Leading and managing today – complex, pressured and sometimes lonely!
Group executive coaching offers individuals and organisations good value, especially since the context in which many senior managers operate has changed dramatically. Even just a few years ago, terms like ‘VUCA’ were just hitting the radar for many of our clients. Now the concept is widely embraced and recognised as capturing our new reality: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. This frames today’s business and social context for us all, both nationally and globally.
Against this critical backdrop, leadership development is a significant concern (and expense) of every organisation, whatever the sector or size. However, in the busy and often pressured life of a manager, there is rarely an opportunity for pause and reflection – let alone squeezing in time for days of development. Nevertheless, in breathing spaces captured here and there, managers tell us they think about: how can I do my job better? How can I improve as a leader and a manager? How can I best tackle the myriad challenges I face? How might my colleagues help me a bit more?
From individual to group coaching
Individual executive coaching has long been seen as a typical element within a leadership development program. Indeed, many of you reading this briefing may have had or may currently have a coach. Having a trusted and experienced coach in your corner is regarded as a common part of business and professional life at the top. Your coach is a sounding board and helps you explore options. A good coach also helps you progress your goals and develop as a person.
While both formal leadership programs and one-on-one coaching definitely have important contributions to make, this briefing examines group executive coaching (GEC) and why it is becoming increasingly utilised, as a practical way of coping with the speed of change and the challenge of complexity – and doing so in a cost (and time) effective manner.
GEC participants often comment that being a member of a group of colleagues, where trust and rapport have been built, enables them to think in new and different ways. This peer support and encouragement then spills over from the coaching sessions and starts to influence the organisation’s culture: helping it to become one of genuine collaboration across functions and business units.
In this sense, the group itself becomes a microcosm of the organisational environment, such that both individual and group performance improve. Participants report increased insights and broader skills, as well as more alignment and accountability, as a result of open dialogue with their peers.
For our part, we find UGM clients are invigorated by the chance to reflect together about shared challenges. They enjoy learning about how they can support each other in immediately applying new insights and skills. As one executive put it, “You have a better chance of finding solutions while sitting in this group. Normally you only have access to your own thoughts. Now we think together.”
Diving deeper – why you should consider this approach
Group Executive Coaching brings the benefits of coaching to more people at a lower price point. Typically, participants meet for just one hour (virtually or face to face) each month for at least six months. But it isn’t just about saving money. This approach to development provides some quite distinct benefits, not generally available in the usual leadership program.
For example, in a powerful sense, the group owns their agenda, identifying (just one or two sessions ahead) the most pressing issues they need to explore and the goals they want to achieve. This ‘rolling agenda’ allows for emerging challenges to be accommodated and new capabilities to be built, as the need arises.
The program is decided by participants themselves only a little in advance, allowing the coach just enough time to draw together the most useful research insights, tools, templates and resources that will help a particular group in this ‘just in time, just for me’ style. Thus, the group is consistently working on their authentic, live business challenges.
For each Group Executive Coaching participant, here are just some of benefits that have been identified by researchers (such as Gyllesten et al 2020)
- Chance to access ‘collective’ wisdom
- Multiple perspectives leading to better problem-solving and decision-making
- Vital pause for reflection before action
- Significantly more collegiality and support of colleagues
- Improved listening and communication
- Better alignment across teams and functions
- Greater commitment and accountability
- More sharing and better knowledge transfer
- Improved energy levels and increased emotional intelligence
- Greater sense of well-being and ‘feeling supported’
There are also multiple benefits at the organisation level. This method of executive development has, as already mentioned, obvious time and budget benefits. This means that the approach is scalable, such that much larger numbers of executives can be included in multiple groups, not only the ‘top team’ or the ‘high potentials’ .
These two categories tend to be the usual ones targeted for development support. But in today’s world of agility and complexity, many other employee categories have now become ‘business critical’ and thus need organisational support, if they are to deliver in our challenging context. GEC – because of its speedy implementation timeline, low input and scalability – lends itself well to an organisation’s responsiveness mandate.
It is worth noting that GEC is particularly useful in breaking down silos and effecting change because of its focus on implementation and accountability.
Today, teams are often asked to deliver more with less. Project teams form, disband, reconfigure and adapt continuously. GEC plays a powerful role in enabling this agility. Finally, cohesion and resilience are built via the provision of conversation forums that generate bottom-up insights and promote networking. Taken together, all these benefits strengthen the application of new learning and the retention of valuable talent, important considerations today.
What exactly is involved in Group Executive Coaching?
Group executive coaching is, in effect, a facilitated series of conversations, where the focus is on exploring the goals and issues identified by the group as being of the most pressing concern to them. These are often described as ‘pain points’ or challenges that, if not addressed, risk derailing strategic intent.
Therefore, the conversations are professionally important, immediately relevant and aimed at results. As with all coaching, group executive coaching is not just any conversation. Rather, it is a conversation with intent. It is a focused conversation geared to expedite results. Session by session, the group examines the insights and skills they need in order to progress their individual and collective aims.
In these conversations, group members support each other to take action and assume accountability for implementation. In this sense, GEC is an effective process of development and change. Learning occurs, insights are gained, and skills built. Importantly, because it is on-the-job and directly customised to emerging issues, participants apply their enhanced insights and skills at once.
They are encouraged to make the link back to their own responsibilities and their own teams. In this way, they are both supported by their peers and, in effect, accountable to them as well. They report and review together. It is this sharp focus on goals and ongoing accountability that distinguishes the GEC development format from a typical leadership program
How to design the key GEC features
Given the importance placed on the quality of GEC conversations, it would be no surprise to learn that significant attention has to be placed on the design features that will support this vital attribute. It is necessarily an intimate conversation space where trust, confidentiality and rapport among members are all needed.
This type of conversation is defined by researchers as ‘dialogue’. William Isaacs of MIT Sloan points out that ‘dialogue’ is more than just talk. He defines it as, “The embrace of different points of view – literally the art of thinking together.” In his extensive research, Isaacs and his team identify that there are some prerequisites, if this business-critical way of talking, thinking and acting together is to occur.
We have incorporated these findings into our UGM approach. This has a number of elements – but, for brevity, we’ll mention only two here.
The first is the need for ground rules. The strategic conversations in any GEC program require trust, if they are to work. Executives attending might initially feel competitive, rather than collaborative. They might feel tentative rather than assured.
Establishing (evidence- based) ground rules at the outset can give group members a breathing space, as it were, where they can begin to relax and experience for themselves the utility of this type of open conversation.
Thus, we recommend a straightforward ‘group agreement’. The best approach is to provide participants with an evidence-based outline of ‘what usually works’, in the form of a ‘choice menu’ where they can select and also (vitally) add, in order to create the customised ground or operating rules they see as best supporting an open and productive dialogue among them.
Asking great questions
Dialogue is more than just talk!
A second design principle concerns introducing (and developing) the particular skill of ‘asking great questions.’ The rationale for this skill in a GEC session, is that participants are seeking to help each other think more deeply about the challenges they face. Asking each other incisive questions (rather than telling, informing, instructing or advising) underscores this objective.
A great question energises and motivates colleagues. It challenges assumptions and biases. It opens up fresh options for joint consideration.
But this isn’t necessarily a skill that can be simply assumed among executives. Thus, guidance and support are generally helpful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, executives who have learned what we might term the ‘art of great questions’ tend to report that this has aided them considerably in interactions with their own direct reports, especially where performance conversations are concerned.
A circle of trust
Group Executive Coaching is undoubtedly an important means of goal-focused change, sitting alongside your existing initiatives. Because of its low cost and time-effective characteristics, the GEC format will give your organisation a wider development reach. It supports the inclusion of managers at various levels with business-critical portfolios, who might not otherwise have ‘qualified’ for development support.
The dynamism and systems perspective of GEC also functions as an immediately useful peer support format. In this way, managers are assisted to meet their toughest challenges and achieve their highest goals. Through what Harvard professor Boris Groysberg terms, a ‘circle of trust’, they can share, grow and learn with their peers and, along the way, benefit themselves and their organisation.
PRACTICAL IDEAS TO APPLY IN YOUR BUSINESS
10 useful questions to help you assess any peer support initiative you belong to
- Do these group sessions address my personal objectives?
- Are the issues we explore worthy of our time?
- Do I gain new perspectives?
- Do all this group’s members show up on time at each of our meetings?
- Do our ground rules support trust and learning?
- Does our coach provide useful input and help us feel psychologically safe?
- Do we have clear aims and a clear agenda each time we meet?
- Are we able to challenge and disagree with each other?
- Do we hold each other accountable for implementing our new insights and skills?
- Are we making progress on tackling our shared business challenges?