James Lopata, a workplace coaching expert, recalls sitting-in on a recent client meeting in which the chief HR officer told his employees the company would not release a statement about the Black Lives Matter movement because the company didn’t want to engage in politics.
Lopata, the vice president of coaching supervision for AceUp, observed employees express frustration and disappointment on the Zoom call. The company’s plan to facilitate roundtables and produce solutions and action items was not enough. Employees wanted to be listened to in a process that facilitated deeper cultural changes within the company, as opposed to short-term fixes.
As workplaces around the country grapple with similar discussions, Lopata believes a culture of coaching across a whole organization–as opposed to individually focused coaching–is uniquely suited to offer a productive path forward. He outlined the values of coaching with culture in mind during a presentation at From Day One’s July virtual conference on The New Push for Workplace Equity.
Lopata compares a company that’s only willing to make short-term, surface-level changes to a desert with arid soil. A company invested in a culture of coaching–as well as values of diversity, equity and inclusion–is more akin to a garden. To achieve it, “companies need to dig, and dig deep,” he said. Values of gardening also align with the International Coach Federation competency model: setting a foundation, co-creating a relationship, communicating effectively, and finally cultivating learning and growth.
A skilled gardener is sensitive to different needs of different plants in the garden, and creates conditions for each plant to thrive within the larger garden. Corporate leadership, too, should “create conditions for cultures to grow,” as Lopata put it, by identifying strengths and needs of employees and listening to them to foster change, rather than forcing change upon them.
An important first step in developing this kind of culture is to identify existing leaders. Managers who already have an innate coaching approach should be supported in that role, for example by providing resources or calling attention to their distinguished behavior. They can then serve as anchors to a larger “coached neighborhood network,” according to Lopata.
This network is one where leaders are in close collaboration with the people they work with. “Individuals are not the key drivers of corporate success,” Lopata noted. “Collaboration counts for more.” While most coaching measures individual interventions at the individual coachee level, there’s growing research that this culture of coaching is an effective model for change.
An analysis in the Journal of Psychology observed a “coaching ripple effect”: transformational leadership and an increase in psychological well-being for those who received coaching within a network. In addition, the closer any member of the network was identified as being connected to those who received coaching, the more likely they were to experience positive increases in wellbeing.
Lopata also sees promise in the role of coaching supervisor, an emerging certified position in the U.S. “It’s uniquely suited to overseeing the development of coaching cultures,” he said. Coaching supervision allows the company to focus on individual coaching alongside a large-scale vision for a collaborative workplace.
“Coach supervisors don't merely attend to the design of the garden, we tend to the underlying assumptions and belief systems that conditioned the soil of your entire organization,” Lopata said.
He also pointed out that coaching has been found to be the most effective tool for change management, as opposed to training, mentoring and consulting. “Why? Training, consulting, mentoring and the like are backwards facing– expertise and teaching experience only offer what has already been known,” he said.
“Coaching is uniquely forward-facing and helps identify what has never been before, what is emergent,” concluded Lopata. “It assists in discovering what an optimal future looks like in ways never encountered.”
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.