February 4, 2020

Convening groups of leaders in peer coaching groups multiplies growth and impact; this case study shows how

Pod of orcas jumping in blue seaCoaching is an investment, and everyone involved wants to get the most out of it, personally and professionally.  Similarly, leadership development workshops require participants to commit time and energy, and the payoff should be commensurate.  Interestingly, the secret sauce to making all this happen could be investing in one additional element: “pod” coaching.

Recently, my Kenning partners and I designed and delivered a 10-month leadership development program for 25 senior leaders, based on individual and organizational needs.  The course included a series of in-person and virtual workshops and 1-1 coaching. On top of that, we opted to also convene small, three-to-four person meeting groups, which we called pods.

Although we have long-considered each of these ingredients to be important in the overall professional development recipe, there is particular power in the pod. This deceptively small component, like a dash of salt, draws out all of the important flavors in that it:

  1. Reinforces the behaviors and mindsets learned during workshops
  2. Builds the group’s cross-department fluency and systems perspective
  3. Develops trust and community among a small group of leaders
  4. Influences the organization’s overall learning culture.

I’ll illustrate.  (Names, genders, and specifics have been altered to preserve confidentiality.)

It was the fifth and final time that our pod group of four senior leaders plus me, the pod coach, was meeting via video conference.  By this point, our group looked forward to the regular rhythm of our agenda: a quick round-robin when each member checked in with personal or professional updates, followed by 90-minutes of rich conversation, where we tied the most recent leadership workshop to current workplace dilemmas through honest and collegial consultation.

The four leaders kicked off with the headlines, including Susan’s successful retreat in Sheboygan with her new team, the surprising focus Sasha had gained as a result of his shoulder injury, and the less than perfect results of John’s recent attempt to give constructive feedback to a colleague that he finds challenging. “I could feel when I was getting triggered,” John shared. “I was disappointed in my reaction, but it gave me a new idea for how to structure the conversation the next time.”

Victoria checked in last by framing a current and pressing challenge in her department: the quality of their output seemed to be increasingly faulty despite the more intense and precise effort that she was spending overseeing her team’s work.  Why?

I was particularly excited about Victoria’s check in for many reasons. First, it was the perfect opportunity for our group to apply the systems dynamics lens that the entire cohort had studied in the workshop two weeks prior, and thus reinforce and reframe their learning with a real work example. Second, I had listened to another pod member discuss a similar dilemma in his department during a 1-1 coaching meeting, so I knew that there would be direct relevance for him, and I hoped it would also shine light on patterns in the organization. And third, it was the first time Victoria had transparently shared a leadership dilemma, which demonstrated to me that there was a new level of trust among this group of leaders who had initially only shared successes, perhaps in an effort to not let their guard down.

The peer coaching started. The group asked Victoria to share more details about her dilemma and followed up with a series of clarifying questions.  Victoria then muted her video conference microphone so that she could listen more freely as the others in the group took on the dilemma as if it were their own.

For 45 minutes, her colleagues analyzed the predicament using systems dynamics archetypes, bounced around feasible interventions, and uncovered possible new relationships and complexities within what they understood to be Victoria’s thinking.  It was a messy but fun consultation process with lots of self-deprecating laughter, and it ended by Victoria unmuting her microphone to come back to the fold.

Victoria was quiet at first.  “I just want to thank you,” she started humbly. “I learned more about my assumptions from listening to you than I would have been able to do on my own, and I have better strategies for how we can break down our unhelpful dynamics and experiment with a new design. Again, I really want to thank you.”  There was another brief moment of silence among the pod members as they acknowledged and respected each other and their contributions to the group.

Then Sasha added, “Victoria, please know that you can ask me to be a thought partner any time.  Just call me for lunch or coffee so that we can be deliberate about this support and I’ll ask the same of you.  Okay?”  Victoria nodded.  Susan followed next, “I love that, Sasha.  But my hope is that we stay together as a pod for a while to discuss our dilemmas and our successes as a group. What do you think?”  More heads nodded on the video screen, and it was a good time to close.

Throughout this consultation, I said virtually nothing as a pod coach. In earlier meetings, I had facilitated actively using a safe protocol to structure honest conversations, modeled open and curious questions, and explicitly pulled in course content when appropriate.  But in this pod meeting, I simply opened and closed the agenda and kept time.  By setting the stage well early on, I was able to back out and trust that over time, the group would come to embrace and benefit from the power of the pod.


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