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The Soft Stuff Produces Hard Results

I've been coaching executives since 1992. In the beginning, it was very difficult to convince people that coaching was a credible and effective way to improve performance. Now there are several studies proving significant benefits to coaching.

“The results show that coaching has significant positive effects on performance...” (1)

Meta-study, The Journal of Positive Psychology

“Coaching produced intangible and monetary benefits for seven out of eight business impact areas; and ROI of 689 percent.”(2)

Industrial and Commercial Training

The vast majority of the coaching interventions studied involved a coach working with an executive one-on-one to help them improve in some way.

The efficacy of coaching as a practice in improving performance has been well documented in these and many other research studies.

In 1992, John Kotter and James Heskett wrote a book titled,

Corporate Culture and Performance.” The authors referenced a Harvard study that followed the results of two groups of firms over an 11-year period: one with performance-enhancing cultures and one without such cultures.

Among other metrics, the firms with performance-enhancing cultures showed revenue growth 310% greater than their peer firms and net income growth of 756% vs. 1% for peer firms without such cultures. (3)

This book led me to begin to shift the emphasis of our coaching practice to help organizational leaders transform their cultures. Over the last 27 years, leveraging coaching to transform culture, I have seen amazing measurable improvements in key performance indicators that measure profitability, quality, customer service and innovation.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Peter Drucker

The practice of changing cultures is very complicated and difficult. However, once we understand the nature of culture, why it's so difficult to change, and what the steps are in creating that change, it greatly simplifies the process. In this article, we're going to lay out a road map for cultural change.

What is culture?


If we are to change it, we had better understand what it is. We define culture as The unspoken rules of engagement within any group of people. These unspoken rules govern everything; what can and cannot be discussed, what language is allowable, how people dress, the assumptions they base decisions on — everything.

In our work, we have noticed that within industries there tend to be cultural similarities: For example people in engineering firms tend to be outspoken, assertive, results-focused, and very analytical. Whereas people in mental health organizations tend to be reserved, conflict avoidant, people-focused, and empathetic.

Why is culture so difficult to change?


Your organization has a culture that is distinct from other organizations and may be distinctly different from other places you have worked. When you walk in the door in the morning do you say to yourself, “I’m going to follow these rules today,” or “I have to remember how to act today in order to fit in?” Of course not.

Culture is unconscious.

We automatically adopt the group’s norms and play by the rules without thinking about it. Because it is unconscious it’s really difficult to change. How can we possibly change something we’re not aware of?

What is the source of culture? Where does it come from?


The short answer is leadership. Cultures arise from the collective behavioral patterns of their leaders. One of our clients is a real visionary, she’s known for being a leader in her industry — her firm creates innovative products and services that are defining the state-of-the-art. She doesn’t like to be bothered with details, preferring to move on to the next visionary idea. It’s no coincidence that her organization, although innovative, is constantly struggling to remain profitable — they lack the discipline and focus on details necessary to maximize efficiencies. It’s a mirror image of her priorities. This is a simplistic (but accurate) example. Most cultures do not mirror just the CEO’s behavior, but the collective behavior of the top executives and satellite locations frequently mirror the behaviors of their local leaders, producing sub-cultures.

You might ask: Why doesn’t she just change her priorities? Not so simple! Those priorities arise from her unconscious behavioral needs. Behavioral profiles such as Disc, Myers-Briggs, or our own Insight Coaching System offer insight for people into what their unconscious priorities are and how they shape behavior and therefore culture. Any culture change effort must begin by helping leaders become conscious of these unconscious needs. Making them conscious allows people to choose when to employ them and when not to. Any such change process that ignores these “comfort zone” behaviors is doomed to failure.

Once leaders are aware of their unconscious habits, which ones support the type of culture they’re trying to build and which do not, they can begin to develop conscious habits that intentionally support a high-performing culture. Although there are many individual behaviors required to generate such a culture, they can be summarized in three categories:

  1. Leaders utilize inspirational leadership. People throughout the organization are united by a personal commitment to a common purpose that is superior to their individual agendas.

  2. Leaders use supportive accountability to create an organization rooted in integrity. “We do what we say we do” becomes the standard.

  3. Leaders create a coaching culture. They coach one another, ask their team members to coach them, and coach their teams. In this way, people can support one another in utilizing conscious behaviors.

Once organizational leaders begin to behave in these ways, these norms cascade throughout the organization and culture change is underway. All told, changing our behavior and our cultures is difficult, but doable. In our experience, it takes months or years, depending on the nature of the organization.

If you want to be successful, follow this roadmap:

  1. Help leaders become conscious of their unconscious, automatic behavioral needs.

  2. Help leaders develop new conscious behaviors that generate inspirational leadership, supportive accountability, and coaching culture.

CEOs and their leadership teams who intentionally commit themselves to make these behavior/cultural changes and make it the #1 priority will dramatically improve their organization’s performance.



Core Idea:

This article shows how coaching can be an effective way to improve leader & business performance. Additionally, how improving company 'culture' is the single most effective challenge to combat first & why this is the case.

Key take away:

Help leaders become conscious of their unconscious, automatic behavioral needs. Then, help leaders develop new conscious behaviors that generate inspirational leadership, supportive accountability, and coaching culture.

About the author(s):

Tom Willis is a Co-Founder and Partner with Phoenix Performance Partners. He had the great honor of serving as CEO for Cornerstone; a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers; and an engineer with the Intel Corporation. His life is all about helping others uncover their talents so they can reach their unlimited potential and their organization can thrive. | Linkedin: Tom

Brad Zimmerman is a Co-Founder and Partner with Phoenix Performance Partners. Zimmerman turned to organizational coaching more than 26 years ago following a successful career in sales and operations. Today, he helps businesses, nonprofits and other organizations develop cultures that transform work environments so people grow and the organizations thrive. | Linkedin: Brad


(1) Tim Theeboom, Bianca Beersma & Annelies E.M. van Vianen (2014) Does coaching work? A meta-analysis on the effects of coaching on individual level outcomes in an organizational context, The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicated to furthering research and promoting good practice, 9:1, 1-18, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2013.837499

(2) Vernita Parker‐Wilkins, (2006) "Business impact of executive coaching: demonstrating monetary value", Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 38 Issue: 3, pp.122-127, Permanent link to this document:

(3) Kotter, John, & Heskett, James, “Corporate Culture and Performance.” Copyright 1992 Kotter & Assoc. Inc. and James Heskett.


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