CULTURE CHANGES AS FAST AS THE LEADERS DO
Farm Credit Mid-America (FCMA)
By Bill Johnson, CEO
Thirty-one years ago, 86 agricultural lending associations around the Midwest merged into what today is Farm Credit Mid-America (FCMA). FCMA operates in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee. It employs approximately 1,100 people and manages over $22 billion in assets.
CEO Bill Johnson started out as a trainee in the financial services industry. Over the years, he worked his way up the management ladder through various organizations, and in 2011, became the CEO of FCMA.
Bill considers himself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with really good leaders who took the time to coach him. The helpful and effective coaching he received became the foundation of his leadership, but he did not formally think of his leadership practices as coaching until FCMA began to work with The Heart of Coaching (THOC).
FCMA first considered the THOC approach to collegial coaching in 2011. Senior leaders read The Heart of Coaching, then met and agreed the approach was worthwhile. The sales organization went through the workshop process first, and after the team experienced significantly positive results, the sales team recommended adoption organization-wide to the full leadership team.
FCMA had already embraced the practice of leader-as-teacher. When the organization adopted THOC and certified internal facilitators, it was natural to have leaders become co-facilitators of the process. This added credibility to the workshops from the very beginning.
Since 2011, FCMA has maintained a five-point strategic plan. Four of the objectives change from year to year, but the fifth—coaching culture development—has been a constant from year to year.
In 2014, FCMA reinvented itself. Part of this organizational transformation was driven by the decision to move from being the cheapest to being a value-added lender. This change in mission and strategy has been a principal focus of ongoing coaching conversations, as you will see. As operational strategies were overhauled, many people were moved to different jobs. As you would expect, this caused considerable insecurity. As FCMA navigated these waters of structural and process change, it also focused on continuing to develop its culture.
One of the first steps of the transformation was to require all new employees going through the new employee orientation program to also attend the THOC workshop to learn these foundational communication skills that people would be expected to be using in their day-to-day interactions.
I conduct the beginning segment of the orientation workshops. My intention is to be a role model of cultural, values-based expectations. I always share my personal coaching contract (specific behaviors I work on to develop myself) with these classes, and challenge them, “If you ever see me acting inconsistently with our core values or my coaching contract, it is your responsibility to call that out to me—at whatever level in the organization you are.” Transparency is a vital value at FCMA.
One of our challenges has been to develop a culture where coaching conversations are second nature, an environment where coaching is the norm for how we treat one another and our customers. The intention and aspiration remain: we want coaching not to be something we have to talk about or stress about, but to be just who we are. We are not there yet, but it is where we are going.
Some of our challenges on this coaching culture journey have been:
- Command-and-control leadership styles that needed to change to fit into our new, more collaborative culture
- Empowering people by moving decisions to the lowest level possible
- Developing confidence in staff, rather than nitpicking and micromanaging their actions
- Leaders being transparent by admitting when they screwed up
- Fully integrating coaching practices into our leadership development programs
- Managing expectations for newer employees that, while we aspire to be a fully developed coaching culture, we are a work in progress
We had to convince our board of directors that investing time and money to shift toward a coaching culture was important to our sustainable success as an institution. We had to bring them along in our thinking that coaching is not too “touchy-feely,” but focused on results. We are at least 80 percent of the way there.
We enjoy several significant benefits of creating a most highly desirable place to work:
- We have succeeded in creating a competitive talent advantage in our Louisville office where we compete with UPS, Yum Brands, Ford Motor Company, and Humana. We believe people seek us because of our culture where coaching is a central feature of how we work together.
- During this last year, we have begun to focus on using coaching to highlight how we are living our purpose and core values. These conversations are more intimate and personal and certainly focused on behaviors and how behaviors are interpreted. In that sense they are more challenging.
- We have shifted from focusing on a mission statement to having a clear business purpose.
- We use team member feedback gathered in town hall meetings over the last two summers.
- Part of what we do now in individual coaching conversations is to make sure employees are connected to our central business purpose, and see how their personal values are aligned with our organizational values.
Another powerful application of the coaching tools and collaborative mindset has been to ensure that people who have been displaced through our structural organizational changes are integrated into another role within FCMA or are assisted in finding suitable career opportunities outside of the company. This has sent a really strong message of concern and caring for people to our staff. Effective collegial coaching is rooted in trust and mutual caring—otherwise it won’t work.
There has been an attitudinal and behavioral shift when leaving behind the comfort of being the command-and-control “boss of” people toward a collaborative, problem-solving “coach for” people. Some leaders did not make this transition—and that is to be expected. Our turnover was minimal and those changes we made have served the organization well. We are doing everything we can do to help leaders be successful in our new business model and culture. We have developed a saying: “You know we want you to be happy, and if you’re unhappy, we want you to be unhappy someplace else.”
One of our most important strategies is to provide an exceptional customer experience. We have focused on implementing best practices in the customer experience field by ensuring that our crucial coaching conversations maintain this focus. We use the THOC coaching toolkit to create the customer-centric empathy needed to be a good servant.
One last significant benefit from being on this coaching culture development journey is that we are learning to ask more effective, open-ended questions. When we come from our curiosity—and choose to respond versus react—we ask better questions and get far more engagement. Across our culture we are experiencing good coaching conversations that lead to all kinds of better outcomes.
I had a personal experience early in my career at FCMA where I was “coached” by a senior HR professional to improve my presentation at new employee orientation. It was a great example of someone fearlessly approaching the CEO with suggestions on how to make something better. She walked right in, sat down and gave me the feedback. I was on my best behavior—very coachable—and it all worked.
As CEO, I have to remember that while being responsive to feedback, I am accountable for using my own judgment and making the best decisions for the organization. Sometimes that is a bit of a balancing act. Yes, I’m obligated to take feedback, but I can’t shut off my own reasoning and especially my gut intelligence. When I decide to go in a different direction from the coaching I received, I’ve learned to have a conversation about why and how that happened. It is important that people always know that their feedback is appreciated, whether their ideas are followed or not.
In terms of our leaders across the organization, it is my number one job—shared by all leaders across the organization—to protect the culture. Some of these conversations have not been comfortable and may not be comfortable in the future, but they are critical. We all have to do the hard things and make the hard decisions that are right for the business going forward.
We all have to realize that everyone on this coaching culture journey is doing their own personal transition at a different speed.
Part of what I try to impress upon other leaders in our business is not to use coaching as an excuse, or as a whipping boy. Their direct reports have to learn that a coaching conversation is not conducted because the leader does not like what the direct report did. These conversations cannot be a bitch session. We have to use them to create the environment where it’s okay to identify issues and work toward solutions. And it has taken us a couple years to begin to be good at doing this. After six years of deliberately and consciously working on developing these skills and this kind of culture, we are beginning to see that it’s bearing fruit. It’s a constant challenge that takes constant attention.
To become fully coachable, our leaders have to move beyond that command-and-control approach to far more collaborative coaching conversations.
We also have to get better at explaining the why behind decisions and listen to the concerns that come up. We are still learning that this why is a vital linkage to THOC processes of setting the Course (vision, mission, strategy, key objectives, and core values) and GRRATE Expectations (goals, roles, resources, accountability, timing, and engagement).
We recognize that our most successful teams within the company are those teams where their leaders are very coachable. It is our experience that if you have a capable team, they have trust in their leader who listens to them and takes their coaching. This evolution in individual and team performance success is, at its core, a leader who is willing and able to be coached.
Other significant benefits that accrue to coachable leaders is that their employee engagement survey scores are higher. Employee engagement is the “magic sauce” that enables performance. Most all of these things that we are experiencing as an organization tie back to the THOC training.
Part of that is learning to become vulnerable as a leader, sharing with them that you do not have all the answers. Just telling them, “I don’t know the answer” is the best course of action. “Let’s find that answer together.” This is an act of transparency.
Our peer to-peer-coaching is still developing. People do not want to offend one another or create an environment that is going to be less than pleasant. We are learning to not make this a blaming incrimination of another person but to focus on using a conversation roadmap that will make us all more effective. We are continuing to learn to depersonalize the feedback.
My advice to other leaders contemplating a coaching culture journey are to:
- Do enough soul-searching for yourself because this process starts at the top. It cannot be delegated.
- Make sure you’re able to take accountability and publicly admit when you screwed up.
- Be willing to change out valuable employees who do not embrace coaching as a cultural norm.
- Be willing to commit the time, money, and effort to transform the way people think and the way people behave.
- Make sure you take the time to integrate coaching practices into any and all HR and talent procedures (that is, performance management reviews and recognition and reward systems). For example, leader evaluations should include their coaching effectiveness, and hiring procedures for potential new hire leaders should include inquiry into the degree to which they are both the coach and are coachable.
All of these ideas will help people develop a deeper appreciation for what is involved—both at an organizational and at a personal level.