Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

The Power of an Inclusive Coaching Culture

Coaching can be instrumental in improving employee performance and retention. But how can a company foster a positive, inclusive coaching culture? Preeti D’mello, Global Head of Diversity and LeaD Academy at Tata Consultancy Services, weighs in with her insights as both an expert in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and a gestalt coach.

Courageous. Determined. Creative. Confident. Empathetic. Intelligent. These are just some of the traits the highest achievers in technology have in common. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt share plenty of successful leadership qualities, but one crucial element is often left out of the conversation: the coaching that helped shape who they are today.

“Everyone needs a coach” were Gates’s opening words in his TED Talk of February 2017. But wait a minute. Why would people at the very top of their game need a coach? Quite simply, coaches give the external feedback and perspective these leaders need to stay ahead.

If, as Timothy Gallwey said in The Inner Game of Tennis, success = potential minus interference, coaching helps people realize their potential while helping identify interferences in the way. A great point of reference is The Trillion Dollar Coach, an ode to Bill Campbell. The term “trillion dollar” represents the combined market capital of the companies whose CEOs were coached by Campbell.

The book was authored by three top Google executives, including Schmidt, whose philanthropic Schmidt Futures venture is founded on the belief in supporting talented people and helping them grow and innovate for the common good.

High-performing athletes succeed with the help of instrumental coaches, but the same coaching benefits—feedback, perspective, and support—can and should be used to help tech innovators; executives; and, yes, employees of all performance levels, from top to bottom.

While coaching has come a long way in the last decade, it’s not out of the woods as far as the “stigma” tag goes. Traditionally, coaching is seen as an initiative for underperformers or problem employees. Various studies estimate the majority of employees in organizations are embarrassed to consider, let alone ask for, coaching. “Why do you need coaching? What’s wrong with you?” is a familiar refrain.

In organizations with established coaching programs, coaching is a credible, proven tool for leadership development. The people who seek or are nominated for coaching aren’t the underperformers but the high potentials and high performers readying themselves for more responsibility and challenges. How coaching is perceived can be shaped through the approach management takes when positioning coaching vis-à-vis other developmental initiatives.

As both a professional coach and a DEI executive, I have found it is crucial for organizations to take two key steps to nurture a positive, inclusive coaching culture:

Assess the Assumptions

By creating a clearer understanding of what coaching is (and isn’t), organizations can work toward eliminating the taboo and stigma associated with it.

Any kind of stigma in society is kept alive through outdated beliefs and practices and becomes evident through people’s mindsets and behaviors. This applies to organizations, as well. It’s worth the effort to examine what assumptions, policies, and practices create a negative impression about coaching in the organization and then address those assumptions head-on.

Break the Taboo

Among the misconceptions about coaching, here are some that consistently surface:

“Why do I need a coach? I have decades of experience. I’m the expert here!”

This pushback comes mostly from senior executives, and it shows a lack of education about what coaching really is. To help lower their barriers to acceptance and replace their resistance with curiosity, organizations should ensure executives understand that the coach’s primary role is not to advise or mentor but rather to help them discover for themselves how they can enhance their executive work and leadership.

By bringing in a fresh perspective, coaches enable senior executives to challenge their own thinking and consider new ideas. Through this, executives begin seeing the coach as an ally they can partner with on a journey of self-discovery and self-improvement.

“It’s the underperformers who need coaching.”

For the uninitiated, the very idea of coaching can conjure up feelings of failure, incompetence, and “I’m not good enough.” It’s a common mistake in organizations; coaching is positioned as a performance management tool for underperformers rather than an opportunity for growth and progression for anyone who wants to grow. The optics matter in this case because the leader undergoing coaching is seen as “weak.”

To break the taboo that surrounds coaching, decision-makers and leaders need to reposition coaching, clarify its purpose, and consciously alter how they speak about it. Is it a punishment for underperformers or a channel to unlock potential? We know how high-performing organizations and leaders see it. Senior executives who have experienced coaching can evangelize its benefits, which goes a long way toward encouraging others to consider coaching for their own development.

“Coaching is a precursor to firing.”

When coaching is chosen as a remediation tool, executives tend to resist it or feel like they are on a path to being fired or sidelined. A more effective approach in this scenario is for management to first discuss with the executives their own plans for improvement and then offer coaching as a support rather than a must-do. This gives the executives choice in the matter and increases the likelihood they will value this input rather than resist it. 

The Role of Coaching in Retention

Organizations have faced unforeseen, historic challenges in a post-pandemic world. One of the biggest hurdles has been overcoming employee turnover amid “The Great Resignation.”

Because there is no empirical data that establishes a causal link between coaching and retention (or attrition), it’s difficult to pinpoint the direct impact coaching has on retention. However, in my experience in coaching employees of all levels, I believe coaching is key to keeping your best people around while also keeping them at their best.

Retention happens when employees are happy with their current situation and haven’t found a strong reason to move on.

Attrition, on the other hand, is an outcome that is symptomatic of a deeper problem. Sometimes the causes for attrition are extrinsic—for example, an employee gets an amazing offer the current organization cannot match. In that case, there’s little coaching can do to mitigate the flight risk. But often, the causes are intrinsic—the employee feels neglected, disengaged (quiet quitting), alienated in the team, not valued or recognized, or unable to deal with a difficult boss or a toxic work environment.

If the causes for attrition are intrinsic, there are always red flags that surface through employee pulse surveys, exit interviews, performance reviews, and other assessments. The organization needs to be aware of these red flags and, with the leader’s agreement, bring these issues to the forefront, including making them a focal point of a coaching intervention.

How Coaching Can Help with Employee Retention

Coaching can help retain employees in a number of ways. Here are some approaches:

Schedule Coaching for Top Talent

Organizations need to ensure they are making conscious efforts to retain top talent rather than living in blissful ignorance and assuming they’re doing fine without feedback. When an organization invests in tailored coaching for executives, it becomes a positive, respected initiative across the organization while maintaining engagement with top talent. Coaching strategies can also dovetail with an organization’s succession-planning efforts.  

Schedule Group Coaching

This will allow whole teams to experience the benefits of coaching. It also provides an opportunity for the team to come together and surface issues that might be hampering their cohesiveness.  

Leverage Peer Coaching Where Current Employees Can Help Retain Talent

Peer coaching can be a powerful mechanism to build and maintain a cooperative team environment.

Use Shadow Coaching

This can be a highly effective intervention to help leaders become more self-aware and improve in real time how they interact, hold meetings, and so on.

Use Coaching to Address DEI Challenges

Often, DEI challenges lurk under the surface even if employees show compliance. Coaching can help address implicit and explicit biases, misconceptions, and fears of a loss of power—in the majority, as well as in the marginalized—through a safe, nonjudgmental environment where employees can be vulnerable, share their concerns, and receive feedback that will inspire change.

Forward-thinking organizations cultivate and maintain the best talent by building loyalty through thoughtful initiatives like inclusive coaching. In addition, organizations with an established coaching culture consciously nurture an environment where employees feel engaged, respected, heard, and valued, all while increasing their contribution and productivity.

The Bottom Line

The highest achievers in technology agree: Self-improvement shouldn’t discriminate. The need for coaching shouldn’t be seen as an employee deficiency; coaching should be viewed as an advantage for the whole organization. It’s no wonder Gates vouches so hard for inclusive coaching. Whether it’s for top-performing athletes or C-suite executives, the power of perspective can be a game-changer.

Preeti D’mello is Global Head Diversity & LeaD Academy at Tata Consultancy Services.

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