INTERVIEW: Shawna Corden, Stepping Back Into Your Workplace

With COVID getting under control, offices are reopening, but should things go back to normal? Oregon State University Alum Shawna Corden may have some answers for you.  

In her book Coach Culture: A Playbook for Winning in Business, Corden offers the questions you might be asking yourself about the environment in which you work. And with the recent changes in workplace, we’ve asked her about what should go back to normal. 

TCA: Hi, I’m Sally, and I’m with The Advocate. Today, we’re talking to Oregon State alum Shawna Corden, author of Coach Culture: A Playbook for Winning in Business. Hi, Shawna, thank you for being here.  

Shawna Corden: Hi, Sally. Thanks for having me.  

TCA: Where did you come up with the idea for this book? 

Corden: I grew up in a culture that was pretty paternalistic and it was very command and control. I think there wasn’t a lot of room for innovation or a safe space for people to fail. And so through that and through my coach training, I decided that there’s a better way.   

And so slowly but surely I started implementing this coach culture at my workplace for the last 10 years that I was there. And then before I actually left there, I’d become a faculty member with Coach U, and so I got to see it play in many other organizations as well. 

TCA: Can you define coaching culture for us? 

Corden: Yeah, it’s really an area where managers define the vision, define what the tasks are, but then they start asking questions instead of telling people directly how to do things. And because of that, people have such diverse backgrounds that their experience, their networks, their gifts and talents all come into play in their own volunteering of how they think a task can be accomplished.   

But if we leave it to the old way, the manager would just tell people what to do and how to do it. So tell instead of ask.  

TCA: Your book was summed up by one reviewer as ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ Is that an apt summary?  

Corden: I like to think so. Peter Drucker said that – I’ve forgotten when he said it exactly, but it was super helpful in terms of how important it is for an organization to really be successful versus choosing the right strategy every time. 

TCA: So how would you differentiate strategy from culture? 

Corden: I think strategy is determining when to move where, but the culture is that overall affect that a workplace has, and the feeling that people have as they enter the workplace and choosing to stay there.  

Gallup has done some research over the years that talk about what people give, what they get, but one of the pieces is ‘Do I belong and is there room for growth?’ And all of that comes in the culture piece.  

So if they belong: so some of the questions they ask to determine that are ‘Do I have a best friend at work? Do people ask my opinion? Do I feel valued? Do my opinions seem to count? Do I have the tools and training to do what I need to do to be effective?’   

And when organizations don’t have that – I have a client right now that’s in that situation – people leave. They vote with their feet. 

TCA: Your book begins with a heart pounding, stomach churning feeling of a morning before coffee where everything that needs to be done is pounding at the brain. Do you feel that the average manager in corporate America relates to that level of stress each morning?  

Corden: Yes, especially pre-pandemic.  

I think it’s gotten a little bit better with the work from home environment where there’s a little bit more space, but I’m starting to see the anxiety levels perk up in both the atmosphere in the workplaces, as well as with some of my own clients, that people don’t want to come back to work and go to that same sort of stifling culture where there’s a lot of micromanagement and people don’t get to choose how they spend their day. 

TCA: What is the average return on investment for companies that take on this cultural attitude?  

Corden: It can vary by the investment. So depending on how many people get to experience coaching, work with coaches, or if they train their internal people to become coaches, it varies piece by piece. But I’ve seen engagement levels go up 400%.  

TCA: That’s very impressive. Has much changed in the corporate world in the four years since your book was released?  

Corden: I think because of the diversity movement, because of inclusion, I think organizations, out of fear of not being inclusive, have started to ask more questions. And so there’s definitely the portrayal of that.  

But the real measure of whether the organizations have changed a lot is do people do what the posters say on the wall. Or if you ask somebody, kind of on the side, ‘How does this really work?’ – if they tell you a totally different story than it hasn’t changed.  

TCA: How did the #Metoo movement affect the average business culture and coaching culture within business? 

Corden: I think people started really asking questions about how things were perceived in the workplace. ‘Was this OK?’ It was a much more open dialogue. It became more transparent.   

And I think more females felt like they could speak up and say, ‘This doesn’t work for me. You know, you would not say this to my male peer. So why is it OK?’ 

TCA: How can a manager best face coming back to the regular work environment post-COVID? 

Corden: That’s my favorite question I’m being asked right now.   

I think it’s really to open a dialogue to say not all of COVID was bad. There were some things that it really restored for each of us, and we don’t want to lose all of that by returning back to a harried pace at work. What do we want to keep?  

And so some of the ideas that I’m seeing from my clients are make one day a week the [day] that everybody has to show up, but give us the flexibility to have a hybrid approach, continue to work from home.   

Of course, there are some employees who are dying to go back to the office to have a real workspace, to have the quiet from the kids, all of that. If they want that, by all means, provide it. But really just doing a listening tour of what’s working for people. ‘What do we want to hold on to? What do we want to eliminate? What do we not want to go back to do?’  

TCA: Do many of the cultural elements that you’re looking at, do they include things like child care within a business environment?  

Corden: Certainly the organization can afford it. And of course, there’s always a real business impact.   

But if an organization can provide child care that’s subsidized, that’s co-located, things like that, that makes it easier for parents and also makes it an added perk that attracts the best talent to their workplace. If they can offer something like that, that’s fabulous or have a partner, another small business that maybe co-located or that they have a relationship with, that maybe can extend hours or be more flexible, those kinds of Win-Win solutions are always in favor.  

TCA: Are there any words of encouragement that you would like to give our readers and viewers as we’re moving forward, as the pandemic [is] getting back to life as normal? 

Corden: I think it’s really to pause and create that awareness of ‘How am I feeling about this situation? Is this still working for me? What can I do to make this better? What do I want more of? What do I want less of?’ And then voice that, because too often people sort of shove those feelings down trying to be the good soldier or not get in trouble. But usually if people raise those issues, we can be really creative and have a stronger workforce because of it.  

TCA: Thank you for your time. I appreciate you being here.  

By Sally K Lehman