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Is coaching a “strategic” process ?

“Yes, of course !” will probably be the “spontaneous” answer of many coaches and maybe also many executives.

Honestly, even being a seasoned executive coach and consultant, this is not a “simple” question for me.


What could be the meaning of “strategic” ? What criteria need to be fulfilled for coaching, in order to be strategic ?

  • All members at C level are coached and coach others themselves ? (How often, how intensively ?)
  • Coaching is frequently used and is appreciated by the Leadership Team, as process for co-creation and strategic decision making ? (How often, how intensively ?)
  • Coaching is well “integrated” in the entire organization culture ? (How could we “measure” that ?)
  • Coaching is a part of the strategic document, is part of the HR strategy, is part of the Business Strategy ? (How would that be “written out” in a document ? Simply stating “coaching is a strategic process” ?)
  • “Coaching: where are we, and what is the way forward ?”: a regular topic on the agenda of the Leadership Team ?
  • There is a direct, and measurable relation between “hours of coaching” and “business growth”, the “retention/growth of top performers”, or the “overall growth/retention of all employees” ?
  • The strategic power of coaching may not be reported in figures, but in qualitative appreciation of a majority of the company ? (How “tangible” should this be ?)

I can go on for a few pages with these questions. But, the truth is, I have no exact answers on them.

Let me share some experiences and try to shape a framework of “conditions” that could help coaching to become more strategic, for those having ambitions in that direction.

It starts at C level

 In the past 6 years, I have seen how coaching became part of the daily mindset and practice within the Leadership Teams of 9 companies I worked for. 3 large multinationals, 5 midsized, and 1 small one, spread over various industries.

There was one constant observation: it always started with a CEO or other member(s) at C level who were not only coaching-“believers”, but also internal practitioners, or were passionately learning to coach.

Their active internal practices bring two advantages:

  1. They will intensively feel and understand that coaching directly and powerfully contributes to strategic thinking, co-creation and decision making. That feeling and understanding shifts the focus from the need for strategic measurement or outcomes, to the experience itself. One wants to experience shifts on strategic level, rather than just see them somewhere in a number or an outcome. The interesting part is: once you make that shift, outcomes, even measurable ones, start showing spontaneously.
  2. Also spontaneously, they will feel so passionate about the immense power of coaching that they have the desire to bring its power to the “lower” levels of the organization. They inspire their colleagues there, to also start coaching and being coached.

Other levels get “infected” too

Sorry for the word, but it is like very healthy, powerful bacteria spreading in your organization. Top-down, and in a very positive way. In this scenario, the line managers do not need to convince their director of the power of coaching. They do not have to struggle with “time” to spend on coaching, or ask to “finally” get some coaching themselves. Nothing of all this: it is the lower line managers first of all being coached themselves by their director. And so, they become part of the coaching experience that already started earlier at the top.

If this movement continues, your organization will eventually adopt a “coaching culture”. This word that is mentioned in many HR strategic document.

Coaching serves strategic creativity and sustainable impact

There are two answers to the questions above I do have:

  • Strategic coaching and facilitation of leadership teams brings them to more creative decisions than other approaches.
  • Any decisions, as results of such coaching processes have much more chance to get executed/integrated in more sustainable ways, than when they result from other approaches

For the strategic coaching and facilitation part I am often inspired by the principles of Strategic Doingby Scott Hutcheson, Ed Morrison, Janyce Fadden, Nancy Franklin and Elizabeth Nilsen. A very creative key-element in that methodology is what I call: “connecting” available assets of team members.

E.g. what if an accountant in an accountancy firm, with deep knowledge of excel, is very good at making movies in his private time (but until today nobody in the firm knew). Could he make a movie about doing complex manipulations in excel, and explain it to customers ? How could that “new” product or service be beneficial in a new strategy the company is looking for ?

Once you have agreed to adopt this as new strategic project, there comes the question for sustainable execution. I have designed the CCDD coaching framework for achieving sustainable outcomes.

  • How conscious are you/we about a strategic decision we need to take?
  • How committed are you/we in exploring any other possible strategic options ?
  • How decisive are you/we in taking a decision ?
  • How busy are we you/we in execution, in “doing the decision” ?

Imagine that the decision “is taken”. You are going to enlarge your offer in accounting services, by making some consultancy movies on how to work with excel. Then going through CCDD can help you in effectively executing that decision. And also in exploring and solving any reasons why the decision is not getting executedas foreseen.

Returning to where we started

 No, coaching is not strategic by itself, but it can become a very powerful tool at strategic level. This requires the top of the organization practicing coaching on a daily basis to inspire other leaders to do the same. It also depend on their willingness to look further and deeper than one-on-one relations between hours of coaching and outcome.

When that is turning into a culture, you also need the willingness and capability to converse and co-create strategically.  Through pathways that may be out of the comfort zone, and that allow regular challenges on the sustainable execution of decisions, once taken. In my practice, frameworks like Strategic Doing and CCDD have proven to be visibly successful in giving coaching the strategic dimension it deserves.

A thought I have had several times: the more coaching is said to be strategic, the less it usually is. The more people “do” coaching, whatever they may call it, the more chance there is to move coaching from the level of the elevator pitch to a higher, more creative level.

Coaching is not strategic by itself. But when executives start coaching people, they discover the potential of coaching. And by doing this, they inspire others to do so. And then coaching becomes a way to have open, co-creative conversations within organizations. And then, coaching gets its strategic potential.

Karl Van HoeyPartner @ Otolith
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Otolith helps organizations to take a next step by focusing on the human side of strategy execution. The capability of cooperation is crucial. And cooperation is developed through conversations. Through executive and team coaching and strategic facilitation we help to launch these conversations..

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