June 2021
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TD Magazine

Cultivate Collective Leadership

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Five foundations of successful group coaching

Today's brutal business reality is that the pace is faster than ever, leadership is far more complex, and the pressures on midlevel and senior leaders are mounting. Employers expect leaders to excel in an ever-expanding array of interpersonal skills and leadership behaviors to engage their teams, realize organizational objectives, and ultimately boost the bottom line.

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Yet, here we are, slowly emerging from the pandemic, and organizations are beginning to figure out how to navigate a new hybrid way of working. Lines between work life and home life will continue to be fuzzy. Frequent and transparent communication is paramount. Working from home has lost some of its luster, and people are craving connectivity. Zoom fatigue is real. It's little wonder workers are facing soaring levels of stress and anxiety.

So, how can talent development departments help leaders build the necessary skills and behaviors to navigate strategy and execution in a time where there is more chaos and uncertainty than ever before?

Convincing already overextended leaders to take time away from their daily priorities is tricky at the best of times. For decades, executive coaching has been the go-to to help high-performing senior leaders get the just-in-time, instantly applicable insights and support they need. But with the immediate return on time investment under even more scrutiny, that one-to-one approach simply isn't feasible.

We are now in the age of collaboration, where the move to collective leadership is critical. To survive in today's volatile, ever-changing business environment, leaders and teams from across the organization must work together. There's an argument to be made that one-to-one coaching simply is no longer effective when a company's need is to make large-scale changes across its culture and systems. That's where group coaching becomes the game changer.

In the context of organizational learning, group coaching brings a skilled professional coach together with a small group of individuals to achieve both personal and organizational goals. The coach's role is to maximize group members' combined experience, energy, and perspectives and provide them with a safe space to deepen their insights and learning.

Rethinking leadership development

Can you believe that it was more than 30 years ago when former GE CEO Jack Welch advocated for the "boundaryless organization"? In today's world of instant communication via email, text, or Zoom, you'd think that Welch's concept of working across an organization should be the everyday experience for most businesses. But you would be wrong. Large companies are still complex, structured, and hierarchical environments.

In many organizations, whether they are willing to admit it or not, their cultures celebrate and measure leadership against the ideal of the heroic leader. Leadership development continues to focus primarily on emphasizing leadership self-insight and skill building. That's a great foundation, but it's simply not enough.

In the age of collaboration, high-control leadership is not the answer. There is no single savior who can solve an organization's most pressing problems—it demands a diverse array of skill sets and mindsets. The volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world of work has made it a requirement that leadership development shift from being a discrete solo journey to an intentional, collective approach.

To accelerate knowledge sharing, collaboration, and a spirit of cooperation and unity across an organization, talent development professionals are looking to group coaching among peers as an effective way to build leadership capability and capacity while strengthening culture, reducing silos, and increasing collaboration.

The benefit of any kind of coaching approach is that it happens over time, not in a one-shot intensive. Shared leadership requires a new way of thinking, one that may run counter to existing organizational culture and habits. Therefore, a hallmark of a group coaching program is that a company delivers it over several months, allowing participants to integrate their learning into day-to-day actions and build their insights and awareness over time.

To create successful group coaching programs, keep these five key factors top of mind.

1. Cut across boundaries and keep it focused

To break down silos, increase collaboration, and build a more resilient and connected culture, it's important to create cross-functional groups for your coaching program. Doing so brings a wide range of viewpoints to the table and helps thwart an echo chamber of functional perspectives that can happen in organizations.

By bringing together various perspectives from multiple parts of the business, group coaching programs also enable participants to broaden their understanding of the challenges and constraints of different areas of the business. These eye-opening moments lead to increased empathy, reduced friction, and real-time problem solving on the issues that matter most.

For group coaching to really get the sticky factor of learning transfer, size does matter. From my experience, six to eight people meeting on a four- to six-week cadence for 2.5–3 hours is a good rule of thumb. Coaching requires reflection, integration, and the space to explore concepts. Smaller groups produce higher returns, but a cohort of fewer than five people may not offer the diversity of thinking needed. Using group coaching methods in a larger format is doable, but expect trade-offs in terms of connection, application, and participation.

As with individual coaching, a crucial factor for group coaching is the emphasis on accountability, exploration, action, and integration. A typical format for group coaching sessions includes an update at the start of each session regarding prior commitments (which encourages accountability), a deep dive into a particular topic of interest the group has identified, and an opportunity to table specific issues that an individual may be facing to receive coaching and mentoring support from the group. Each session should close with a declaration of action items and commitments participants will complete prior to the next session.

2. Set clear expectations

Many group coaching programs will stall or derail because of group members' lack of commitment. Unlike traditional training programs where participants can play the wallflower and participate or not, with group coaching, participants get out of it what they put into it. When a group member is absent, that person's expertise is taken away from the group's learning experience.

Stressing the importance of completing prework and following through on commitments after each session is a must when it comes to setting expectations in a group program. You wouldn't hire a fitness trainer to create a workout and meal plan for you and then skip the workouts, eat donuts, and expect to see results. Group coaching is no different. Participants need to create a clear plan for themselves and then enact that plan to see the benefits.

Establishing expectations doesn't just start and end with the participants themselves. Program sponsors must be as committed to providing the time and space to allow participants to attend sessions. Nothing will derail the program more quickly than a program sponsor who creates meetings that conflict with the sessions. Involving program sponsors in the group coaching process through key connection points is a vital tactic to use to keep them engaged and part of the overall process.

Prework plays an important role because, unlike traditional training where the trainer provides content in the session, the focus in coaching is in how to apply the learning. It's best that participants read articles, take self-assessments, or complete reflection activities on the selected topic in advance so that they can enter each session ready to discuss how they will apply the learning on the job.

3. Create connection

Creating psychological safety ensures that group members feel comfortable participating and sharing ideas and experiences with candor. That involves cultivating a space of trust and vulnerability. A group can't fast-forward through the trust-formation stage.

Taking the time to build personal connection, create agreements around confidentiality, and build the group's shared sense of purpose around a collective goal is imperative to establishing a foundation on which to build. The biggest mistake that group coaching programs make is taking the leap into content and discussion too quickly.

Group coaching—particularly within companies where there are politics, trust issues, and lots of cultural beliefs that drive actions—can often require time to gel. Groups typically transition through five stages: cautious, connected, contributing, candid, and co-creating. Groups that don't build a foundation of trust and confidentiality at the beginning will get stuck in the cautious phase and never fully realize the benefit of a group coach experience. The richness of any coaching experience is the opportunity to go deep.

There are many ways to help participants build connections and create that psychological safety in the first session, but the two most powerful ones are confidentiality agreements and personal introductions. Confidentiality is the bedrock of creating a safe environment, so having group members sign agreements and get clear on that expectation sets the program's tone. Creating get-to-know-you exercises that enable participants to learn more about each other helps accelerate trust. For example, have group members create a personal collage that incorporates hobbies, family, personal values, and interests. Create space for individuals to get to know each other beyond their functional titles.

4. Build self-awareness and change

Self-awareness is the foundation for effective leadership. Too often, self-awareness simply remains just that: Leaders become aware of their effective and ineffective leadership styles but don't take action to change. At best, the assessment binder sits on the shelf; at worst, the leader takes pride in their leadership assets and ignores their leadership liabilities.

How often have you heard the phrase "This is just who I am."? The idea of authentic leadership is misunderstood. A leader's job is not only to deliver results but also to do so in a way that meets the organization's cultural requirements, which means that we may need to flex our "authentic" approach.

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Group coaching programs enable leaders to explore their mindsets, motivations, and subsequent behaviors over time and with others' support. One of the hardest things for any person to do is to change their ways. When it comes to changing leadership behaviors, the reality is that it's not only the individual's efforts that matter. It's important that those around that leader let go of their preconceived notions and see and support the changes the individual is trying to make.

Group coaching provides participants with the group's support to experiment with new approaches and the opportunity to broaden their individual insight through this collective sharing and growth. That builds a more intentional, self-aware leadership style and increases coaching capability, empathy, and understanding with others outside the program.

Building an assessment into the start of the program and then having group members identify a development goal based on their assessment feedback turns exercises from academic to actionable. For example, you can ask participants to create a behavioral goal and then share that goal with the other group members.

Over the course of the program, participants encourage each other when they see, for instance, their introverted colleague speak up more forcefully in sessions or give feedback to their talkative colleague who demonstrates improved restraint. That is how to move leaders from a focus on self-development to an expanded view of supporting each other and developing collectively.

5. Create accountability

Perhaps one of the greatest things about these programs is the natural peer pressure that supports participants in delivering on their promises. Research shows that having accountability to others increases the odds of success when it comes to meeting goals. That is particularly true when participants have to report back on their progress to their peers. Who wants to be the person who didn't make progress on their goals?

One of the most undervalued things in the busy workplace is the power of reflection. Somehow it seems that wearing the "badge of busy" is equated with success. But that always-on pace gives employees little to no time to reflect.

Group coaching programs help participants build their reflection muscle when the group takes the time to pause at the start of each session and reflect on progress. Three simple questions to ask are:

  • What progress are you most proud of?
  • What have you learned from your actions?
  • What's your next priority or focus?

At the end of every session, ask group members to write down one or two intentions or commitments that they will stick with between now and whenever the group plans to meet again. That bookended approach ensures that accountability is baked into the program.

The proof is in the outcomes

According to The Global Leadership Forecast 2018, a DDI and EY survey of 25,812 leaders, organizations with strong collective leadership make better-informed decisions, excel at bringing multiple perspectives from across the organization, and are more confident in responding to the competitive environment. The report found that companies with collective leadership had:

  • Five times higher likelihood of a strong leader bench
  • Half the rate of leaders at high risk of leaving
  • Twice the rate of "definitely engaged" leaders

To conquer the complexities and challenges facing today's organizations, collaboration and collective leadership are fast becoming premium capabilities, and group coaching is a powerful way to enable those outcomes.

Based on data that the Roundtable has gathered during the past 13 years, leaders who participate in group coaching find that they come out of the experience with more self-awareness, increased ability to navigate ambiguity, and a stronger internal network of peers. Such programs provide a confidential space for leaders to explore their concerns, support each other, and build more collective compassion.

As employers push to build inclusive and diverse cultures, these programs provide learning containers that facilitate these types of important dialogues in a way that is supportive and nonjudgmental. The pressure on leaders to be adaptive and agile and to balance a drive for results with a focus on people is relentless and always shifting. The programs provide a high level of agility that enables talent development teams to be responsive to the business's evolving needs as well as the group's needs.

For organizations seeking to align culture, increase inclusiveness, break down silos, build talent agility, boost innovation, or ramp up collaboration and connection, group coaching is a sustainable way of cascading learning throughout a company. A collective approach to leadership development is the future.

About the Author

Glain Roberts-McCabe is founder and president of the Roundtable, an organization that helps leaders navigate change, disruption, and growth by building their coaching and collaboration skills; [email protected]

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