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Matt Somers

Matt Somers Coaching Skills Training Ltd

Founder & Managing Consultant

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How your organisational structure impacts coaching success

Is your organisational structure holding back your coaching success?

In this series we’re using the Culture Partners’ model, the Results Pyramid, to examine workplace culture generally and coaching cultures in particular.

In the previous article, we looked at how rituals play out in coaching.

Now, we’ll consider organisational structure.

Understanding the cultural web

In their book Exploring Corporate Strategy, Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes present a model called the Cultural Web to characterise and analyse organisational culture. This web provides an excellent lens through which to view the way in which we experience Systems and Processes as it breaks them down into:

Traditional hierarchical structures

As we moved from the agricultural to the industrial age organisations got a lot bigger. Farms turned into factories and there were suddenly dozens if not hundreds of people to be deployed and managed. 

Businesses looked for models of large-scale organisation and settled on the military as this was perhaps the best example available at the time. This led to the rigid hierarchical structures common in most areas of work throughout the last century. 

Coaching can apply and be effective in any type of structure, given the commitment of the coach and coachees alike. 

There would be a small number of directors (generals) at the top deciding on strategy, large numbers of workers (soldiers) at the bottom carrying out the required work and various levels of management (sergeants, captains, etc.) in between to ensure the workers carried out the work to implement the strategy.

This structure worked well for a time and is still quite common today. It works well when the nature of the work deals with extreme situations such as in the armed forces or emergency services, but less well in our current times of turbulent economic conditions changing employee expectations and sweeping technological change.


Modern ‘flat’ structures

Against this background, organisations need nimble, flexible structures that can respond to these shifting sands. The 1990s and early 2000s saw the advent of the ‘flatter’ structure and there was a large-scale cull of management ranks at the time.

This evolution continues still with virtual teams, project teams and matrix management replacing the solid, predictable reporting lines of old.

In a coaching culture teams become more interested in collaboration rather than competition. 

All of this requires a simultaneous evolution of management style, and this is an area in which change has been less rapid.

A militaristic, command and control approach does not work on a team of people whose make-up changes every three months, who report to two other bosses as well and whose education taught them to expect a different approach. 

I remember a potential client who began our meeting by saying ‘I want to bring you in because I used to just shout at people to get things done, but apparently you can’t do that anymore!’ We didn’t take the assignment as my feeling was it was doomed from the start with that kind of attitude at the very top.

Collaboration, not competition

I don’t subscribe to the notion that only a loose, informal structure is conducive to coaching. In fact, I find that coaching can apply and be effective in any type of structure, given the commitment of the coach and coachees alike. 

Coaching cultures always feature feedback whatever the organisational structure. 

Nevertheless, a coaching culture is likely to feature a structure that is more organic than it is mechanistic. I would expect to see a fairly flat structure with minimal levels of management. Relationships probably err on the side of the informal to the extent that people feel comfortable seeking coaching and discussing development issues. 

I see this extending across teams as well as within teams and have often found that in a coaching culture teams become more interested in collaboration rather than competition. 

Strong divisions between say Finance and Sales work well in terms of concentrating expertise but can create a silo mentality and turn competition into conflict.

Three ways to start introducing a coaching mindset

Many of the leaders I speak to express frustration at trying to establish the coaching approach within a hierarchy that makes it difficult. What can leaders do to set out their own stall and not get sucked back into the prevailing culture?

One of the things I’ve discovered as I’ve worked with Culture Partners over the last couple of years is the power of leaders asking for feedback.

Almost every leader will have been on workshops examining how to give feedback (I know I’ve run hundreds) but how many will have been trained in how to request, encourage and receive feedback.

Here are some practical tips:

1. Be specific

Asking ‘Do you have any feedback for me?’ is unlikely to get you anywhere. But asking: ‘Could you give me some feedback on how well I encouraged our quieter colleagues to share their views in the meeting?’ could unlock some real insights for you

2. Seek a balance

Ask for feedback about what’s going well as well as what could be better.

3. Avoid justifying

It will discourage your people from giving you more feedback. We recommend simply saying: ‘Thanks for the feedback.’ And leaving it at that.

Coaching cultures always feature feedback whatever the organisational structure but we can always do more to encourage it to be two-way.

Interested in this topic? Read the content series: How to build a coaching culture

Author Profile Picture
Matt Somers

Founder & Managing Consultant

Read more from Matt Somers

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