1-855-962-7569 Let’s Connect

Maslow Insights

Thought Leadership


Culture Coaching: The Missing Link in Executive Coaching

As an educator and researcher in the field of coaching, I have analyzed the changing dynamics of the 21st century leadership and organizational paradigm and have looked at the needs of leaders in corporations and the gaps within coach training programs. Here is what I found: Corporate culture coaching is a missing piece in the executive coaching practice.

Executive coaching for some is about mastery in coaching competencies; for others, it’s about having the right executive experience. Both are key factors in becoming a good executive coach, yet I found that there are three other distinctive elements. In my definition, executive coaching is coaching for strategy, culture and influence.

I conducted several focus groups with corporate leaders and found that executives have a relative understanding of the importance of culture (culture is important, culture has an impact on our business) but are not well equipped on how to lead on culture. Although culture is the leaders’ responsibility, HR is usually expected (unrealistically) to come in and build the culture. HR leaders have a better understanding of the building blocks of culture but still need a cohesive approach on how to build a great workplace culture.

Our job as executive coaches is not to teach our clients about workplace culture, nor is it to advise them on culture. Yet our ability to attune to our clients can be limited to our understanding of the culture and context of the client. If a coach does not explore culture’s effect, the impact of the coaching is limited.

“Our ability to attune to our clients can be limited to our understanding of the culture and context of the client.”

Culture is a complex topic with many layers. Organizational culture is how we work together as human beings. It is rooted in purpose, values, leadership behaviors, strategies and culture practices. As executive coaches, we have a critical role in helping our clients understand, acknowledge and work on the culture that acts deeper on collective behaviors. Some of the revised coaching competencies (Embodies a Coaching Mindset, Cultivates Trust and Safety, Listens Actively) acknowledge the importance of culture and context.

Based on my research, I identified the following key topics that need to be understood by coaches on culture coaching:

Strategy – Culture Relationship

Although many organizations consider these as two different topics, strategy and culture are interwoven. Culture can either become a hindering or supporting force toward the realization of strategies and goals.

Systems Thinking and Culture

The way solutions are being developed needs to consider the different layers of a system. The best analogy for this would be federal, state/provincial and local government level planning. Within a company, different problems will have solutions at different levels.

Group Dynamics and Group Behavior

Human beings are complex, multi-layered beings. Adding further to the complexity, groups create their own dynamics. A coach willing to work on culture needs to understand group dynamics for team coaching. The newly launched ICF Team Coaching Competencies are a great starting point.

High-performing Team Dynamics

A high-performing team does not happen automatically when you bring together high-performing individuals. Team cohesion, team alignment and team dynamics need to be explored during this process.

Coaching through Culture Surveys

There are many useful surveys—some evidence based, some with proven ROI—that create some measurable dimensions of culture. In the way executive coaching uses leadership assessments as input to the coaching process, group surveys also provide an input and the opportunity for reflection and dialogue. Creating a baseline and finding ways of measuring progress are great ways to bring accountability.

Culture Practices

Culture practices is another strategic topic for culture coaching, where the culture coach can help a leader analyze some engrained behaviors, rituals and assumptions present in the organization. Culture practices are sometimes formal and sometimes informal, and they have a key role in culture change.

Culture Action Planning

A Culture Action Plan (CAP) is different than a traditional action plan with SMART goals. You can build a great tactical action plan based on an engagement survey but if you don’t address the mindset change that needs to happen, you will get caught up in the vicious cycle of surveying but not improving your results. A CAP needs to address the mindset change and work on culture practices. One of the tools we use is the “from/to” reflection on culture. The “from” part is about acknowledging the current situation and what the behaviors are that need to change. A proper acknowledgement of the “from” state is what starts the change. The acceptance and reconciliation of what needs to change now starts the change process. The “to” part of the reflection is a more fun, envisioning process on the ideal future.  A CAP has many further nuances.

Culture coaching has many layers and adds depth to a coach’s impact. I strongly encourage all coaches to explore this topic further and share their thoughts with me via the comments section below.

*This article was first published on ICF’s page. You can reach it here: https://coachingfederation.org/blog/the-missing-link-in-executive-coaching*

At Maslow Centre for Executive Leadership, we’ve developed a world-first, ICF approved Organizational Culture Coaching Certificate Program. Check out our program here and join one of our upcoming informational program webinars here.