By Alistair Gordon and Kirsty Allen, HFL Leadership
Small group coaching comes in many shapes and sizes, but typically comprises a triad of participants and a single coach. While our company runs pods of two and four participants as well, the three participant pod is our most popular. The pods replace traditional two- or three-day workshops (although, in some programs, they supplement the more traditional classroom-based leadership development programs).
But properly executed, small group coaching pods offer far more ways of learning. Having run small group coaching for five years, the participant and manager feedback from clients indicate it’s a winning formula.
Six layers of learning – let’s investigate.
We are using our FASTLEAD small group coaching offering as an example, and many of the settings we describe are typical characteristics of small group coaching executions. All settings below refer to a three-person pod, which runs for two hours (usually once a month).
Layer 1: Content from the leadership coach
The first layer of learning is content facilitated by the coach – no real surprises here. This forms usually 20 to 25 minutes of the two-hour pod, and is run as a facilitated discussion (rather than delivering it trainer style). Participants are exposed to concepts or models featured in the comprehensive FASTLEAD workbooks.
The content discussion forms an important scaffolding around which we can hang the more personal content discussed later in the pod sessions.
Layer 2: Peer experiences
The second layer of learning is provided by the participants themselves. Very often they realise that they are all struggling with the same issues. This can simultaneously be both a relief and a confidence builder.
The sharing of peer experiences is a very important aspect of small group coaching because it ensures the program is highly customized to the participants‘ situation and is, for that reason, very relevant. Peers share their successes and challenges in running a front line team for each topic and, by the end of each session, the coach has moved the participants into solution mode, working together to design actions they can apply back in the workplace. Participants are expected to report back on the effectiveness of these new approaches at the beginning of the next session.
Layer 3: Coaching on coaching
The third layer of learning in small group coaching is coaching, which is a core skill for today’s successful modern leaders. Coaching is demonstrated live in every session. Our leadership coaches tease out key issues and possible causes and solutions, using advanced questioning techniques and empathetic listening. While each participant is being coached, the others observe a demonstration of how powerful this technique can be.
As the pod sessions progress this leads to a significant transfer of coaching skills to the participants. Within three or four sessions they are volunteering coaching questions themselves. Our coaches call out specific ‘killer questions’ that participants can deploy for the rest of their careers. The essential leadership skill of asking rather than telling becomes a standard way of discussing and exploring issues for the participants.
Layer 4: New skills deployment
The fourth layer of learning in small group coaching is the direct deployment of the new skills back to the workplace – one skill at a time. Research we conducted in the past showed that the “flip-top head” approach to front line leadership development – that is, several days of many topics being crammed in to the heads of new leaders in a single continuous workshop – led to only one or two concepts being deployed. With episodic small group coaching, participants get to focus on one skill at a time (e.g. “engaging and motivating others”, or “leading change”). This is turn leads to better deployment back at the workplace, and a gradual layering up of skills. Participants tell us they love this part of our small group coaching design.
With this process participants learn what works and what doesn’t, and why. Without deployment and testing there is no real learning. This technique ensures that participants experience a range of success and failure, which is analysed by the coach and the other participants at the beginning of the following session. They learn that just a small amount of application can have a big impact, and that asking the right question at the right time can make all the difference in conversations with their team members. Participants develop new confidence as their successes mount up.
Layer 5: Manager interaction
The fifth layer of learning comes from the support of the participants’ managers. As we all know, development happens much faster with manager support. Our small group coaching design ensures – via scheduled updates and helpful toolkits – that managers are well informed on the discussion topics and content.
In FASTLEAD, managers have access to all the materials used by the participants. After each pod session the manager is sent a discussion toolkit to assist them in supporting their participant. This enables participants to learn from their managers, and vice versa.
Three-way check-ins are also staged with the coach, participant, and participant’s manager to discuss the participants’ Personal Growth Plan at the beginning and the end of the program.
In feedback surveys. the answer from participants to the question “my manager supported my development through the program” has increased from 20 per cent to well over 60 per cent due to changes we have made to the way in which we engage with managers. Participants also report an increase in the quality of their relationship with their manager.
Layer 6: Learning portal
The sixth layer of learning is self-paced via the FASTLEAD portal. Each topic has a dedicated learning centre containing curated videos, discussion papers, quizzes and podcasts. Both participants and their managers can access the learning portal for 12 months after their program has finished.
Our portal now boasts more than 200 individual learning artefacts, which our team of coaches are updating and adding to every month.
See how small group coaching works
Our program – FASTLEAD – has been operating since 2015. We have had more than one thousand front line leaders through the program and have learned a great deal about perfecting the delivery of the program over the years.
We are happy to share what we have learned for those clients wishing to launch internal small group coaching initiatives. Please contact us for a collaborative discussion, to get a copy of our performance data, or to be introduced to one of our many very satisfied clients.
For those clients who wish to outsource the delivery of such a program – given there are a lot of moving parts and we have automated many of these interactions effectively – please ask us to show you how we deliver FASTLEAD for many top 100 companies in Australia and New Zealand. We boast a fully accredited network of 30 coaches so are able to fully deliver national and regional programs.
FASTLEAD is a curriculum-based, small group coaching development solution, structured around pods of four people (three participants and one professional leadership coach), with between six and nine sessions in a cycle. These usually occur a month part. Each pod session focuses on one topic – selected from a curriculum of 14, by the participants themselves. Selection usually takes place after FASTLEAD’s diagnostic exercises.