Mara Lawler’s first sit-down conversation with her CEO ended with a surprising assignment. New staff members were routinely invited to an informal introductory session with Mark Urdahl, head of Red Wing Shoes, but this discussion included a not-so-routine  ask.

“What surprised me was Mark’s request to return in a few weeks and share with him what I observed: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I did return a few weeks later, and he was quite open and curious about my feedback. Later I noticed a few positive changes that I could link back to our conversation,” Lawler recounts.

Going into a new learning and development role, Lawler knew the company culture valued innovation and learning. Now after a few weeks on payroll, she recognized something else prized and practiced: the power of coachability.

The payoffs

You might understandably envy Lawler’s opportunity to work in an organization that has a role model leader and coaching culture. I’ve been studying the dynamics of coachability for a number of years and find that the research points to plenty of payoffs of such leaders and cultures. My definition of coachability is someone who values self-improvement, operates in their optimal learning zone, and routinely follows a set of personal learning practices.

Leaders seen as coachable have high levels of employee engagement, retention, and team performance. They generate stronger levels of employee agility, innovation, and knowledge-transfer. In fact, coachable leaders are regarded as more effective coaches. They have fewer blind spots and tend to avoid career derailment.

Research has found that more coachable salespeople sell more, more coachable entrepreneurs receive more funding from angel investors, and more coachable consultants are better innovators and problem solvers.*

However, for all the upside, there is a challenge to consider.

A learning ingredient overlooked

Those of us who are learning champions are passionate about making a difference in our organizations and enhancing the capabilities of our employees. We deftly detect where learning would contribute to critical business strategies and employee needs. We then do our best to craft and deliver the right lessons, the right way, at the right time.

Yet in our rush to fulfill our mission, we may overlook ensuring the hunger for ongoing learning—coachability—is owned and nurtured by leaders and employees. In the effort to transform to a coaching culture, for example, learning leaders provide comprehensive manager training on the skills of coaching. But that overlooks the other half of the coaching equation: the employee’s mindset and skillset of being coached.

Compounding the imbalance and resistance to learning is what happens over time; research has found that coachability and interest for self-improvement generally declines. It falls off as one advances to higher levels of an organization. One study found that frontline supervisors were rated well over 70 percent positive in their coachability, but senior leaders received scores nearly half that level.

Coachability generally declines with age and tenure as well. We get busy, our confidence overtakes our humility, we lose the habits of asking and listening. Over time, the culture of busyness and self-reliance takes hold, leaving little space and time for self-insight and personal learning.

So how does a learning leader rekindle coachability in the culture and workforce? Consider adding a few coachability culture-builders to your development efforts.

Three coachability culture builders

First, promote the value of coachability. Link coachability to your organization’s values and leadership expectations. Showcase people who live up to those ideals. Look for role models of coachability throughout your organization and find ways to increase their visibility. For example, Lawler would invite her CEO and other leaders to kick off training sessions by sharing their appetite for ongoing learning and feedback—and she isn’t shy about retelling the story of their first meeting.

Second, add coachability to your training. Find a place in your onboarding program to help new employees understand the company value of learning, and the pragmatic “how to’s” to solicit feedback in the culture. Show new managers they aren’t at the self-improvement finish-line upon promotion and provide tools on how leaders can equally demonstrate self- confidence balanced with humility and openness. Begin your manager-as-coach workshop with an assignment to solicit feedback to experience coaching firsthand. Spark coachability at the onset of inclusion and belonging programs as part of the dialogue.

Third, engineer your talent management practices to support a culture of coachability. Utilize engagement metrics to track coachability behaviors overall and provide routine feedback to leaders on how their coachability is perceived. Add coachability selection criteria to your external hiring and internal promotion routines. Audit your last 10 high visibility hires or promotes and assess how strongly they demonstrate coachability.

Mark Urdahl has recently retired as CEO of Red Wing, and the internal successor to the top job is well-regarded as another personal champion of coachability. The investment in innovation, learning, and coachability is proving to be part of the ongoing legacy of an organization that has been around for over a century.

One more role model

One final thought: reflect on your own mindset and habits. As leaders, recognize your own power to influence the culture by demonstrating strong coachability routines. We all can fall into the traps of lower coachability as we go about our busy days and forget about the powerful shadow we cast to those around us. Like Urdahl, find ways to regularly seek feedback from a variety of sources. Be the role model of openly listening to the good, the bad, and the ways to stay coachable.

*footnote: Further information on research cited can be found at