Coaching Culture Success Story

From The Rise of the Coachable Leader by Thomas G. Crane

Chemical Bank

Midland, Michigan

By Tom Kohn, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors

Chemical Bank employed approximately 2,000 people when its work with The Heart of Coaching (THOC) began in 2012. It has grown through numerous acquisitions and now manages $6+ billion in assets.

One of the significant organizational challenges faced by any institution that grows through acquisition is the integration of newly acquired personnel. The “acquired” organization members inevitably have their own pre-existing culture, so the challenge becomes reconciliation and integration.

Tom Kohn is currently the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors. He was the Executive Vice President leading four regional bank presidents in 2012, and was part of the executive team when the THOC process began.


When THOC was introduced to Chemical Bank in 2012, we had integrated an effective Customer Experience program, and were well on our way to focusing our culture on meeting and exceeding customer’s expectations. We knew we had to also do more with coaching along this path, so we sought out coaching skills for our leadership team and the organization as a whole.

The THOC work with the organization focused on developing the members of the 11-person executive leadership team into effective coaches with one another and their respective teams. The curriculum covered both core and advanced coaching and accountability skills over a period of a full year.

Principally, the challenges were in creating full strategic alignment, communications in all directions (up, down, and sideways), and building trust.

This is how we built trust:

  • Used our communication roadmap.
  • Selected, by mutual agreement, personal coaches for confidential planning and practice coaching sessions.
  • Used a talking stick.
  • Exercised accountability by speaking up and naming issues and challenges that were inhibiting effective working relationships.

The Leadership team, having gone through THOC first, was challenged to completely “own” the process of what it meant to be a coach. We purposely took a full year to work with our senior leaders to optimize the ownership and integration of the thoughts, beliefs and behaviors embedded in the THOC methodology.

Beginning in the second year, we cascaded the coaching skills workshop to 32 mid-level managers, and covered the same communication toolkit. We wanted to equip the top 50 people in the organization with the same language and skills to develop their ability to communicate and lead.

In the third year of the engagement, a limited number of additional workshops were conducted for regional bank managers. Late in the third year, the THOC process began to formally wind down, and shortly thereafter, the CEO retired.


One issue for any organization going through any cultural change initiative that requires learning a shared mindset and skill set (as does a feedback-based coaching culture) is that the leaders are highly visible. Employees will either view them as stand-out role models congruent with the espoused values and skills, or as people who don’t champion the new way. As a result of leadership’s lack of awareness of the impact of employees’ perceptions, the adoption of the spirit of open, trusting communications lagged expectations during our second year when we began to train the next level of managers.

The process worked best in the parts of the organization where leaders were congruent and effective at coaching and being coached.

To the extent that we were effective role models, we had a positive ROI. Like with all leaders in organizations across the spectrum, we had our challenges when a particular leader did not show up coachable. It clearly limited the willingness of both peers and direct reports to approach people who obviously did not want to hear upward feedback. These leaders were perceived as more headstrong and stuck in their ways. They were also seen as more insistent on getting great financial results and less invested in creating a productive relationship.

Our practice and use of the talking stick in group sessions helped our more senior leaders become more aware of how often they would dominate conversations. It was sometimes a bit humbling. So it was a bit of a wake-up call for us and we all found that very helpful.


In the words of the CEO early in the second year of the engagement, “THOC has been a game changer.” The initial goal of the work was to open up communications and rebuild trust. The most positive impact was more communication flowing downwards and laterally. As with most organizations (and also true here) the biggest challenge is to have communications flow up.

The strategy that seem to work for us quite well was to help leaders and team members stay focused on their strengths. If we could support them to recognize and build those inherent strengths, they usually got better faster.

This relates to one of our existing coaching paradigms we had to shift. We had been focusing on delivering corrective feedback about problems we noticed. The shift was to make sure we had a balance of both positive and negative feedback in our conversations. This was a huge shift for many of us, and it worked well every time we went into conversations acknowledging both what was working well and the opportunities that existed.

We found it effective to use the phrase “in the spirit of coaching” to introduce a conversation and clearly frame our intention to help somebody improve. We all have blind spots; when we approached our direct managers for upward feedback, this stated positive intention and the act of requesting permission to deliver feedback helped the process work with people who were truly open to learning.


What really made sense for us as we began to all work on our willingness to be coached, was to pay attention to the impact it had upon our direct reports. Did it open up communications and build trust with them?

Personally, I have most always been quite open to feedback. I feel like I have many things I can work on and get better at. Who better to give me feedback than those I work with? I have always found great value in listening to the perceptions of others—they are usually quite different than mine. I’m a Type B personality and prefer to sit back and take in the experience of being in a group, and tend to proactively engage when I’m coached to do so.

If leaders in our organization were to have become fully coachable, we would have benefited from more tactful and more insightful communication. We as leaders would have been more able to motivate and inspire others. Because we would have more fully embraced the act of receiving and responding to feedback, we would’ve become more sensitive in terms of how we gave feedback. We would have been able to better operationalize our understanding of people.

Since our work with THOC was formally abandoned in 2015, we are left with many of those 50 individuals who are part of those first two years of developmental work still practicing effective communication and coaching approaches. Those who continue to use this skill set are better leaders, no doubt. I know it helped me personally be more open to being coached, and more sensitive in how I deliver feedback.

I personally perceive the ongoing work with THOC as an opportunity lost. The clearly developing possibilities were to have continued the work so that it could have continued to expand and grow and become a sustainable part of our culture. I was glad for what happened, and wished we’d have done more.


Start with your top management because of the need to have buy-in. That’s the key. If you don’t have the buy-in to role-model and integrate the spirit of the coaching process with each visible member of the leadership team, the process is weakened. The success of a culture change process relies on the senior leaders modeling the new way.

Individual leaders and the leadership team as a collective have to “own” it and become effective role models of coaching, coachability, trust, accountability, and teamwork (just to name a few). Then it works. So, spend all the time you need to make sure you have that degree of ownership at the very top.