1. What is action learning?

Action learning is a developmental process, which supports individuals to embed the capacity and capability for continuous learning and improvement. As originally designed by Reg Revans 1990, action learning is a means by which managers are supported to achieve both action on real issues, and learning in and through action. A group of managers meet within a supportive environment, sharing and helping each other solve problems through reflective and inquiry-based practices. In general, the action learning approach has two aims: the first, to help managers to learn to take action, and the second, to help them to learn what action is effective. Alan Mumford suggests the following essential elements of the action learning approach:

  • Managerial learning requires taking effective action
  • The best way to really learn to take effective action is to actually take action
  • The most effective form of action for learning comes from working on issues or projects of significance to the managers and their organisations
  • Whilst managers retain individual responsibility for outcomes, the process of learning is social: "Managers learn best with and from each other" (Mumford 1995.)

2. What is the difference between action learning and coaching?

Both executive coaching and action learning (as applied to management development) are concerned with change within the business environment.

Action learning is usually project-based, in that participants in an action-learning group seek to make practical progress on a complex, important issue or problem. Coaching also focuses on the coachee taking practical action and making progress on key issues. Action learning differs to coaching in that in coaching the coach has the key relationship with the individual. In action learning the key relationships are with other group members. In a sense, group members act as 'coach' for each other. However the importance of an external coach cannot be under estimated, as the coach will have both a strategic and tactical role. An external coach can work with a coachee and reflect back some of the organisational behaviours as well as individual behaviours.

3. Why is it important that the learning that the coachee gains is transferred back into the workplace and shared with others?

One of the greatest challenges that any organisation faces is how share learning and pass on knowledge and skills. If experienced people do not pass on their specialist knowledge, then that will slow down decision-making. The intuitive 'know how' that is the accumulation of experience and practice of individuals can be hard to explain. It is precisely that sort of knowledge and those sorts of decision making approaches that are difficult to capture, but are at the center of corporate expertise.

The implications for coaching practice are that, as part of knowledge transfer within organisations, coaches could have a part to play in helping those with expertise explain and communicate their knowledge and 'know how'. If organisational knowledge is lost, or cannot be explained to others, then the organisation itself loses value. It is important therefore that at the start of the coaching contract that the coach and coachee talk about the return on investment for the organisation as well as for the coachee. Part of the success of the coaching activity could be:

  • What actions has the individual taken to share their knowledge and skills with others?
  • What succession planning or talent management processes are there to support the development of the people who will be the managers of tomorrow and how will the coachee make use of these?
  • Clearly HR has a role to play in the development of key organisational processes but also in the setting of objectives with the individual, the line manager and the coach to ensure a return on investment for the organisation.

4. How do you create a culture of performance coaching?

Every significant study of effective managers concludes that those managers, who get the most out of their teams, spend a high proportion of their time and energy coaching others. Effective managerial coaches are able to delegate more, to create a stronger sense of purpose within the team and to motivate the performance of others. Even more important, perhaps, they free up time so that they can focus on the most important tasks, instead of fire fighting or doing jobs that could be done by their direct reports.

The reality is that most managers put very little effort into coaching. Even though the organisation may have provided coaching training for them, unless there is a coaching climate, there will be very little overall impact on the performance of the business, on retention of talent, or on the achievement of strategic goals.

In high performance cultures, people feel part of the larger whole. Teams focus on creating high trust. Trust directly supports people being able to work together more effectively and more efficiently, which leads to higher performance.

So how do you create a coaching climate?

Ensuring that all managers have at least the basic skills of coaching.

Just running a training course isn't enough. Managers need to put what they have learned into practice. Initial training needs to be reinforced with opportunities to review each coaching session and to reflect upon feedback from the coachee. Good practice typically involves follow up group sessions, email correspondence with their own coach/facilitator.

Equipping all employees with the skills to be coached effectively

Research indicates that coaching works best when the coachee is both a willing and an informed participant. The more the coachee understands about the coaching process, the easier it is to help the coach help them.

Providing an Advanced Coaching Skills programme for senior managers

The more senior a manager is, the more important it is that they coach well - the costs of mistakes and lost talent rise exponentially the higher up the organisation one goes. An Advanced Coaching Skills programme builds on the existing knowledge and competence of the manager.

Providing opportunities to review good coaching practice

Bringing coaches - of all levels of experience - together from time to time helps to spread good practice and remind people of what is expected of them. This is particularly true around the time of annual appraisal. A coaching practice review can help managers prepare direct reports more effectively for their appraisal, and this extract much greater value from it.

Recognising and rewarding managers who demonstrate good coaching practice

If managers, who do not coach or invest significant effort in developing others, still receive promotions and high rewards, it sends a very negative message. Some organisations are now making developmental performance an integral part of their succession planning and annual bonus systems.

Measuring and providing feedback on the quality, relevance and accessibility of coaching

It's important to have a clear picture of what coaching is happening, and how effective it is. Identifying good and poor practice allows for remedial action. Most organisations have feedback channels that capture information from the customers they serve. It becomes the responsibility of every employee to proactively seek, strive to understand, and non-defensively respond to the feedback and the customer who is delivering it.

Ensuring that top management provide strong, positive role models

Top management can choose to be coached by a professional external resource, by a peer, or by someone more junior, which can educate them in other perspectives. A positive example from the top is critical. Unless people see that top managers are investing in their own development, and in coaching others, their own motivation will inevitably be lessened.

Identifying cultural and systems barriers to developmental behaviours

There are many excuses given for not devoting sufficient time to coaching or to encouraging coaching between members of the team. Top of the list is usually inadequate time, this can be helped by managers developing better skills of prioritising, general time management and establishing regular and periods of reflective space. Other barriers to coaching behaviour are often more subtle - for example, a general reluctance to address difficult behavioural issues, or to admit to weaknesses. Initial research to establish these most common such barriers can prove invaluable. From this understanding, it is possible to coach managers to overcome their own specific barriers. Also highly relevant is the perception by managers of overall supportiveness of the organisation towards development activity. Again, this is something that can be measured and used as a broad benchmark of progress towards a coaching culture.

HR Systems are Aligned and Integrated

Human resource processes including talent management, training, performance management, promotions, and reward and recognition systems, must be fully integrated. A performance coaching culture uses the core values of the organisation as a guide for interacting with people and making business decisions. Employees are expected to observe and coach their colleagues on the extent their behaviours are in line with the core values and guiding behaviours of the organisation. Job descriptions need to include a clear description of relevant coaching skills required to be successful in the job. There becomes an expectation that everyone will be engaged in continuous learning about what it means to be a coach.

The need for a coherent approach

Establishing a coaching climate requires a much more concentrated, integrated approach than most organisations have applied. For real change to happen, managers need a progressive level of skills improvement, just-in-time sources of advice, positive role models and a supportive environment. Cost-wise, however, such an approach may be less expensive than continually training and retraining managers, who continue to behave largely as they have always done. It is certainly more likely to produce results.

5. Why Develop a Culture of Performance Coaching?

The need for corporate coaching certainly depends on the situation. In some cases, it could be argued that time spent learning and doing coaching provides only small returns. In organisations that have an operation with a few people doing routine or rather insignificant tasks, it probably won't matter if managers can coach, develop, and lead people. In larger complex organisations that want to grow and develop, the quality of corporate coaching and feedback could matter a great deal. If you are unsure if your organisation could benefit from developing a culture of performance coaching, then the following survey will help to determine how much time, money, and energy to invest in corporate coaching and development. If you answer 'Yes' to the following questions then a performance coaching culture could help and support your organisation.


Does your organisation deal with strong competition? Yes No
Do you have to fight for market share and profitability? Yes No
If you have a virtual monopoly over the competition, then you probably won’t feel the pressure to excel or require the very best approach for sales or technical/professional people. But, if you answered “yes” to either question, you need leaders who are capable of influencing the behaviour of others.


Does your organisation/culture require people to be innovative, independent and motivated? Yes No
If you answered “yes” to this question, you need leaders who know how to communicate, inspire, and bring out the desire in team members to “give it their all.”


Is your organisation dynamic, complex, and fast-paced? Yes No
If you answered “yes”, you need people who can adapt to changes in technology, the marketplace, or new programmes and products. You need leaders who can guide, encourage, and help people overcome resistance to change.
Does your organisational culture stress the importance of values, principles, teamwork, ethical behaviour, etc.? Yes No
If you answered “yes”, then you need leaders to promote, coach, and hold team members accountable for their behaviour. You need leaders who set an example, and gain the respect of others. You need leaders who will speak up and stand up for the ideals that the organisation promotes.


Does your organization value continuous improvement, ingenuity, and developing your processes to achieve better performance and higher quality for your customers? Yes No
If you answered “yes,” then you need leaders who can coach and encourage team members to critically examine the traditional ways of doing things. Leaders also need to coach team members to be creative and try new methods.


Does your organisation need to retain talented team members? Yes No
Are your current team members ambitious, and do they want to learn and grow? Yes No
If you answered “yes” to either question, then you need leaders who can coach, mentor, and train team members to achieve current performance objectives, as well as prepare them for future strategic positions. You need leaders who understand the value and need for individual development plans and activities, so team members will want to stay, grow, and contribute to the organisation