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  • Writer's pictureRuss Powell

Peer Coaching: A Surprising Solution to Faster, Better Leadership Development

Updated: Mar 19



The Power of Coaching and the Constraints of Startup Life


Athletes, musicians, and actors know the power of coaching. In business, however, not so much. I’m often surprised to discover how much and how often business leaders tend to undervalue and avoid coaching. 


As a leadership development consultant for growing startups, I find that my clients almost always have remarkably little time, not a lot of budget, and a thousand high-priority tasks competing for their attention.


As a veteran facilitator of professional development workshops, I also recognize that people don’t tend to learn that much in training programs. 


They learn from practice. 


When I teach a leadership development workshop, I insist that we schedule follow-up practice sessions (i.e., peer coaching sessions) about a month after each workshop. 

These two-hour sessions give participants an opportunity—after they’ve had a chance to “try out” the tools and content of the workshop in the real world—to come back together and practice with me and a couple of their colleagues. It’s a chance to polish their skills and help each other solve real problems they’re working on. 


As a result of running these sessions, I’ve discovered what seems to be a well-kept secret—and a surprising solution—to faster, better, less-expensive leadership development.


I’ve also discovered a regular, initial resistance to it.


Often, when I schedule and facilitate one of these two-hour peer-coaching sessions, the conversation goes like this:


Organizational leader, when scheduling:

“Ah, geez. Two-hours for a session? Are you sure? Do you have ANY idea how busy we are around here?”


Organizational leaders after the two-hour session with me:

“Wow! That was great!!—very helpful! We gotta do this more often!”,

– OR (as I heard just last week) –

“That was the most useful thing I’ve done in weeks! Let’s get another one on the calendar soon.”


What’s going on here, why the resistance?


I think startup leaders are often simply unaware of the extraordinary benefits of this kind of coaching.


Additionally, I often see what Atul Gawande has called a “cowboy” mentality in which leaders tend to believe they already have all the experience and know-how they need to be effective.


Couple this with a fear of, or at least a hesitancy toward, being vulnerable, and it’s no wonder peer coaching is pushed down the priority list.


And yet, in my experience, after almost every one of these two-hour sessions, participants can’t get enough of it. They seem to realize that peer coaching offers far more benefits than they'd previously imagined.


Psychologist Daniel Goleman (famous for his book Emotional Intelligence) suggests that, "many managers are unfamiliar with or simply inept at coaching, particularly when it comes to giving ongoing performance feedback.... Some companies have realized the positive impact of coaching and are trying to make it a core competence. ... Although the coaching style may not scream 'bottom-line results,' it delivers them."


"The fact is, many managers are unfamiliar with or simply inept at coaching, particularly when it comes to giving ongoing performance feedback that motivates rather than creates fear or apathy. Some companies have realized the positive impact of coaching and are trying to make it a core competence. ... Although the coaching style may not scream 'bottom-line results,' it delivers them." –Daniel Goleman, Leadership That Gets Results

One of my goals in my work is to set up my clients for success—to give them the tools and frameworks they need, and to help them develop mastery over them, so they don’t need me anymore. 


To achieve this goal, I help them develop a culture where effective peer coaching becomes the norm. 


To help you better understand peer coaching, in this post, I'll answer three questions:


  • What are some of the benefits of peer coaching? 

  • What is it (e.g., how does peer coaching differ from mentoring)? 

  • What are some recommendations for how to do it well?


What Are the Benefits of Peer Coaching? 


Why are organizational leaders and their colleagues saying, “Wow!” and “Brilliant!” and “That’s the most useful thing I’ve done in weeks!”?

Peer coaching offers benefits for organizations, teams, and individuals. 


Benefits to the Organization


Startups don’t typically have the luxuries of well-resourced, more mature organizations. They’re so busy pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, that they often don't have time, or funding, or know-how to find resources for developing their leaders.


This can lead to the neglect of professional development efforts, and patterns of poor decision-making, inadequate management, and a culture of inefficiency and blame. And this mix, as you can imagine, is the perfect recipe for high and regrettable turnover.


Peer coaching (when done skillfully) can change that trajectory. It helps smaller organizations make the most of minimal training budgets by bringing smart, motivated people together to explore, understand, and solve real, meaningful project issues and organizational problems.


Additionally, when organizations take on the development of a peer-coaching initiative, they develop a shared language and cultural mindsets for solving problems. My clients tell me that the development of this common set of frameworks, concepts, principles, and mental models is extraordinarily valuable, making their organizations far more efficient and effective.


“We now have a shared language for solving problems, and tools for having more ‘data-rich’ conversations. And when we have hard conversations, they’re more productive.” –Peter B., Sr. Software Engineer, membership platform startup


Benefits to a Team 


When asked “What are some of the most important characteristics of high-performing teams?” many people—including experts—will tell you:

  • They must communicate clearly and skillfully

  • They must have high-trust and hold each other accountable

  • They must know and understand their goals, roles, and responsibilities

  • They must lean on each other, not just the boss

  • They must adopt and practice a mindset of continuous learning


These are easy to list and relatively easy to understand, but how do teams learn them? How do they become habits? How do they become part of an organization's culture?


Peer coaching can help!


Peer coaching helps teams develop trust through having meaningful conversations. Norian Caporale-Berkowitz reminds us that what matters most is “not how often we interact, but whether our interactions are meaningful. Peer coaching replaces ‘social snacking’ with satisfying meals of real talk.”


"What matters most is not how often we interact, but whether our interactions are meaningful. Peer coaching replaces ‘social snacking’ with satisfying meals of real talk.” –Norian Caporale-Berkowitz

Peer coaching also helps teams avoid the “hub and spoke” phenomenon in which everyone has a relationship with the boss, but not with each other. Peer coaching helps managers spend less time solving field-level problems and more time on, well, managing—planning, advising, leading, helping workers perform better, and thinking and acting strategically.


I've been working with a new manager who had built a reputation as a skillful technician before being promoted into management. Lately, she's been focusing on helping her direct reports learn to solve problems without her. This has not been easy. But her team is using peer coaching to think through problems before coming to her. She's finding that every week now she has a little more time to spend on management tasks and strategic thinking. And her people report feeling empowered as they're developing more meaningful relationships with each other, improving their problem-solving skills, and receiving kudos for their results.


Benefits to the Individual 


“Being a senior leader can leave you feeling isolated; there are often business issues and personal concerns that cannot be shared with your direct reports. [Peer coaching groups] become a source of support and valuable insight.” –Brenda Steinberg, The Surprising Power of Peer Coaching


Peer coaching helps individual employees practice and develop critical leadership skills, including thinking more systemically, listening more actively, making better decisions, and solving problems more collaboratively. 


Participants gain new and different perspectives when exposed to individuals from different parts of the organization—especially parts with which they’re unfamiliar. 


Consider the story of the blind people and the elephant, in which individuals in a group each think they know—with great certainty—what the elephant is, but they don’t. Participants in peer coaching become less blind to other parts of the organization and other perspectives and concerns. For example, a customer support rep learns from an account executive, and vice versa. Or a member of the marketing team gains insights from a member of the product team—and vice versa. This is of course valuable for not just the individual, but also the organization.


Participants learn how to be more vulnerable, ask better questions, get and give feedback, and hold each other accountable.


These are not trivial skills.


Additionally, The Association for Talent Development did a study on accountability and found that employees have a 65% chance of completing a goal if they commit to someone. If they have a specific accountability appointment with a person to whom they've committed, they increase their chance of success by up to 95%. (1)


Peer coaching also helps ease some of the endemic loneliness that many employees are experiencing. Employees report feeling less lonely as they develop more, better, and richer relationships that are based on trust, vulnerability, and shared expertise. (2)


What is Peer Coaching and How is it Different from Mentoring?


What is Peer Coaching?


There are many definitions of peer coaching. Here’s mine:


Definition


Peer coaching is when two, three, or four workers get together in a structured manner for the purpose of solving a problem (or at least taking steps toward solving a problem) brought by one or more of the participants. 


Framework


The peer coaching sessions I run most frequently have a simple, basic framework that looks like this: 


  1. CHECK-IN – Each member talks briefly about how they’re doing, how they’re showing up.

  2. PROBLEM-SOLVING – Participants engage in a structured discussion about the problem. (If using the Middle Path S-loop model (3), this would include two or more of these stages—sensing, seeking, solving, or starting. For more on this, see Leadership and the Middle Path.)

  3. CHECK-OUT – Each member takes a minute or two to reflect on the session. This often includes mentioning an insight they gained and a commitment to some action they'll take.


This framework of course can be modified. For the purpose of the work I do—helping leaders learn to solve problems and enable problem-solving skills in others—this framework works very well.


How is Peer Coaching Different from Mentoring? 


I find that sometimes people get peer coaching and mentoring mixed up. This is understandable. They’re both used for skill development, but mentoring is usually used to describe a relationship with someone who’s older, and more knowledgeable or experienced.


The Cambridge dictionary defines mentoring as “the act or process of helping and giving advice to a younger or less experienced person, especially in a job or at school." Notice the emphasis on experience.  


mentoring (noun) / ˈmentərɪŋ / – the act or process of helping and giving advice to a younger or less experienced person, especially in a job or at school –Cambridge Dictionary

While the mentoring relationship is viewed as a mentor-protégé relationship, peer coaching is employee-to-employee, regardless of level. It may be manager-to-manager, but might also include different levels. And, in my experience, employees are generally pretty good at finding the peer-coaching partners they need—those who are likely to be most useful or helpful to them. 


Another way peer coaching differs from mentoring is that it’s usually conducted in groups of three or four. It’s not typically a one-to-one relationship—there’s almost always a collective learning component. The coaching partners learn from each other—even as I’m coaching you, I’m learning about the problem we’re focused on, your preferences, your particular part of the organization (remember the elephant), my biases, and new skills I’m practicing (e.g., active listening, being empathetic, finding new and better ways to speak persuasively or offer a compelling argument, etc.).


Some Recommendations for How to Get Started 


There are many ways to develop a company culture that supports and encourages peer coaching. Here are my top-five recommendations:


1 – Be purposeful and deliberate (don’t wing it) 


Think through your peer coaching initiative ahead of time. Consider using a process. 


Your process might start with creating a sense of importance and urgency (this might include articulating your hopes or your vision for the initiative); include ways to recognize early successes; and end with identifying ways to maintain momentum and illustrate how peer-coaching is benefiting your business. (4)


2 – Lay a solid foundation, propose an initial structure


Work with a professional who’s done this before. Lean on a consultant or facilitator to help you train your employees—especially your leadership team and senior managers—in the core skills they’re going to need to be successful peer-coaches. In my opinion, the most important of these skills include being able to:


  • Think systemically

  • Establish trust

  • Listen carefully and deliberately—including reflecting back to others your understanding of what they’ve said

  • Be open to and appreciative of others’ perspectives

  • Use a framework for making difficult requests or having difficult conversations


I think a good foundation includes simple frameworks. I’m a big fan of simple models and frameworks that are easy to remember and use. [Please, please—fer cryin' out loud—no 17-step models for holding better conversations! (If you hire me to help with developing your leaders, you’ll find that my models (3) are simple, easy-to-remember, and useful in an almost infinite set of circumstances.)]


These sessions could be of any duration that makes sense for the participants. As a starting point, I recommend groups of three or four and a duration of about two hours.


What I do with my clients typically looks something like this: 

Step

Description

Est. Duration

Elapsed Time

1 - Check-in

Partners/Peer-coaches answer the question: How am I doing, how am I showing up today?

10-15 mins.

0.25 hours

2 - Problem Solving

Partners might negotiate for different amounts of time, but typically each partner gets 20 to 30 minutes of focused problem solving-time from other group members.

~90 mins.

1.75 hours

3 - Check-out

Partners wrap-up by answering questions of this nature: What insight did I gain during this session? What action am I going to take as a result of our time together?

10-15 mins.

2.0 hours

If you’ve laid a good, solid foundation and you follow a system, you’ll find that your employees will be able to run these sessions on their own fairly quickly.


3 – Start at the top


For greatest impact and likelihood of making a significant change in your culture, I highly recommend that you start your peer-coaching initiative at the top of the organization. Invite or insist that your founders and executive team go through training and participate in coaching sessions first. 


4 – Ask for a commitment of six sessions


For your first volunteers (i.e., the first round of peer-coaching partners), after their initial training, I recommend asking that each group commit to meeting for a minimum of six sessions before making a judgment on the value of the practice. 


5 – Point early and often to the value peer-coaching provides


It may help, early on, to remind your workforce regularly about the value peer-coaching sessions provide.


Recall the conversation I pointed to at the start of this post in which an organizational leader was complaining about carving out time in her day. "Ah, geez. Two-hours for a session? Are you sure?


You may need to make it easy for your employees to prioritize peer-coaching over other tasks. Give them encouragement and even permission if needed. 


Remind them that peer coaching provides…


  • Different and valuable perspectives

  • A way to generate possible solutions before going to your manager (saving time for your manager)

  • A way to hold yourself (and others) accountable—in a manner that’s not punishing

  • A fantastic and fun way to build essential leadership skills 

  • A way for the organization and/or team to be more effective and efficient


Wrapping Up


I hope I’ve shown here that investing in peer coaching is a worthwhile pursuit, or at least something to explore further. 


If done well, there are so many “no-brainer” benefits—for the organization (e.g, faster, better accomplishment of critical initiatives), for your teams (e.g., the development of collaborative problem-solving abilities), and for your employees (e.g., greater mastery of essential leadership skills). 


I've helped teams and individuals from Patreon, Mighty Networks, Medium, Stripe, Google, and others develop peer-coaching skills. I want to give you that opportunity as well.


If you’d like to explore, please see the resources I’ve listed below. 


If you’re ready to dive in and you’d like some help with this kind of thing, reach out to me—let’s chat.


Over 140 tech start-ups and other businesses (including Fortune 100 companies) in 15 countries around the world have trained their leaders in Leadership and the Middle Path—the foundational leadership workshop I use for preparing workforces for peer-coaching. The workshop has proven so impactful that investors have required startup teams to complete it as a condition for funding.


Please note that most of the models I've described and the workshop Leadership and the Middle Path were designed by Chris Holmberg of Middle Path Consulting. I'm licensed to use them.


 

“I found Russ' frameworks for solving problems and navigating challenging discussions to be incredibly valuable. I highly recommend the Middle Path leadership workshops."

–Amar V., Product Lead, fintech company


 

Resources


For further reading, see – 


Footnotes


(1) I've seen several references to this study, but have yet to find an actual link to it. If you come across one, or can help me be more specific about this, please let me know. Otherwise, please, er, take this comment "with a grain of salt."

(2) See the Caporale-Berkowitz and Friedman article.)

(3) Please note that when I say "Middle Path model" or "my models," I’m referencing models designed and developed by Chris Holmberg of Middle Path Consulting. I'm a licensed facilitator of Holmberg's Middle Path workshops and models.


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