“I’d like to build a coaching culture at my organization.”

Many coaches and training professionals hear these words often. Creating a continuously learning and innovating organization helps companies gain a competitive edge, helps team members enjoy their work more and confers many additional benefits.

It’s also a challenge. Creating a coaching culture isn’t a weekend project. It’s more like trying to build a city.

When companies try to implement these ideas, they’re often really enthusiastic. “We love learning, so this is a great fit!” is something coaches might hear at meetings. That enthusiasm can mean they dive right in. While they’re checking that “training” box, though, are they clear about what training should involve? Have they chosen training in those areas that will be most impactful? “Lifelong learning” sounds great, but if you’re learning something you’ve already covered or that’s not relevant, you’re just spinning your wheels.

How can leaders focus on the training areas and learning styles most likely to create authentic benefits? And how can training professionals guide them to these insights? Many people equate lifelong learning with becoming a student. But the path to creating a true commitment to training can successfully begin with adopting a teacher’s mindset and turning that mind toward gaps in knowledge.

A Teacher’s Mindset

When executives become coaches, they learn how to masterfully share not just information but real skills and values with those they influence. Mathematician Paul Lockhart wrote, “If teaching is reduced to mere data transmission, if there is no sharing of excitement and wonder, if teachers themselves are passive recipients of information and not creators of new ideas, what hope is there for their students?” He sums up the idea succinctly: Teaching is a deeply creative act, as is learning, and a strong coach is one who goes far beyond basic skills-sharing.

For many leaders, coaching doesn’t come naturally, and if they don’t have this crucial ability, how can they encourage learning? Teachers have years of instruction in pedagogy to learn how to inspire students and impart ideas successfully. Executives, too, need to start by being coached in the art and science of training itself. When leaders master skills such as open-ended questioning, deep listening and finding the essential “why” in a situation, they can teach those skills.

By becoming simultaneously students and teachers, leaders gain the skills they need to train others. As they share that information, everyone on a team becomes both a student and a coach. This process makes learning more organic, since many students don’t fully integrate learning until they teach it. A team can look at slides and deep dive into a topic as learners, but when they take up the mantle of teachers and try to share what they have learned with others, they experience the creativity of coaching and understand the same material from a new perspective, allowing for true mastery.

Finding the Gaps

Once leaders have coaching skills, they need to be able to find the right subject areas for training. A powerful way to do so is to teach to their gaps. Instead of teaching what they think their staff should know, leaders can often be more impactful by teaching what they and their teams don’t currently know.

Gaps can show an organization where the most impactful changes are, allowing learning to become instantly actionable. If an IT team does not understand the impact of a product on marketing, coaching team members on that impact allows them to immediately view their role in a new way. Then, further innovations from that department will be influenced by an idea of how to market. Instead of retreading ideas that are already known or subjects that might not be used, looking for those areas where a team member says, “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know” can lead to significant shifts.

One challenge with a coaching culture is that we often don’t know what we don’t know, which can make it hard to find the gaps. If the IRS arrives at the door, it can be an indication we need to know more about tax law compliance. But if customers aren’t showing up at a store, does the organization need to learn more about marketing, customer service or another area?

Putting the “coach” into the “coaching culture” can make a difference. When leaders become teachers first, they find out quickly where the gaps are. When a leader starts to teach deep listening to representatives, for example, he or she may quickly notice that this skill is a gap and that reps have not been listening closely to customer questions or concerns.

A strong starting point is coaching leaders to teach the skills they need to learn by first establishing the purpose of the skill and reviewing its potential impact and the ownership that results. You can create authentic cultural shifts by reviewing the need to continue to practice in real-world scenarios and working on embodying the skill so it becomes habit.

The Impact of a Coaching Culture

Once leaders start teaching the subjects and skills they need to learn, a custom curriculum emerges. A leader who is in the teaching mindset and is focusing on the areas he or she needs to master is always realizing, “Oh, I don’t know that, either.” That realization can guide future coaching and training. Lifelong learning becomes an organic process tailored to the needs of an individual or a team.

Hierarchical structures are also disrupted as everyone seeks to find and fill gaps. Instead of executives creating training for everyone else, everyone takes ownership of his or her learning. When leaders show their vulnerability by admitting to their own skill limitations, they also make it acceptable for others to admit their own training needs, and they set an example for approaching training with an open mind.

If you’re considering developing a coaching culture at your organization, start by becoming a teacher instead of a student, and begin your teaching by coaching others in the skills you don’t know. The clarity and culture shift this process can create is what many leaders are looking for when they adopt a coaching culture in the first place.