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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

The New Importance of Coaching Circles

This is the sixth post in the Training in Turbulence series, insights on developing talent amidst the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Accelerating coaching through communities of practice

In a time of crisis, a combination of microlearning and nudges will prove to be the most efficient way to teach coaching skills. But it's not enough to teach these skills. As talent developers, we must also look at how to catalyze continuous skill improvement, which can only be achieved through consistent practice.

To consistently practice coaching, we would do well to join a community of coaches, known in the talent development industry as “coaching circles." In a coaching circle, a peer group gathers on a semi-regular basis for a facilitated meetup.

A coaching circle is a “meta-coaching” exercise - a fast-paced discussion to coach about coaching. While ICF suggests an hour for such conversations, I’ve facilitated coaching circles that move the proverbial skill development needle in as little as 15 minutes. The purpose of this brief meetup is to collaboratively determine the best way to leverage coaching in highly specific circumstances.

Running a coaching circle

Each coaching circle consists of a "coaches," a "coachee," and a "facilitator."

Whether in-person, on the phone, or in an online setting, a coaching circle typically begins with one individual, the “coachee” for the day, sharing a coaching challenge. The coaching challenge could be scenario-based, such as trying to keep their team productive during a time of layoffs or trying to keep their team collaborating effectively after the departure of a key contributor. The challenge could be individual-based, such as an anonymous individual who needs to bring their productivity up to match expectations or an individual who needs to improve their presence. The “coachee” who supplies the coaching challenge describes their scenario in detail, providing contextually-relevant data and insight into their past coaching efforts. Whoever supplies the coaching challenge initiates the next step of the meetup either by explaining their ideal end-state, or what they would like to achieve from their coaching efforts.

Next begins the facilitated group discussion. Here, one member of the coaching circle takes the role of discussion facilitator. Their responsibilities are simple - keep the questions circulating, maintain privacy, and keep a record of action items. All others take the role of coaches, who are obligated not to provide advice or statements on “what I would do if I were you,” but to ask powerful coaching questions. This format has three primary benefits - first, it provides a setting in which we all can practice our coaching skills, integrating what’s working for others in our group. Second, it gives us practice at limiting the advice we offer and increasing the questions we ask. Third, it ensures that the “coachee” is empowered to determine their way forward, building their confidence, and increasing the likelihood that they will act on the next steps. The conversation adjourns whenever the coaches and “coachee” have agreed on and documented the next steps.

As an L&D employee at both Google and Zendesk, I have seen many different coaching circle formats, applications, and success stories. I’ve seen especially strong engagement in coaching circles amongst new people leaders, who are often more proactive in developing their managerial skills. To keep the conversation grounded in plausible scenarios, the coaching circles should focus on bringing together peers at approximately the same level within the org chart.

Global businesses should aspire towards cross-regional representation in a coaching circle, as this promotes global alignment and mitigates groupthink. From what I have observed, the most engaged coaching circles at the executive level tend to be gatherings of peers from several different organizations, which ensures a level of candor that may not be possible for an internal coaching circle. Just as talent developers have long-supported pairing senior leaders with external coaches, the talent developer in a time of turbulence should work to convene senior-level coaching circles that bring several organizations together.

However, we should not think of coaching circles merely as manager meetings.

Organizations that create a coaching culture will have many peer-to-peer coaching circles. A peer-to-peer coaching circle provides individual contributors with the space to develop their coaching practice, though the format may differ from that of their management counterparts. While “meta-coaching” or coaching about coaching, is a useful format for leader-level meetups, few individual contributors will have “coaching challenges” that they feel called to discuss in a group context. Talent developers should pivot these coaching circles away from “meta-coaching” and towards group coaching interactions. In an individual contributor coaching circle, members bring a workplace challenge on a rotating basis - something that is inhibiting peak performance. The talent developer facilitates a question-driven dialogue, tamping down “advice” when needed. All other participants serve as “coaches,” asking thoughtful questions to help the “coachee” discover their next steps. As a caution to L&D professionals, my experience suggests that peer-to-peer coaching circles can, at times, devolve into senseless complaining, or what my high-school physical education teacher referred to as “pity parties.” These meetups don’t need to have “supervision,” but they do need to have a trained coaching expert who can recognize and course-correct when the conversation becomes counterproductive.

Coaching circles, but faster

In a crisis-laden workplace, not everyone has a spare 15 minutes to gather for a CoP. Here are some efficient ideas for such organizations:

Training in turbulence begins with coaching. It’s the foundation upon which we build the critical capacities of critical thinking and change resilience. With certain changes on the horizon, it’s time to pull coaching from the exclusive grip of coaching practitioners (no offense to coaching practitioners). It’s time to stop imagining coaching as the exclusive domain of managers and executives. We need a revolution in talent development that ensures that 100% of our organization can achieve meaningful progress through coaching. Once established, we can turn to our second pillar of training in turbulence, our second core capacity in the recession-ready workplace: critical thinking.

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