How to Cultivate a Peer Coaching Network

Who’s the better quarterback, Drew Brees or Peyton Manning? Perhaps a more compelling question for you, the developing leader, is this: How did these guys — and all the great performers you might admire — get to be so good at what they do? A healthy dose of natural talent, of course — but talent only gets you so far. They also had real passion for the game, and coaching support that enabled them to improve their performance capacity continually over years of practice. Assuming you’ve got some talent and the requisite passion, let’s look at your coaching network and see what we can do to upgrade it.

We all need somebody to lean on. No one gains real success, in business or in other parts of life, without the support of other people. Peer-to-peer coaching is an important source of social support, and there are good reasons why, as a business professional, you can and should do it regularly.

Drawing on decades of experience in coaching and in teaching others how to coach, in this post I describe what you can do to cultivate your own peer-to-peer coaching network — a small group of trusted people whom you help and who help you by providing encouragement, ideas, a different perspective on obstacles and opportunities, and social pressure to actually do what you know you need to do differently.

I’m not suggesting that you become a professional coach, or pretend to be one. Informal coaching connections aren’t a replacement for professional coaching or counseling support, which should be sought when problems in your life reach the point where you are unable to deal effectively with them with the resources you’ve currently got at your disposal. Rather, I’m offering ideas that, short of professional counseling, can help you and your friends, colleagues, and family members help each other in your efforts to create change.

Coaching, to put it simply, is the process of helping others to improve performance now and developing their capacity to perform well in the future. It’s about changing behavior to make things better. Because the process of change is difficult and can provoke anxiety, people often resist it. The forces of inertia are strong, but effective coaching can surmount them. Peer-to-peer coaching is fun, because it involves learning and solving real problems; it’s free; and, I’ve found, just about anyone can do it.

What You Gain

There are many benefits that derive from informal coaching relationships. First, the obvious and automatic ones you receive as a “client” (what I call anyone on the receiving end of coaching): By talking about a new business idea, for example, with a peer coach who has no vested interest other than in helping you figure out the best next step, you can get the encouragement you need to overcome your fear of starting something new and specific suggestions for realistic actions to take. Perhaps more important, peer coaches hold you accountable — you feel obliged to report to them on your progress, of lack thereof — an all-too-often missing ingredient in recipes for cooking up something new.

Then there are the intangibles that come from helping others, and these might ultimately be the most useful. People find that when they are trying to help someone else produce change they themselves gain useful insights on their own problems, just by listening to someone else’s. (Full disclosure: I’ve made a career out of asking questions to which I wish I knew the answers.) In addition, there is a sense of camaraderie and the good feeling that comes when you have a positive effect on another person’s well-being. Further, doing so enhances your reputation as someone who invests in others’ success. Finally, because the giving and receiving of coaching support is a behavioral skill, through practice and reflection on what works and what doesn’t, you can develop and improve your ability as a coach.

Getting Started

If you’re starting from scratch, think about the people in your current personal and professional networks with whom you’d like to collaborate in an informal coaching network. They might be co-workers, friends, or members of your family. Start small, with three people, including you, and with each of you taking turns serving as both coach and client for the others.

Begin with the three of you finding a time to talk about your goals for your informal coaching network. The more open you are about your goals, the more likely they’ll be realized, because your commitment will be higher. In this first conversation, you should also talk about your hopes and fears. Discuss how your small network will work together. Establish expectations, set up times to meet (via email, phone, or face-to-face), and begin to learn about each other’s interests. Clarify how you’ll play the coach and client roles, and be open to adjusting these expectations as needed. Gain an initial understanding of your clients’ key relationships at work, at home, and in the community. At the same time, respect privacy and preferences for how much information your clients are willing to disclose.

Guidelines for Peer Coaching

Here are some general guidelines for how to be an effective peer coach:

  • Show you care about helping your clients achieve their goals.
  • Share your own experiences only to help the client feel accepted, not to focus on you.
  • Be as aware as possible of your own biases as a coach.
  • Stay in touch with the reality your client is facing — listen well.
  • Don’t hide your ignorance — ask questions, even ones you might think are dumb.
  • Encourage your client to get more help when needed, from all sources.

Some cautionary notes: First, if you cannot provide feedback at the time your client is expecting it, immediately communicate this to your client to explain the delay. This builds trust. Avoid long periods of coaching inactivity. Like any developed skill, good coaching requires time, energy and thoughtfulness by both participants — and you get can get rusty quickly. Try not to criticize your client’s ideas; usually it’s just best to listen and offer alternatives. Don’t promise more than you can deliver; this will decrease your credibility.

Two Types of Coaching

Once you’ve gotten started, you can focus more on what kinds of coaching work best for different people and situations. Coaching can be either directive or nondirective. Directive coaching involves listening to your client and then offering advice from your own experiences or knowledge base. Nondirective coaching requires listening to your client’s problems, but instead of then offering advice, asking questions that encourage your client to reach solutions independently. Asking good questions helps your client achieve greater self-understanding. Both forms of coaching can be effective; the preferred type depends on what your client needs. For details, stay tuned for my next post.

One Response to “How to Cultivate a Peer Coaching Network”

  1. John DuBois says:

    I am very much interested in hearing more about coaching and mentoring. In your book Total Leadership you talk about sharing your thoughts on the four way attention chart, through the website and I am having a hard time doing so. If there is anyone I can reach out to I would appreciate it.

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