Coaching: Navigating change

Nick Cutland tells TJ how coaching can help businesses embrace change.

Buzzwords such as ‘agile’, ‘disruption’ and ‘digital transformation’ are common in today’s business culture. But behind the jargon, there is an important message for businesses: remaining open to change and ensuring employees are guided through periods of upheaval is vital in today’s constantly evolving landscape.

A cursory glance at the business pages of any newspaper tells us that today’s companies are changing more rapidly than ever before.

Start-ups are growing exponentially and having to learn quickly what it means to be a business in a global, digital economy, whilst corporate mergers of previous rival behemoths are increasingly common and household names are rationalising in the face of difficult trading conditions.

With uncertainty around Brexit, talent shortages and skills gaps added to the mix, there’s no escaping that the environment businesses are in is a challenging one. 

As constant change becomes part and parcel of businesses worldwide, is it essential they can adapt in a successful and sustained fashion. Businesses that can weather storms and pivot with pace all have a few characteristics in common, regardless of their size; supportive leadership, engaged employees who are invested in the change, and a culture of open dialogue.

Consistency in communication

Employee engagement means a huge amount to a company, its culture and productivity. So much so that a recent survey carried out by McKinsey found that in fact it is culture – not skills – that is one of the main barriers hindering digital transformations.

Employees need to be encouraged through change in the same way that they need to be coached through any development or new project at work or in their personal career.

While a business is undergoing change, it’s essential to get employee buy-in; to have a workforce that is committed to supporting any transformation and understands the rationale behind it. But that’s easier said than done.

In periods of transition, timing is key to ensuring that all employees understand what changes are happening and why. Business leaders and managers – whether it’s the CEO or team leader – all have a responsibility to articulate what’s happening to avoid rumours or miscommunication, and ensure that change is met in a receptive way by employees.

Being present is also key, even if not in person. Managers and leaders should make themselves readily available to answer questions, as difficult as that may be, whether it’s face-to-face or remotely.

Ensuring that leaders and staff at all levels are clear about what’s happening and why, as well as how it may affect employees, cultivates the message that change is not something to be feared. This helps prevent negative feelings spreading, keeps the workforce engaged and could also prevent an exodus provoked by a sense of uncertainty or feeling shut out.

Lead the way

During times of change, the responsibilities of senior managers are in many ways akin to those of a coach. Employees need to be encouraged through change in the same way that they need to be coached through any development or new project at work or in their personal career.

Whilst I’m not usually one to take inspiration from football, there’s no more immediate example of someone who has successfully coached their teams in 2018 than the current England manager Gareth Southgate, who has been widely commended for his no-nonsense approach to leadership.

Crucially, Southgate is an active and highly visible coach to the squad, showing gratitude through personalised notes, one-to-one feedback and team building to foster that all-important team spirit. To take a lesson from Southgate and truly foster a collaborative environment where employees can ask questions openly, businesses should prioritise minimising barriers within and between teams.

Ensuring relationships work across teams from very different departments is key to ensuring open dialogue. Ad-hoc sessions and conversations in the office are often useful, but scheduled opportunities to ensure teams are open and collaborating, such as brainstorms or team huddles, are important.

Managers need to embody leadership qualities like communication, transparency and empathy to create a culture that conveys positive messages through all levels of the company.

Ring-fencing time for this is even more valuable during times of change when rumours may be circulating and teams may feel safer by turning inwards and avoiding collaboration with new people or teams – exactly the opposite to what the business needs.

If managers and leaders take a visible, reassuring lead in these sessions, it gives all employees the chance to share suggestions and opinions. As well as providing a fresh perspective and new ideas, this type of forum helps quash signs of inter-department rivalry, allowing all employees to ask questions or get involved in cross-functional projects.

Walk the collaboration walk and reap the rewards

No matter how far organisations go in creating opportunities for employees to collaborate, it will be wasted without the support and involvement of leaders. If collaboration is going to prevail throughout the workplace, it’s down to those at the top to lead by example.

It is therefore somewhat concerning that recent research found that only a quarter (24%) of UK employees say that their managers definitely foster collaboration.

Managers need to embody leadership qualities like communication, transparency and empathy to create a culture that conveys positive messages through all levels of the company. Those with decision-making powers should be seen to be actively developing a culture of coaching and collaboration.

By engaging team members at all levels, leaders can improve employees’ understanding of their business, its changes and the reasons behind them, while empowering them to be part of the transformation.


During times of change, it’s dangerously easy for managers to hunker down behind closed doors, perhaps thinking that they’re bearing the brunt on behalf of their staff, when in fact the opposite is true.

Although it might feel counterintuitive initially, it’s far more effective if leaders move away from hierarchical, closed-door structures and become passionate advocates of change – instead, asking employees about the change they want and involving them in the journey.

By encouraging people to understand their role within a new structure, this will embolden and reassure the workforce to feel like they’re part of the future, not just passengers.

Embrace the power of coaching and keep responsive

Not all change programmes do what they set out – whether that’s digital transformation, a rebrand, growth, merger or a downsizing. According to McKinsey, only 37% of respondents believed that their business transformations had been successful, and there’s a clear consensus that long-term monitoring of change is essential. 

Putting in place structures like coaching can be enormously useful in helping organisations navigate change. It’s important that these structures and processes are consistent, so that all employees are travelling in one direction and are clear about where they will end up.

Keeping an eye on how employees are responding to change programmes and the processes set up to manage them is also vital; if something doesn’t feel right, it should be addressed. After all, at the heart of coaching and effective people management is being clear that managers and leaders don’t have all the answers and are ready to admit when they’ve got things wrong.

By taking a holistic approach to transition, considering organisational behaviours in tandem with structures, businesses will put themselves in a far better position to achieve lasting change.

Now is as good a time as ever for managers and leaders from all sectors think ahead and find examples of leaders they can relate to that have effectively navigated times of change and created a culture that embraces transformation. After all, change is always on the horizon (or more likely these days, at your front door).


About the author

Nick Cutland is Director of Quality at ILM and City & Guilds, City & Guilds Group




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