Coaching: Buzzword or Breakthrough?



I have come to believe that the need to create “coaching cultures”
in our organizations is more pressing than ever. This is because
a coaching culture is based on distinguishing, empowering and coordinating
individual commitment and action. Since commitment is a universal
human phenomenon, a coaching culture naturally transcends geographical
and historical differences between people and enables more effective
coordination in a global enterprise. As our historical practices
for prediction and control break down, the need for new ways to
observe and coordinate the collective actions of the enterprise
becomes a practical necessity.

In the past, a Company or organization could distinguish itself
by focusing on quality, cost and/or service. However, demonstrated
excellence in ALL of these areas is today a given if a company or
public sector organization is a serious player and committed to
making a difference in any game. Now, leaders are looking elsewhere
for competitive advantage and excellence. I have suggested and believe
that the most promising areas for distinguishing oneself and one’s
Company or organization in the future have to do with: a) the capacity
to generate and sustain timely change, b) the competencies for building
and sustaining powerful and committed relationships, and c) the
integrity and consistency with which people “walk the talk” or demonstrate
their commitments and values. These elements are at the core of
any “coaching culture” and are the foundation for personal and organizational
effectiveness in a world in which the future is unpredictable and
coordination of action is becoming increasingly complex.

<p > The need to clarify and integrate coaching competencies into our
existing roles as leaders and managers is essential. The reason
for this is that in most organizations today, leaders no longer
have the luxury of time or the capability to maintain the illusion
that they “control” the decision-making and actions of the people
who work in the enterprise. Leaders and coaches must create a powerful
vision of their own reality, create the future in “real time” and
then fulfill their vision through the inspired and self-generated
actions of those with whom they work. In a coaching paradigm, this
is obvious. It is also clear from this perspective that a coaching
culture can include good managerial practices, but that when “control”
becomes the context, which is the case in a traditional managerial
culture, coaching simply becomes another way of controlling people.
Coaching is not a replacement for solid management skills, but a
new context, a new way of observing and relating to people and action
— a different way of being.


I have spoken about “coaching” as being an alternative paradigm
for management, as a body of competencies for assisting individuals
and teams to achieve breakthroughs and as a strategy for achieving
changes in the organizational cultures within which people live
and work. As previously stated, coaching is a different way of observing
the world, a different way of being, a different context within
which to communicate and relate. From a perspective of action, coaching
and leadership are virtually synonymous. Both the coach and the
leader are always engaged with other people, they work exclusively
in a medium of relationship and conversations, and they are both
working to create through others a “future” that is unpredictable
and unprecedented. For coaches and leaders, the future isn’t a goal,
it is a reality NOW and their job is to bring forth what is missing
or what needs to be eliminated so that their vision can be manifested
in the world. The future for leaders and coaches is “real” by virtue
of their declarations and commitments and is not diminished by conventional
wisdom or the assessments of others. They stand for possibilities
and their commitments become the context within which they and those
they lead or coach organize information and coordinate action.

Learning to “be a coach” or “be a leader” requires more than appropriating
new techniques or understanding a new model. It requires a fundamental
shift in how one observes their world, themselves and other human
beings. This shift begins when we consider that all human beings
normally behave and act based on how our world “occurs” for us,
not because of the “way it is”. For example, we can all find situations
in our own experience where our actions were inconsistent with what
we “knew’ to be the case such as in continuing to smoke, running
away from something because we were afraid even though no real threat
existed or making a decision which we knew to be wrong at the time,
but rationalized or justified making it anyway.

As a premise, we could say that coaching enables people to change
the way the world “occurs” for them. When this happens, there are
possibilities and actions available that are not available otherwise.
We often hear organizational leaders speaking about the need to
change people’s “mindsets”, to get “buy-in” to some radical new
approach or to overcome historical ways of working. We can also
see myriad examples of frustration and costs associated with trying
to explain, justify, or rationally argue for change only to find
that people are more often than not acting and behaving in the same
ways they did previously. I suggest that these are all related to
the same phenomenon, specifically the phenomenon of cognitive blindness
— being blind to what we don’t know we don’t know or anything
that is outside our historical frameworks of understanding.

<p > Our historical frameworks for understanding, however, are cultural
in nature. They are constituted by our interpretations and stories
of what is and is not possible, what everything means, and are often
self-referential having no apparent function beyond assuring the
persistence of whatever has worked in the past. The challenge,
and the raison d’?tre for coaching is how to create a context
or an opening for new action that is grounded in our historical
reality but not limited by it
. If we only act based on what
we can understand, what is reasonable and what makes sense then
our actions will always be consistent with the prevailing culture
and produce variations of “more of the same”. The key to creating
a “coaching culture” or any new culture is in exploring the phenomenon
of commitment. If our reality is a function of our actions and our
actions are a function of our commitments and we only commit to
what is reasonable and feasible, then we will obviously be generating
more of the same. The question is, does our view of the circumstances
determine what we commit to OR do our commitments and therefore
our actions determine the circumstances?


It is not possible to coach someone or for that matter to be coached
in the absence of authentic commitment. I distinguish commitment
here from wanting, wishing, trying, hoping or any other notion such
as “what is realistic” that we sometimes substitute for commitment.
Moreover, it isn’t practical or logical to coach someone who isn’t
committed to accomplishing something “unprecedented” in his or her
experience. Coaching is inherently about achieving breakthroughs
and a breakthrough is something that hasn’t occurred before – a
new level of competency or new action or unprecedented result. None
of us would pay a coach to assist us to do what we can already do
or to produce what we are already producing.

Commitment is a phenomenon that while clear in almost everyone’s
direct experience when it is present, is generally unexamined and
somewhat mysterious in everyday living. Two basic premises in our
work is the view that: a) everyone is always committed to something
whether they are aware of it or not and b) often our commitments
are cultural in nature, that is we’ve become committed to interpretations
and practices given us from the past and relate to them as “truths”
without rigorous examination or choice. For example, for years people
were committed to the notion that you cannot accomplish more quality
without increasing costs. This was an unquestioned point of view
until shown to be untrue in the era of “total quality”. If one listens
closely today in most planning and budgeting processes, a great
deal of the conversation is still: “In order to do ‘x’, we require
‘y’ resources”. While these types of statements are valid as assessments
they are not true or false per se, but simply the points of view
of those involved. These points of view are also always seen as
just points of view AFTER a breakthrough, but are often defended
and become powerful and self-limiting “truths” until someone commits
to a larger possibility and acts based on that commitment.

<p > The problem is that these kinds of statements spoken as facts
and justified based on past experience and expertise blinds us to
their being historical interpretations and commitments by human
beings to the way it is. We are also blind to our blindness and
don’t see it as only being “true” in an historical cultural
context. Every breakthrough begins when someone commits to another
view or possibility and then organizes their actions and conversations
around their commitment. Rather than allowing the historical commitments
and interpretations embedded in the planning models to dominate
what we will commit to — in a coaching culture, the commitments
to the future come first and then the planning is about how to accomplish
or deliver on those commitments. One must be willing to authentically
commit to a breakthrough BEFORE there is evidence that it can be
accomplished or it can never be accomplished except as a consequence
of “good luck” or some other circumstantial explanation.


I have suggested in other writings and in various workshops and
presentations that coaching isn’t mysterious when observed from
the perspective of language and action. I have also claimed that
coaching and leadership are virtually synonymous in that they occur
in practical reality as expressions of commitment to people, to
inventing alternative futures or possibilities and succeed (or fail)
based on relationships and in conversations with other human beings.

Specifically, we might summarize the competencies of coaches (or
leaders) as involving the following elements. A coach:

  • Commits to and builds powerful, committed and trusting relationships
  • Is grounded in an awareness of and responsibility for their
    own “blind spots”
  • Grants total freedom, choice and power to those they coach —
    is vulnerable
  • Is more committed to the other’s commitments and results than
    the person being coached is — an unreasonable stand FOR the
    other person
  • Generates bigger possibilities for breakthroughs and accomplishment
  • Is focused on listening for commitment and action
  • Observes the other’s behavior and conversations for inconsistencies
    with the stated commitment or possibility, often revealing unexamined
    commitments and beliefs
  • Formulates and offers interpretations and practices to align
    actions and commitment in a context of the organization’s vision
    and values
  • Manages conversations and moods of people involved in the gameÉis
    able to “generate” new conversations to displace old onesÉdoesn’t
    fix people, but allows them to be responsible for their own moods
    and interpretations.
  • Uses breakdowns, constraints, adversity, mistakes or undesirable
    results as “positive” information and as “assets” for improving
    performance or as raw material for creative inquiry and design
    of new processes and practices
  • “Comes from” the point of view that the results have already
    been accomplished and has a creative relationship with the future
    — does not play the game to cope with circumstance or find out
    what will happen — is inventing the future
  • Operates with clarity and consistency of his or her own commitments
    and “walks the talk” at all times — speaks and listens commitment
  • Maintains an active relationship and dialogue with his or her
    own coach — “pushes the envelope” of their own thinking, actions
    and accomplishment

These practices aren’t unique or limited to only a context of
coaching. They tend to occur naturally in highly responsible leaders
and people broadly in times of crisis. I believe they are present
in many instances of great accomplishment and leadership. I call
these “contextual competencies” in that they all relate to distinguishing
what is missing or what is occurring in the background of a situation.
One question that has particular relevance to organizations, however,
is “can they be systematically learned or are they simply natural
qualities that one must be ‘born with’, acquire through fortuitous
circumstances of life, or appear only when there is an organizational

In my experience the answer is clearly “yes”. These competencies
can be systematically learned and mastered. However, I believe this
happens only when we understand that learning occurs in different
domains. Qualities and abilities such as committed listening, having
compassion, living as one’s word, being responsible, generating
trust, creating possibilities and so forth are obviously desirable
and often attributable to others — however, they can be elusive
when we try to learn them ourselves or teach them to others.

These kinds of qualities and abilities all have to do with our
way of being, with who we are as committed human beings. Normally,
when attempting to develop these qualities in others, we are often
perceived as “preaching” them as virtues. The often unspoken belief
is that these are “natural” abilities that one is born with or perhaps
they can be acquired through “apprenticeship” to someone we consider
having these attributes. The coaching perspective rejects this notion
and is grounded in the view that all people are capable of making
authentic commitments, that most people are cable of actions consistent
with those commitments most of the time and that while there may
be differences in talent and “natural abilities”, there is an enormous
gap between anyone’s capacity and the levels at which we normally
operate. In other words, for practical purposes, there are no limits
to what people can accomplish.

<p > Most experienced managers recognize the limitations of enumerating
how people “should” behave or what qualities they “should” possess
to succeed. Most would also agree that reading books and articles
about coaching or leadership rarely produce fundamental shifts in
how a person sees their world or behaves on a sustainable basis.
This is because, we normally attempt to learn something by “understanding”
it. To understand something means that it makes some sense in terms
of a person’s existing frameworks for understanding. More knowledge
and information can satisfy, modify and/or expand what we already
“know” but, cannot lead to breakthroughs or shifts in a person’s
basic ground of being or way of observing the world. This is why
we say that some things can be taught and others can only be acquired
through coaching. Knowledge and pre-existing processes can be taught.
Ways of Being or “contextual competencies” can be coached. Learning
to be a coach is primarily to learn a different way of Being. When
this occurs, the above competencies are obviously appropriate and
with practice tend to develop quickly and naturally.


As originally discussed in “Coaching and the Art of Management”,
we believe that coaching naturally creates (and can be a powerful
strategy for changing) organizational culture by virtue of being
so inextricably linked with the phenomenon of people’s authentic
commitments and their inherent relationship to the contexts within
which people are always operating. In the article, we distinguished
the traditional managerial culture as being grounded in deep background
commitments to CONTROL, ORDER and PREDICTION (COP) and a coaching
culture as characterized by new commitments to ACKNOWLEDGE, CREATE
and EMPOWER (ACE). We also stressed that these are not mutually
exclusive, but without the commitments implicit in a coaching culture,
people lack the capacity to observe the limits of their traditional
culture and “control” becomes the context for coordination and leadership.
An ACE culture can include the traditional, but not the other way
around. If the COP culture is senior, then practices for empowering
people for example, become a “means” for controlling and generally
fall short of the intentions of the practitioner.

One-way to define organizational culture is the “unseen and unexamined
historical context within which people are working”. When the historical
context changes then one might say there is a new culture. People’s
observations and actions are being organized by a different interpretation
of “reality”. Organizational cultures are not facts. They occur
as contexts or interpretations and are not “objective” in the sense
that they exist only in human language and people’s commitment to
them. Unfortunately, most approaches to this subject generally “objectify”
culture and then formulate approaches intended to “fix” or “change”
it in some manner.

In our experience when companies attempt to change or fix a culture
they give power and focus to the past. This provides the fuel with
which a culture assimilates or co-opts new ideas and possibilities
and turns them into variations of the same thing. Initiatives intended
to change organizational culture have generally required vast investments
of time and energy to gain marginal results. This phenomenon is
captured in the aphorism “you get what you resist”. In other words,
resistance to a cultural or context assures its persistence by virtue
of continuously regenerating it. For example, if an organization’s
culture is characterized by the historical belief that “success
depends on hard work and long hours
“; it is not uncommon for
there to be all sorts of programs, policies and attempts to restore
balance between employees’ “work life” and “home life”. Even with
the best of intentions, experience suggests that the overall work
habits in the organization rarely change or change very slowly.
Moreover, even if superficial changes in behavior are forced, the
changes often fail to achieve the desired objective and underlying
discontent continues. People continue to be conflicted, frustrated
and powerless to affect meaningful changes in the “way things are”.

<p > From the perspective of a coach or within a coaching culture,
the problem is NEVER in the common and recurring diagnosis (conversation)
of what the problem is. The culture is not a “thing”. It is the
background or contextual interpretation within which we are observing
and thinking about our day-to-day world and our concerns. If the
focus shifts to “what are people’s commitments” and “how are they
‘seeing’ their situation”, it becomes obvious that many other interpretations
are possible such as, “success depends on satisfying customers
and other stakeholders including our families
“. In this context
there isn’t a problem, just a commitment and other questions such
as “how do I satisfy all my stakeholders in the time I am committed
to working. This in turn will often reveal new strategies, missing
competencies and networks of people who might help. A new context
or cultural “opening” doesn’t proscribe action or solve problems,
but leads to new thinking and actions depending upon the commitments
of those involved.


Creating a “coaching culture” involves a multi-faceted strategy.
The following steps are a generic approach that has been successfully
used in a number of very large organizational environments in both
the public and private sectors. The process involves seven components
usually addressed over the course of 12 to 18 months.

Step 1 – Being Responsible for the “Box”. This involves
various methods for displaying or “showing” the existing culture.
This is the “box” often referred to when challenging people to “get
out of their box”. This is more than simple description and is the
result of questioning conventional wisdom and revealing AS CULTURE
many of the hallway conversations and points of view that are widely
shared within the organization but rarely addressed. For example,
if we ask, “what does everybody know about the way things get done
around here”, people will begin to articulate this conventional
wisdom such as “you must get the boss’s permission before you do
something or you will be punished”. This kind of generalized belief
can persist even when the boss has encouraged risk-taking and independent
action. This step might be likened to looking in a mirror for the
first time or when an alcoholic breaks through denial to confront
what had been a prevailing structure of blindness to the condition
in which he or she was viewing themselves and their world. The result
of this step is the recognition that our culture is not a problem
but is the phenomenon that blinds us to possibilities and actions
that would allow us to create an “unpredictable” future.

Step 2 – Creating a bigger Game. It is important for the
leadership of the organization to undertake a serious learning process
and open themselves to being coached with respect to “what is the
future we are committed to creating?”. This usually is in the form
of an organizational vision, but not one created as a “picture of
the future” but as a ground of being from which to organize and
align actions on a day-to-day basis. Leaders and executives begin
to distinguish their true commitments from their rational and historical
“stories” about people, what is possible and many of the self-limiting
notions that have organized their own behavior in the past. The
result of this step is the alignment of the top team on the “game
we are playing” and an authentic commitment to learning and changing
themselves as appropriate. They are committed to “walking the talk”
and demonstrating new ways of being as models for the rest of the

Step 3 – Designing Structures for Fulfillment. Possibility
and vision without structure is just a dream. It is also necessary
to launch through a variety of “change projects” the strategic,
structural and cultural initiatives considered necessary to fulfill
their vision of a “created future”. The know-how for these kinds
of projects is usually available or easily attainable. In many cases
there are already initiatives underway which have bogged down because
of the inherent cultural resistance to change. In the context of
coaching, commitment and creating the future, however, resistance
becomes a “raw material” for design and action in the same sense
that in sports, the opposition provides the opportunity to win the

The result of this step is a dynamic plan for fulfilling commitments
that uses historical constraints as opportunities for creativity
and action rather than being constrained by the historical interpretations
of “why not”. People learn that coaches do not go into a game to
find out what will happen or who will win, but to continuously create
the conditions and actions for having “already won”. They will allow
history to determine what “really happened” after the fact, but
in the moment of action they are committed to the interpretation
that the future has already happened.

Step 4 – Enrolling Others. The objective of this step is
to expand the network of people committed to leadership and creating
the future. Middle managers and staff people become a committed
part of the process based on their own vision and capacity to generate
commitment beyond that expected in the historical culture. This
is usually accomplished through educational and working sessions
similar to those undertaken by the top leadership and through participation
in various change projects. The primary difference between this
step in a coaching context and more traditional approaches which
often take the same form, is that the people are engaged from the
point of view of their underlying commitments and responsibility.
The process is not designed to get agreement, consensus or “buy-in”,
but to challenge, engage and confront the historical interpretations
and limits to responsibility and action. The result of this step
is a broad recognition in the organization that it is everyone’s
responsibility to bring his or her motivation to work, not get it
from work. Moreover, people’s practices with respect to straight
talk, being accountable, relating to others, being authentic, and
working in a context of commitment begin to become a natural expression
responsibility rather than an elusive ideal. Of equal importance
is that from this perspective, traditional behavior appears as an
exception to our commitment rather than as evidence that change
can’t happen.

Step 5 – Expanding Organizational Competencies. The implementation
of a new culture requires a commitment to continue to mobilize the
organization to include all employees and other stakeholders in
the “new game”. The underlying principle of this approach is that
when a critical mass of authentic commitment is reached, the “whole”
is changed. The new view becomes the “new reality”. Implicit here
is the notion that creating a coaching culture is more than changing
“A” to “B”. It is to create an organizational culture and environment
capable of continuously creating the future and changing itself
as appropriate to accomplish its commitments. Coordination is seen
as coordinating commitments. Commitment is viewed as action and
is not considered a matter of morality. In the traditional culture
people are taught not to make bold commitments because “good” people
always keep commitments and “bad” people don’t keep their commitments.
In this view, people need certainty before commitment that in turn
keeps them locked into the past. In a coaching culture, people are
responsible for their commitments and don’t take them lightly, but
recognize that commitments are how we create the future. If we only
commit to what is feasible, we will by definition get more of the
same. If we make commitments to accomplish unprecedented results
we won’t keep all our commitments and we need to be authentic and
responsible for the consequences. The result of this step is an
organization where everyone can be responsible and learning becomes
a by-product of action and what doesn’t work rather than a prerequisite
for commitment.

Step 6 – Walking the Talk. To anchor the foundation and
sustain “new ways of being” requires a company solidify its new
culture through design of processes and practices consistent with
this new worldview. Coaching isn’t a onetime relationship or intervention.
In most fields, the more competent and more professional a player,
the more their demand for and reliance on coaching. In a coaching
culture, coaching isn’t a role, but the practicing of coaching competencies
in every situation. Everyone is open to both giving and receiving
coaching as appropriate to their abilities and concerns. My assistant
is my coach in some domains and I am her coach in others. Coaching
is a partnership between human beings in which one person can empower
another to accomplish more than is possible on their own. When commitment
and actions are aligned, the coach is able to assist in creating
larger and larger possibilities and learning becomes an “upward
creative spiral” rather than an attempt to exploit some finite and
fixed potential defined by the past.

Step 7 – Continuous Learning. Creating culture is to continuously
transfer coaching capabilities and responsibilities through continuous
learning and through the organization’s practices for recruiting
and for moving people between jobs, including transferring accountabilities
when people retire.

<p > In a coaching culture, everything that everyone is doing comes
down to: a) what am I committed to accomplishing, b) with whom am
I coordinating commitments, c) what do I see is missing or in the
way to fulfilling our commitments, and d) what possibilities and
actions am I committed to now? In a coaching culture the organization
is seen as a network of people coordinating commitments for the
sake of accomplishing a common future.


The “coaching approach” allows an organization to get at what
is beneath all the things that are traditionally in the way of becoming
the organization that they want to be. It goes beyond addressing
symptoms or problems or putting a band-aid on what is wrong. I believe
it is a breakthrough in the fields of organizational design, organizational
development and management. Like all breakthroughs, the final judge
will be history and whether this way of observing people and work
and developing competencies resulted in new possibilities and new
accomplishments that were not available previously. So far, the
experience of most people who have engaged the topic seriously is
that this is the case.

Coaching creates sustainable positive changes in “the way things
are”. The ontological underpinnings of this approach, which deals
with the nature of being, allow people to experience themselves
and their world more directly and have a more responsible relationship
with whatever they see is limiting them. In a coaching culture an
environment is created in which context is just as important as
content and becomes the main lever for creating a future that is
not already constrained by the past. Coaches accomplish this by
distinguishing all the background “conversations” that usually stop
people and keep them trapped in their reasons for not having what
they say they want. As people unearth and share their real commitments
they are naturally empowered to move through historically difficult
situations and create new interpretations and actions.

“Coaching competencies” are the practices that allow a person
to be effective in the domain of context or culture. Coaching an
organization’s members to learn them in practice and move toward
mastery in these areas leads to having an organizational culture
where commitment to clarity and results in more important than the
historical and unexamined attachment to reasons, justifications,
control and predictable outcomes.

Finally, the seven-step approach to creating a coaching culture
is a holistic way to implementing this new paradigm broadly in an
organization. It is believed that creating a coaching culture is
the fastest and most sustainable strategy for an organization committed
to continuously reinventing itself and for being successful in a
complex and globally interconnected world characterized by constant
and unpredictable change.