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Transform your Culture through Coaching: Best Practices from a Fortune 500 for Effective Transformations

Culture Transformation: Whose Job Is It?  

At the Maslow Centre for Executive Leadership, we define transformation as an accelerated change in strategy and culture. In the work we do with organizations, we have learned that this change to strategy and culture starts with leadership alignment and the absolute dedication and buy-in from executive and senior leaders. 

This paper will detail our best practices for designing a coaching program for culture transformation, based on our case study of a Fortune 500 company that we worked with on this exact mandate. At the end of the day, the method is quite simple: by establishing and committing to new leadership behaviours (including identifying and stopping the unproductive ones) and creating accountability and culture practices (that complement the organization’s purpose, values, and potential), an organization can create a positive change in culture that also has the valour to stick.  The one hurdle?  The actual application of this method is no easy task— like any relationship, an organization’s relationship with culture takes time, patience, dedication, and commitment. And when errors in these areas are made, credibility and trust pay the price.    

Our colleagues at McKinsey & Company have an excellent article on making a culture transformation stick. Their research supports two important commitments: 1. Make expectations clear through role modeling, and 2. Develop a portfolio of symbolic actions. In other words, clear and consistently practiced leadership behaviours and meaningful culture practices are the key to a successful transformation.

Similarly, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has an article on the role of purpose in transforming an organization. The article indicates there are four main steps in bringing purpose to life in an organization’s culture transformation: discover, articulate, activate, and embed. Although all four steps are important in bringing about a meaningful change, “activate” is all about enlisting “leaders at all levels to take symbolic actions” that support change and to embody these actions through “their words and deeds.” Catch the drift?  The Maslow Centre’s work on culture transformation also identifies that a key component of how culture is supported is through the organization’s purpose and values. It is safe to say the common denominator in activating change is leadership and that culture transformation must start and be appropriately modeled from the top.  

We are all aware of quotes like “nothing will kill a great employee faster than watching you tolerate a bad one” (Perry Belcher). The same goes for culture. Getting it right takes time and unwavering dedication. A good culture is easily undone when leaders fail to walk the talk. 

All organizations have a transformation agenda in this Covid era, and we expect nothing but acceleration of transformation. Most of these transformation projects start highly strategic, but end up being very process-oriented in implementation. The missing link? Ongoing coaching support to leaders.

Coaching For Culture Transformation: A Case Study 

In July of 2020, the Maslow Centre took a group of 63 senior leaders, from a Fortune 500 company, held them accountable to action planning for culture change, and helped them gain their footing to be able to sustain the change long after our part was done. Our project lasted for 6 months and included action planning support and one-on-one coaching for culture transformation. We’ll take you through what we learned, experienced, and observed during this process.  Four coaches were assigned to this project, all of whom contributed to the findings in this document. Of the four coaches, two were also involved in facilitating culture action planning meetings with the senior leaders and their management teams. 

This portion of the project utilized a culture action planning template. This brought leaders through a process of uncovering three to five critical and actionable data points from the survey results that also informed behaviours and actions they needed to move away from (i.e., unproductive, not in service to the culture, etc.). Next, the leaders clearly and concisely defined what they were moving toward (i.e., what would be the productive, culture-serving responses to their “from” statements). Leaders were then asked to link this new direction (what we call the “to” culture) to the organization’s strategy (purpose, values, vision, etc.). This provided proper alignment across the organization, ensuring the changes being addressed were in line with the organization’s North Star.” 

Finally, leaders were asked to determine how the “to” culture would look in terms of specific and observable leadership behaviours, and how these behaviours would be complemented through culture practices or rituals demonstrated within their teams. As part of this, we established accountability (i.e. we actually assigned the names of who would champion the various changes), and we set goals for what success in the first few months would look like..  

Immediately following the creation of these action plans, the rest of the coaching team was brought into handover meetings where applicable. In these meetings, we reviewed the finalized culture action plan. From that point forward, the coach and leader met six times between July and December for leadership and culture coaching. 

The project concluded in December of 2020. While it is too soon to do a proper impact analysis, we already have great insights on what worked well and what we learned, that can be applied to similar projects going forward. 

The biggest insight shared by all four coaches was again that senior and executive leaders must be the owners of change, committed to the change, and fully open to owning their individual parts of the change in order for a culture transformation to work. Beyond this insight, here are our takeaways in terms of what worked well and what we learned while coaching a Fortune 500 organization.  

What Worked

Culture Survey: Having an organizational culture survey was hugely beneficial to this process. It helped many of the leaders go beyond their own assumptions or impressions on culture to actually listen to what the data was telling them. There were, however, two two things to look out for. 

Firstly, some leaders can become so focused on their survey results that they forget to be authentic and meaningful in their approach to change. Expecting that significant culture change will happen in 6-12 months is often not a reasonable expectation. It takes time to change culture and to see it reflected.   

Secondly, a few of the leaders we worked with did not take responsibility for their survey results. While the coaching component certainly provides a forum for addressing this, it is important to enter projects like this realizing that not everyone will be ready for accountability and change. 

Coach-Client Assignments: One of the four coaches on the project was identified as the lead coach. That individual spent time understanding the dynamics of the organization, including how the various leaders worked together and interacted with each other from a business perspective. As a result, we were able to ensure that certain coaches were assigned certain groups of leaders to carry out the one-on-one coaching based on their areas of work. This allowed the coaches to become far more aware of the roles, areas of expertise, and working relationships that existed within their roster.   

Leader / Coach Handover: One key success was in the way that coaches either action planned alongside the leaders they coached or, if this was not possible, when coaches were able to attend a handover meeting with a leader they were taking on before the official coaching commenced. During these handover meetings, we saw that coaches were able to connect, build rapport, get a sense for who and what they were dealing with, ask questions, and offer insights that were invaluable. Having a proper handover and/or an onboarding experience for coaches on any project of this nature is an absolute must.   

Calling out Resistance: This might be defined as Coaching 101, but coaches that were able to acknowledge resistance early on were able to build more commitment and trust with their leaders, allowing them to be more vulnerable and willing to get deep. In most cases and in dealing with such a high level of leadership, this approach was critical for bringing about change and showing the leader that this project needed their commitment. 

Project Reporting: Once per month, our lead coach would report directly back to the organization’s project sponsor. These reports were detailed but comprehensive, always stating the number of sessions utilized and consolidating monthly themes shared during coaches’ meetings. The organization’s transformation office would also meet with our lead coach on a bimonthly basis to discuss emerging themes in greater detail and receive support and consultation on next steps. These steps were then incorporated into the program. Success stories from leaders were also evaluated and shared.

Success Stories / Collecting Best Practices: Many discussions on best practices and important emerging themes that came up during bimonthly meetings were then integrated into the fabric of the program. One key implementation was the collecting of success stories and best practices leaders were discussing during coaching sessions. After obtaining their consent to share, coaches would collect these stories and examples and send them to the organization. The organization then compiled and categorized a list, creating a new culture practice around celebrating transformational success and learning from each other.   

Mid-Point Feedback: he mid-point feedback survey and results discussion is a really important step in ensuring the program is meeting the needs of those involved. A mid-point survey means enough time has passed to assess early effectiveness of the program, and that there is ample time left to address feedback themes that require a change. We used a basic survey with one program impact question, one open-ended question on what works well, and a second open-ended question on what can be improved. In other projects, we also add an employee net promoter score (NPS) question. We reviewed the results and suggested changes based on common themes that we were able to implement immediately and for the duration of the program.  

What We Learned

Coachability, Commitment and Client Intake: When an organization makes an investment into an important transformation and the CEO consistently speaks to its importance, you never really expect that some leaders will simply opt out. Yet this absolutely happens! While it is unfortunate and completely counterproductive to change, there will often be a leader or a few that simply do not buy in. An organization has options for how they deal with this. Coaches, however, do not. We cannot want change for someone more than they want it themselves, and we cannot force anyone to get on board. 

In this particular project, leaders were allowed to opt out. This sparked a particularly interesting conversation— opting out means only dealing with the leaders that are coachable and are committed to change. Opting out also means that there is a choice when perhaps there should not be. 

Although we have not fully settled on the best way to handle an opt in vs. mandatory culture transformation and coaching mandate, we do believe that a proper intake process to link leaders to a coach that resonates with them is important. Another option is to interview leaders for placement in a coaching program, so that the privilege and benefit of such support goes to those that are most deserving. This is particularly effective in organizations that are not able to offer sponsorship for all leaders. 

We also gave the option to try another coach. If the coach you were assigned was not the right fit, we would set you up with another coach, no questions asked. This is a practice we strongly recommend.  

Expectations on Leaders: Our project took place right in the midst of COVID. While the pandemic is far from behind us, the project was executed during a very uncertain time and this business, like many others, had some difficult discussions to make. Although we expected leaders to attend all six of their sessions and stay committed to their culture transformation agendas, both the organization and our coaching team determined that missing a session or two was not an indication of lack of engagement or a desire to change. 

The Time is Never Right: Whether in a global pandemic or experiencing other organizational projects in full bloom, there is never a right time to embark upon a major culture transformation. Luckily, that’s not the point. An organization that is committed to change will make the time and will model the commitment from the very top.  Those who were committed to this transformation show every sign of success despite how busy they were. They made this a priority and they owned their role in it. They learned to rely on others and on the strong foundation they had built, and that the power of communication and that honesty go a long way.   

Final Takeaways

Over the next several months and in anticipation of another annual employee survey, this organization will be monitoring the program’s effectiveness. At that time, leaders that completed their coaching sessions (50 out of the original 63) will have their survey data compared to the data of those that did not. Recognizing that culture transformation takes time, this will be a starting point in assessing the overall effectiveness of the program.   

Upon wrap-up, 350 coaching sessions were delivered by the four coaches. The coaching team did a final debrief in late January to discuss key successes and learnings. On all accounts, we feel strongly that this project was well executed and that many leaders will witness an initial change in their survey results.  

For 6 months we lived and breathed this project; it was exciting to watch leaders embrace their plans and learn to integrate culture transformation into their other priorities. 

In the future, we will add to this paper as we learn more about the impact of this project on the organization’s culture. In the meantime, we have taken on more projects of this nature and have announced the dates for our inaugural Maslow Certified Culture Coaching Program. For more information on working with our organization or signing up for an upcoming certificate program, please connect with us at www.maslowleadership.com