Foster open dialogue that engages and empowers people to deliver results.
Mention the word “coaching,” and most contact center professionals might think of the supervisor-to-agent feedback session that takes place as part of the QM process. However, many companies are now embracing an “ask, don’t tell” approach to their daily communication to stimulate creative thinking, gain buy-in and empower employees. This is the essence of a coaching culture.
“A culture is a way of being—it’s how we are with each other. When we have a coaching culture, we integrate coaching approaches into any conversation with anybody about anything. It becomes the way that we communicate with each other,” explains coaching culture expert Dianna Anderson, CEO of Cylient, a professional services firm that focuses on instilling coaching as a way of life in organizations.
So what does a coaching culture look like? It’s an environment where people at all levels feel empowered to discuss their ideas and issues, and they do so proactively. “In a coaching culture, people work together to connect different ideas and thoughts. They’re able to collaborate and create together, which makes any type of change happen more quickly, smoothly and easily,” Anderson says. “When a coaching culture is in place, people understand that it’s their job to step into the kinds of conversations that they’re currently avoiding and address the issues so they can move things forward.”
How a Coaching Culture Impacts the Organization
Anderson firmly believes that the transition to a coaching culture is a necessary one. “Our current traditional approach to leadership—where we direct people and then correct them when they’re wrong—contributes to a lot of the challenges that most organizations are experiencing,” she says. “When we tell people what to do, we inadvertently train them to wait to be told, to use someone else’s brain rather than their own, and not to take risks or initiative but rather wait until they receive instructions—but that is a recipe for stalling change and disengagement. Any organization that wants to compete and win in the complex environment that we live in needs to instill a coaching culture. It’s what is required to thrive in today’s rapidly changing business environment.”
Company leaders need to create the type of culture in which employees are encouraged to share information that they’re currently not sharing, says employee and customer empowerment expert Shawn Casemore, author of The Unstoppable Organization: Empower Your People, Engage Your Customers and Grow Your Revenue.
Coaching has to be a back-and-forth dialogue to come up with a solution, he says, adding that “just telling people what to do is not effective.” For instance, if an employee is not receptive to the way their supervisor presents a solution or they don’t find it relevant based on their own experience or knowledge, they’re not likely to adopt it. Ultimately, he says, “the goal of coaching is to get buy-in from the employee” because the solution is presented in a way that they understand it and believe that it’s their idea.
One factor that sets high-performing, or “unstoppable,” organizations apart is that they put their people first in everything, says Casemore. “They flip the pyramid upside down because they realize that their success as a CEO or a leader ultimately relies on the team that they’ve built and how well that team performs—and that requires empowerment.”
These organizations don’t have a lot of leadership; they rely on self-managing teams—or self-empowered teams, as Casemore refers to them. “It’s an environment where ideas are continuously solicited from employees and implemented by employees with the support of leadership,” he adds. These companies also use their employees as sounding boards to build a better understanding of their customers so they can improve service, processes and products.
Is Your Organization Ready for a Coaching Culture?
When it comes to culture, lasting change starts at the top with the leadership team. “Employees are ready to be engaged and empowered,” Casemore says. “It’s the mindset shift in leadership that is the challenge. Why? For many leaders, a coaching culture represents a change in what they have been taught. They became a leader and formed their leadership approach based on their own experiences of having been led. This type of approach challenges what they know.”
There also can be some resentment from baby boomer and Gen X leaders who worked their way up in traditional hierarchical organizations where you did what your boss told you without questioning anything. Getting past this “paying your dues” attitude requires leaders to relearn how to interact with their employees, says Casemore, adding that: “It’s really about putting people first.”
While it may be a challenge to get established leaders to change their leadership styles, it is also difficult for leaders to relinquish what they believe to be the key responsibilities of their role, says Anderson. “In the traditional approach to leadership, leaders feel that it’s their job to tell people what to do, to look for mistakes and to correct employees when they’re wrong. But from a coaching standpoint, we realize that, to be a successful leader and contributor, it’s our job to help others learn and grow, and realize more of their potential,” she adds. “It’s a completely different perspective, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be instilled in leaders who don’t have a coaching mindset.”
Making the Transition
How can you begin to apply a coaching approach to your culture?
“As leaders, we need to ask more questions than give answers,” Casemore says.
Effective leaders are those who understand that they don’t have to be right all the time or have all the answers. Instead, they surround themselves with knowledgeable people, including employees who, as a whole, share experience that is deep and diverse.
How do you tap into this expertise? “In a coaching culture, leaders see themselves as a communication conduit. They’re the link between the top of the organization and what the employees are doing,” Casemore explains. “That starts to shift your role as leader away from saying, ‘Here’s what you need to do,’ to a mindset and vocabulary that asks, “How can I help you do what you need to do?’ Your role as leader then becomes to break down barriers and get the road blocks out of the way so that employees can be effective.”
When you create a dialogue between employees and leaders, the employee’s mindset also shifts from waiting to receive instruction to understanding that the leader is there to guide, not tell.
In a coaching culture, “the environment is built around the employees being empowered to deliver on their commitments to the organization, but not be under such rigid constraints that we’re not allowing them to be effective,” he stresses.
Applying a coaching approach to daily communication also has a trickle-down effect. For instance, within the contact center, as leaders begin to model coaching behaviors and have open dialogue with frontline staff, agents will begin to emulate that approach when working with customers, says Anderson. “And in a competitive environment where customer experience is the differentiator, that could be the deciding factor in whether customers have a positive experience or feel like they weren’t served well,” she adds. “Think of it not only as a functional way of communicating, but potentially as a competitive advantage.”