcast. He suggested that coaching has its greatest impact when we stop rushing to provide advice.

“I’m not saying stop giving advice or never give anybody any advice at all,” said Bungay Stanier on the podcast. “I’m merely saying, can you slow down the rush to give advice? What you’ll find is the longer you can wait, the more likely it is that they’ll figure it out by themselves. And if they don’t, then the more likely it is that your advice will be more focused, more useful and more likely to be acted upon.”

Crises provide us an opportunity to develop a coaching culture. If we want to make coaching a widespread habit in a time of turbulence, we need talent developers who can train us all to ask coaching questions. We need trainers who can slow our inclination to provide advice. And we must all resolve to follow Bungay Stanier’s advice in saying less, and asking more, at all levels of the organization.

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