COACHING AND COACHABILITY ARE 2 SIDES OF THE SAME COIN
Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services
Jefferson City, Missouri
By Tim Decker, Director
Tim Decker has worked with The Heart of Coaching (THOC) in his capacity as director of two different Missouri state agencies within the Missouri Department of Social Services.
From 2007 to 2013, Tim directed the Missouri Division of Youth Services (DYS), which employs about 1,300 people. DYS provides a full continuum of diversion, case management, residential treatment, education, and transition services to families and young children involved in the juvenile justice system across the state.
Since 2013, Tim has led the Missouri Children’s Division (CD) and its approximately 2,200 staff members. CD is responsible for child abuse investigations, family-centered services, foster care, adoption, older youth transitions, and child care.
Although THOC’s approach varied in each organization, the focus for both was on helping the staff to more effectively live the values of the organization by adopting a coaching style inside and outside the agency, thus communicating from the heart. This meant being able to provide feedback and engage in productive working relationships with other adults in difficult family or community situations without focusing on compliance and control.
This has been a key theme for Tim’s work with THOC: To help employees engage with communities without coming across as authoritarian or heavy-handed. The approach was conversational in nature, and supported the idea of creating a collaborative partnership with parents and young people, and for that reason was very helpful.
At DYS (2007-2013) we recognized the need to shift the agency’s practices from drifting increasingly toward an over-reliance on policy and procedure manuals to a significantly more decentralized decision-making approach. The agency went on a “policy diet,” setting aside formal dictated policy so that we could focus more on doing the right thing for our clients.
We focused on rigorously applying the various parts of the THOC communications toolkit in these changes, so that we could be more flexible and adaptive as leaders and as an agency. The coaching skills have been methodically delivered throughout the agency to magnify the impact and grow the approach.
We transformed our workplace culture through the use of multi-directional coaching—up, down, and sideways. We see this as the fullest application of the THOC toolkit, which will lead us directly into increasing our internal capacity to serve our stakeholders.
In 2013, I continued my organizational development work with the Missouri Children’s Division. We have certified 16 internal facilitators to enable effective adaptation, delivery and implementation of the coaching tools in all five regions across the state. This has allowed the essential tools to become much more widely integrated and used by leaders, managers, and staff members. It has become far easier to give and receive feedback—and to use that feedback to make things better across the agency.
Several of the specific implementation tools have been particularly effective. Everyone mutually selected a Learning Coach for supporting their application of all the coaching tools learned in workshops. Everyone created their own unique Coaching Contract, which specifically described coaching behaviors that person would focus upon developing. Coaching Contracts were shared with team members, an act of transparency that opened up communications, built trust, and increased safety. Coaching is being deployed throughout the organization and will continue until all 2,200 team members are utilizing the implementation tools.
One of the transformative things we have focused on is increasing the presence of executive leadership throughout the system. We specifically build connection, rapport and trust with the teams that we lead. This dynamic is consciously cascaded throughout the system so that there is more face time and virtual meeting time across the state.
In embracing THOC as a collegial coaching roadmap, we have created a far more systematic and uniform way of talking about performance. One of our goals is to completely replace our current performance evaluation system with one that is based upon improvement goals and ongoing coaching around those goals. We see coaching as the clear replacement for traditional performance evaluations.
Another THOC tool that has had a great impact on our efficiency is an analytical schema that forces our attention to the future. We focus on continuing to do the things that work for us (both in our culture and in our child welfare initiatives), but change systems and procedures by analyzing what we can do less of or eliminate, and what we can do more of or start.
The Results Cycle has helped us depersonalize feedback by focusing on a behavior (what someone did or said), the impact of that behavior on other staff members and families, and how that in turn has impacted the organization. It is hugely useful to use as a framework to have a feedback become more specific—and actionable.
We’ve all learned to be more curious and to ask more open-ended questions about a situation and the improved situation we are trying to co-create.
Our bottom line for having learned and integrated THOC into our culture: we have begun to heal old wounds, to open up possibilities to make our agency more effective, and significantly, to bring this new tone of interaction to the stakeholders that we serve. When we become more reflective, compassionate, and focused on improvement, we help our families improve the lives of their children. That is our core mission.
As collegiality has been enhanced, there is a far greater sense of openness and positive energy that is so important for anything worthwhile to ever move forward.
I believe that leaders across the agency have become more humble, more willing to say, “I don’t know—I don’t know the answer.” This sets a new tone for the agency. It truly invites collaboration, and mutual support and trust—all critical elements of our growth objectives.
As safety has increased, so has a sense of belonging. People feel freed up to really do their best work and are comfortable giving it their best every day.
So, our challenges are universal in this respect—human egocentricity gets in the way. Humility and compassion are the way through that.
I have always described this work with THOC as a movement. It is aligned with our core set of beliefs and promotes exactly the kind of working environment we want to create. As we shift in this direction of more and more leaders and team members becoming open to receiving and responding to feedback, we all sense forward progress. People want to be part of the movement forward in finding better solutions.
Importantly, conversations with external partners have begun to change. Conversations with our courts have shifted. There is something happening to move frontline staff away from feeling powerless. They are starting to think about how they can talk differently to people both inside and outside the organization. This is transformation in action.
Coachability is fostered directly by the person who wants to provide feedback to another when he or she requests permission. This is another one of our coaching approaches from THOC. That sets such a positive tone of respect and support that dignifies how we treat all of our stakeholders. It sets the foundation of a good and healthy conversation.
Recently we have had meaningful opportunities to share with leaders in Missouri state government and around the nation how we are consciously engaging everyone throughout the system in a common direction, and freeing everyone up to be part of the planning and the implementation process. Coaching is how we get there.
As we continue to all become more coachable, I would see that the morale of our staff will continue to be dramatically improved, more and more people would be doing their very best work, and that this work will lead to better outcomes for families. Our relationships with external partners will continue to become more collaborative, as will our relationships with their families. The way to build a better child welfare system is for us to continue to grow in our capacity to address the complex challenges that we face, and partnering with others in a real way.
We want our staff to have hard heads and soft hearts, determined to do the right things in the right way, while always remembering why it matters. The process is helping us to become better role models of what it means to be a coach for those we have the privilege of leading.
I have personally seen leaders across our organization actually move to much more of a questioning and engaging approach with their staff. Leaders continue to shift away from a top-down, command-and-control style where they measure and enforce compliance to one where they seek to creatively engage people and make things better for children and families. This is our transformation.
This dynamic of sharing feedback UP, and having it be responded to, will continue to profoundly improve relationships at all levels. We will see a profound reduction in constituent complaint calls, and a profound reduction in unresolved conflict. All of this will reduce our toxic stress as we replace negative, unproductive energy with enthusiasm and passion, and confidence that we have been successful and productive in serving the children in our state.