Toxic culture is bad for business

“RBS culture labelled ‘toxic’ as bosses are grilled by MPs…”

“Unilever threatens to pull advertising spend with tech giants Google, Facebook, and Twitter over toxic culture…”

“Game developer Quantic Dream accused of ‘toxic’ and ‘sexist’ working environment…”

 “Uber’s toxic corporate culture – much more than a PR problem”

You don’t have to look far to find examples of poor organisational culture having a measurable impact on performance.  Not every cultural failure hits the headlines, so how can you tell if your culture is bad for business?

I have an executive coaching hammer, but not every problem is a nail!

Executive coaching can’t fix everything.  There, I’ve said it.

Even if executive coaching was a hammer, not every problem is a nail.

It’s an amazing tool for aligning leadership behaviour with organisational expectations.  It’s fantastic at helping managers understand what will motivate and inspire others.  In short, it’s a brilliant tool for helping individuals change themselves, and influencing change in others.

In light of some recent conversations, I think we need to be really clear on some of the things that coaching cannot achieve (well, not on it’s own anyway):

How to shortlist executive coaches

There’s a lot of executive coaches out there.  An awful lot.  The Association for Coaching lists over 1,600 members.  The International Coach Federation has over 20,000. There are multiple LinkedIn groups dedicated to coaching practice with 30,000+ members.

The eventual decision on the coaches you choose to work with will often be somewhat subjective (hence why rather vague words like ‘chemistry’ are often used to describe the final stages of selection), but with such a bewildering array of choice, how do you produce a workable shortlist?

Mindfulness – an unhelpful cliché that misses the point

Mindfulness and the broader topic of employee well-being has swept onto the development agenda over the last couple of years.  In its wake are thousands of managers frantically trying to jump on the bandwagon.

Happier employees work harder, stay longer and deliver better results.  A study in December concluded that “Happiness seems to motivate greater effort, increasing output without affecting its quality and thus boosting productivity”.

Mindfulness, strictly speaking, is a form of meditation.  If that makes you happy then great, but recognise that the things that make others happy are many and varied.  A run in a city in the morning when the sun is coming up makes me happy.  Variety in my work and certainty about the future also makes me happy.  For an employer who gives me all three I’ll work harder and stay longer!

The issue with the ‘mindfulness’ cliché is that it risks turning employee happiness and well-being into a fad.  The most successful organisations have been investing in employee well-being for years, and they’ll continue to do so once ‘mindfulness’ disappears from the front pages of the newspapers.

The majority of organisations however will jump on the ‘mindfulness’ bandwagon, throw a bit of money at someone who will demonstrate meditation techniques, be disappointed at the results, declare it a failure and contribute to the decline of employee well-being as an area of focus.

If you really want to make the people in your team happy, try understanding what motivates them and then working with them to make practical changes to the work environment.

That’s not ‘mindfulness’, it’s good leadership.

Leadership development in action: Nyomi’s story

Just under a year ago we completed a 2 year high potential (HIPO) development programme with Shred-it, the the world’s leading secure information destruction company and part of Stericycle Inc.

We welcomed participants from across Shred-it’s EMEAA operations, from the UK, Ireland, Germany and South Africa to a programme that would equip them to be leaders of the future, by focusing on enhancing their understanding of business and what it takes to lead and inspire others.

Nyomi Loftus joined the programme as an Internal Sales Representative.  Throughout the programme she proved herself to be inquisitive, bold and humble.  We were delighted to hear from Nyomi recently with an update on her progress.

Firstly I wanted to get in touch to say a massive thank you for the work you did with me during the HIPO program.

Since the program finished I applied and got a position as an Internal Sales Team Leader.  I have now been in the role for 6 months. During that time I have been consistently looking back over the material that we covered.

I have grown my team from 5 people to 8 and managed to drive their performance to now being consistently over 120% to target.

Yesterday I passed my probation and it got me thinking about the true value achieved from taking part in your training.

I am sure you will pleased to hear that I am now the proud owner of a reflections diary.

Overall, I believe that the program came at the perfect time for me, it really helped me cement some focus when the rest of my life was very difficult.

When I think back to Nyomi that did the interviews for that programme, I see a totally different person both personally and professionally.

Hope you are doing well and imparting your wisdom on other professionals.

I thank you and everyone else involved in the program for helping me to understand my true potential.

Nyomi Loftus  |  Internal Sales Team Leader

Stericycle, Inc.

Thanks Nyomi for letting us share your story, congratulations on your success, and the very best of luck for the future!

Success requires lots of small steps in the right direction

pic1It’s been a pleasure to work with the team at Sapphire over the last 6 months.  A hugely successful design and manufacturing business, we’ve been supporting them in the building of their operating strategy and the development of clear behavioural principles that will guide their continued growth.

Earlier this month, the strategy and behavioural principles were introduced to the business as part of a team event that gave us the opportunity to use one of our favourite exercises – the Marshmallow Challenge.

Time and time again, the teams that succeed in this challenge are those that are willing to prototype, to take a small step forward, test their model and use their learnings to further improve.

pic2The lessons apply equally for the successful implementation of organisational behaviours. Organisations and the people in them don’t change overnight, but by resolutely applying the prototyping mindset, continuing to take small steps in the right direction, it won’t take Sapphire very long to become the organisation they want to be.

Am I coaching or mentoring? Know the differences, but don’t worry too much…

At our regular, free Executive Coaching BootCamps, one of the most common questions we get is the difference between coaching and mentoring.

Whilst it would be lovely to give a black and white answer to this, the reality is it’s a grey area and we will often do both at the same time.

Pure mentoring can be summarised with a single statement:  “I have the knowledge/experience and will give them the benefit of it”.  This can be of real benefit, but should be used carefully.  After all, the experience we have is never exactly the same as the situation other people find themselves in.  There may be similarities, but giving direction in these situations can lead to some some pretty predictable responses, all beginning with the dreaded “Yes, but…”

“Yes, but, that wouldn’t work because…”

“Yes, but my manager wouldn’t value that because…”

“Yes, but my team are different because…”

On the flip side, purists describe good coaching as being summarised by a similar, single statement:  “They have the knowledge/experience, but can’t always access it”.  This leads us to the unending search for the ‘killer question’.  We need to tread carefully here too. Relentlessly questioning can lead to helplessness as the coachee is made to feel they should know something that they simply don’t.

Why should they be expected to know the answer?

Is it a situation they’ve never experienced before and have no frame of reference?

Good coaching is undoubtedly about unlocking potential through insightful questioning, but it’s also about helping people solve problems.  Sometimes people get stuck, and if they don’t have the knowledge or experience, no number of clever questions will unstick them. Sometimes people simply need to be told the answer.

Whether you are a mentor or a coach, recognise that you will use a variety of approaches to help the people you work with.  Understand the differences and the differing impact of the approach you choose.

Importantly though, don’t worry about it too much.  ‘Pure’ coaching and ‘pure’ mentoring both have their strengths and weaknesses – a sensible, balanced approach is likely to achieve the best results.

Mind the gap – maintaining learning away from the classroom.

Leadership development can be a considerable investment in time and money.  There is often a temptation to extend the perceived life of this investment by delivering programmes over long timetables, with extended gaps between the formal, classroom-based learning elements.  Instantly a 12 month programme becomes an 18 or 24 month programme, and the cost doesn’t seem so bad after all!

Whilst the logic is understandable, it is all too often counter-productive without additional investment in the ongoing engagement of the learners.  When faced with a large gap before they are brought back into a classroom (or any other ‘formal’) environment, the focus on learning quickly dissipates.

Whilst extended spacing of the classroom-based learning elements in a development programme can be successful, consider carefully your strategy for learner engagement.

Support structure

  • Do you have in place a support structure that can be readily accessed by all learners on an ongoing basis?
  • Are you pro-actively and regularly reaching out to offer support to learners on an individual and group basis?
  • Support isn’t just a job for the programme delivery team – are your key business stakeholders engaged and involved?

Collaborative platforms

  • Are you offering mechanisms for the learning community to interact with each other and the programme?
  • Are you actively encouraging and promoting their benefits and use?
  • Are business stakeholders taking an active interest, preferably through participation, in collaboration between learners?


  • Are you regularly testing the application of learning in the workplace?
  • How are you measuring the ongoing impact of the learning?
  • Are you using Action Learning Sets or group coaching to encourage peer challenge?

Behavioural focus

  • Does your learning primarily focus on knowledge transfer or encourage actual behavioural change?
  • What are you asking people to do, and how are your responding if they fail to honour their commitments?
  • How are you preparing the rest of the business for the new behaviours exhibited by your learners?  Will they act as a catalyst or barrier to change?

Taking coaching back to its sporting roots

Executive coaching and leadership development owes a lot to the world of elite sport. John Whitmore, one of the recognised pioneers of coaching in business began his career as a professional racing driver and developed his models as a result of this history. Dave Brailsford, principal of Team Sky and former head of elite cycling for Team GB is an oft-quoted pioneer of improvement techniques that can readily be translated into the business environment. Adrian Moorhouse, the gold-medal-winning olympic swimmer now specialises in business performance. In fact the roll call of elite sportspeople on the leadership and organisational development circuit is lengthy to the point of saturation!

So it was interesting to discover that high on the agenda of a recent football League Managers Association (LMA) meeting was executive coaching and it’s place in improving team performance. Have we come full circle?

Elite sport is well-served in providing it’s athletes with comprehensive coaching for all aspects of their lives, but it’s all too easy for a coaching ethos to metamorphose into something more akin to line management or mentoring. As managers we too readily give people the ‘benefit of our experience’, but this limits the support we can provide to what we have achieved, in our context, with our own unique set of experience and expertise.

Whitmore describes in ‘Coaching for Performance’ a conversation with Mike Sprecklen, coach to rowers Andy Holmes and Steve Redgrave, who said “I was stuck, I had taught them all I knew technically”.

So where does the executive coaching approach help? As Mike Sprecklen continued “but this opens up the possibility of going further, for they can feel things that I can’t even see”. As Whitmore describes, he had discovered a new way forward, working from THEIR experience and perceptions rather than from his own.

It seems to me the the LMA have recognised that truly independent executive coaches can help maintain a focus that is difficult to achieve amongst the short-term pressures of sporting success. In the world of business, the challenges are similar – no matter how sound our coaching ethic within an organisation, short-term pressures often lead us down a road of tutoring and mentoring that will inevitably limit performance.

If the world of sport, that gave us the models and approaches in the first place understand this need, it should certainly give businesses serious food for thought.