Dr Rebecca Jones, an Associate Professor in Coaching and the Director of the Henley Centre for Coaching at Henley Business School, talks to CEO Insight about the benefits of adopting a coaching mindset, the challenges that companies may face and the key coaching trends to look out for in the future.
CEO Insight: As remote working has become the norm and zoom calls increasingly replace face to face, collaborative decision-making is affected and leaders are being challenged to provide more than ever before. How can a coaching mindset equip leaders to keep up the demands of the new generation?
Dr Rebecca Jones: Remote working, although it has given us lots of challenges, in some ways has made something like collaborative decision making fairer and easier. Moving away from the office has changed how we formulate decisions. When people engage in collaborative decision making in practice, conversations often start at the office coffee machine. This casual nature is habitually dependent on who has the best relationship with who, and these informal interactions are commonly how employees collaborate and make decisions.
By working remotely, these informal interactions no longer exist. What that means is that we must think about how we communicate and formulate decisions. With Zoom meetings, everybody’s there, so in theory, everybody could have a fair say. This does still depend on how the meeting is chaired, not all leaders are inclusive and therefore still won’t enable everyone to have a fair say. However, the physical barrier of decisions being made over the water cooler has been removed.
Then collaboration can really happen. I think remote working has helped to make our decision making more inclusive. This is where the coaching mindset comes into it. It’s one thing having lots of people on your team and asking them, ‘What do you think about this’ and it’s another thing encouraging that diversity of thoughts and ideas to be shared.
A coaching mindset enables people to feel safe to voice their opinions, which may involve some different viewpoints, creating constructive discussion. It’s important to make sure that decision making is considered and fair and I think that’s where coaching comes in. Coaching creates conditions where people feel safe to say, ‘actually, I don’t agree with that’ without feeling like they are being difficult. I think a leader who’s got a coaching approach can create conditions for open discussion to happen.
CEO Insight: Coaching has far reaching benefits, from individual impact to profit and business performance. When it comes to creating a coaching culture, what are the key components that impact effectiveness? What are the most transparent ways to measure its ROI and how can you use this evidence base to enable businesses reach their full potential?
Dr Rebecca Jones: I tend to get on my soapbox around measuring the ROI of coaching. Quantifying in that kind of way is complex, as inevitably you will need to distil human behaviour into something we can quantify and compare. However, human behaviour is complex, and there are so many different factors that can influence whether we change, how we feel, how we think etc. Trying to isolate these factors is very difficult, which is why I veer away from the idea of ROI. Claims about ROI can actually be quite damaging to the coaching profession because there’s lots of over inflated percentages that lack credibility.
However, that isn’t to say that I don’t think we should abandon the idea of measuring the impact of coaching – in fact this has been the main focus of my own research for the last 10 years. Both in my research and consulting with organizations, I take a scientific approach. That means identifying what you want to measure – job performance or employee wellbeing for example – and establishing what you think should change following coaching. Measure and assess those elements before coaching and then compare the same elements after coaching and see whether there’s a difference. You can also collect data from employees not subject to any coaching type intervention and comparing the results will highlight the impact. That’s something that I strongly advocate – people taking a scientific approach.
“My stance on coaching culture is clear – it is much more than just training people in coaching or having a coach. It’s thinking about if we truly adopt a coaching approach, what does that mean in terms of how we reward people, how we conduct meetings, how we celebrate successes?
Furthermore, measure a range of outcomes that are relevant. One of the benefits of coaching is it’s very personal. One individual might have changes in one area, someone else might find something quite different. This personal aspect also makes the measurement challenging. The other thing I always advise when looking at this from an organizational perspective, is to align the coaching intentions with the organizational strategic objectives.
Coaching has a positive impact on different outcomes that are strategically important. Even if we can’t establish ROI definitively, other things will come to light. For example, diversity and inclusion are currently very topical, and organizations have clear targets about improving diversity on their boards. Claiming diversity isn’t enough, coaching can help develop inclusive leadership. Leaders modelling this type of management are more effective, which is going to help achieve key strategic objectives.
CEO Insight: Every company is unique and one size does not fit all when it comes to culture. How can leaders and teams bring their unique vision to life?
Dr Rebecca Jones: Every organization and team are unique. Coaching is flexible and adaptable – it’s not a one size fits all. Coaching can be adapted for individuals and companies and the types of interventions they might do in the coaching session can look quite different. The same applies with embedding coaching at an organizational level. I advise organizations to consider all aspects of what the organization seeks to achieve and think about how coaching, or a coaching approach might be integrated into those different elements.
My stance on coaching culture is clear – it is much more than just training people in coaching or having a coach. It’s thinking about if we truly adopt a coaching approach, what does that mean in terms of how we reward people, how we conduct meetings, how we celebrate successes? All those elements of a company culture are open to change. I think that’s key, because you can provide as much coaching as you like to individuals, but if they go back to an organization where the culture isn’t adopting a coaching mindset, they’re going to have a really hard time sustaining it.
Adopting a coaching mindset will allow the company to see things that they may not have noticed before, like how do we cope with conflict, how do we treat failure? Coaching enables a leader to focus in on these company specific fundamentals, and adapt them accordingly, allowing the company vision to flourish.
CEO Insight: How can team coaches generate coaching conversations to create a positive impact on team performance? How do these coaching conversations make a difference and are there any courses that you recommend?
Dr Rebecca Jones: Team coaching is a really challenging skill. You’re doing everything that you would normally do when you’re coaching someone on a one-to-one basis, but you’re multiplying that by the number of people in the team. Team coaches are just as susceptible to get drawn into things like group dynamics that might be playing out within the team. They have to be very skilled in really understanding themselves and understanding psychological principles.
Coaching conversations help the team to understand group dynamics, how groups interact and some of the things that might influence how groups behave. A team coach can detect those group dynamics, and that observation can really help people to understand what might be hindering performance or affecting relationships. This can then encourage awareness and help the team to work through the issues.
There’s lots of different things that team coaches can do. They help the individuals to understand each other better. They raise awareness and understanding, which will solidify a team. Understanding strengths, values, limitations, or preferences, and thinking about the implications of these, in relation to how we work together or where we might work better together is essential. It’s also important to understand the things that might hinder our ability as a team.
Team coaches create that safe, supportive environment. This doesn’t mean that everyone’s getting along necessarily, it’s that they feel comfortable to challenge each other without worrying about confrontation. I think a team coach can help create those conditions and that’s going to improve things like decision making and innovation.
Henley Business School offers a Professional Certificate in Team, Board and Systemic Coaching, looking at how to work with teams to improve performance, deliver change at an organisational level and understand how to coach a diverse range of teams, amongst other vital issues. Henley also offers a Leader as Coach programme which outlines the power of coaching conversations to develop staff and enhance performance.
CEO Insight: Is it essential to have permanent qualified staff that are coaches? How can team coaches create a safe and trusting environment for their team?
Dr Rebecca Jones: I don’t think it’s essential to have permanent qualified coaches in-house. The reality is most organizations don’t have the capacity for that. It is about making coaching more accessible. Leaders can be amazing coaches, and they get a huge number of opportunities to coach their teams, working with them daily and having lots of interaction with them. Leaders can adopt a coaching approach and reap many of the rewards of an in-house coach.
For example, if something goes wrong, coaches’ model how we can learn from failure, reflect on it and own up to it. Being open and curious are critical elements of coaches, to have that openness to really understand the world and other people’s perspectives. Knowing that we’re all unique is the first step to create a trusting environment.
Another common thread is curiosity. When you are coaching someone, you’re asking them lots of questions. Being non-judgmental is key. There’s nothing that’s going to kill trust more than feeling judged negatively. Coaches can create a safe environment by adopting important psychological concepts.
Linked to that is the idea of unconditional positive regard from Carl Rogers, a humanistic psychologist. It centres on this idea that we believe that people are genuinely good and well meaning. If we think about having unconditional positive regard in work, it means to genuinely believe that everyone on the team wants to do a good job and work hard. By starting from this kind of positive belief it helps create a trusting culture at work.
Lastly, adopting a growth mindset in the workplace creates an environment to thrive. This idea that all humans can learn and develop, particularly if the right conditions are in place. Coaches avoid placing barriers on people’s limitations. Coaches model coaching principles to create a safe environment, where people feel able to be themselves, to fail, to experiment and to strive for their best. I think that those factors combined can produce an optimal environment for the team.
Time is always of the essence in business, so it’s important to enable others to contribute effectively and make meetings a productive use of people’s time. A very simple thing that you can do is to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute, and that people listen to each other.
Team coaching is a fascinating area. It can help individuals to understand themselves better. It can distinguish strengths and weaknesses. Done correctly it creates that safe environment where employees can feel psychologically safe and comfortable enough to challenge each other.
CEO Insight: What are the main challenges in implementing a coaching culture? What are the solutions to overcome these challenges?
Dr Rebecca Jones: Resistance is the first challenge. At an individual level lots of our ideas about leadership and performance are deeply engrained. Some people won’t buy into the different principles of coaching. There are valid reasons why people are resistant. We need to educate people and share evidence that coaching works. This includes modelling coaching behaviour to see first-hand the benefit of it, highlighting successes, sharing best practice and creating a shared awareness.
Another challenge is changing behaviour. Change is scary and risky, and old habits can be difficult to break. A leader faced with a new generation with different expectations is daunting. It can be scary to become a novice after years of doing the same thing, but this fear holds people and businesses back. It is important that solutions come from the top down.
Overcome these challenges by creating an environment where it’s ok to be a novice, its ok to fail. Be open, communicate and learn. A coaching culture improves human connection and produces positive outcomes. Prioritize time for reflective practice in the company. Enable and encourage reflection and normalise time to think. Create peer support groups and discuss what you notice.
Learning doesn’t end at the end of a course, but needs practice, re-enforcement and support to continue to develop. How can leaders ensure this continuity happens in their business? What methods do you advise to allow for ongoing practice?
Engage in independent learning to ensure continuity. Podcasts like my own, The Coaching Academic, a monthly podcast that translates coaching related theory into practice will support up to date learning. In the podcast, a new piece of cutting-edge research is discussed and what this means for your coaching practice.
There are numerous professional organisations that offer advice, support and knowledge to assist continuous development. Henley’s Centre for Coaching, for example, is a vibrant learning community where coaches across the world connect and learn collaboratively. Books and reports can inform, bringing together cutting-edge research in coaching, including my own book ‘Coaching with Research in Mind.’
CEO Insight: What are the main coaching trends that will play a role in changing coaching from a business luxury to a must have?
Dr Rebecca Jones: The leader approach is a key coaching trend. It involves upskilling leaders and embedding coaching as part of their leadership. It makes coaching accessible to everyone in every company. The principle is the same as one-to-one coaching, but with greater benefits. We are seeing a big shift towards the Leader as Coach, which will offer opportunities to open important conversations and convert coaching from a corporate extravagance to a contemporary prerequisite.
Technology is another key trend and integrating technology and coaching is innovative and worthwhile. For example, embedding insights into our daily activities, such as data on our team mates on their preferences for working, can help to raise awareness and improve teamwork. Nudging individuals, using technology to prompt daily reminders to set goals, use reflective questions and prompts to stay on track with behaviour change are all ways in which technology can help us all to embed coaching into our daily lives. Nudges theory is still prominent, persuading people to behave in a certain way. Simply put, nudges aim to influence the choices people make, but without taking away the power to choose.
The ongoing shift in perspectives around life/work balance present huge opportunities, and as corporations embark on finding and retaining the right talent, the services of an executive coach or of leaders adopting a coaching mindset will put businesses in a strong position in 2022 and beyond.
For more information: Henley Business School