Internal coaches are in a unique position to bring their experience to bear in groups, supporting dynamic and truthful conversations that lead to organisational change, says Sara Hope
As internal coaching becomes more embedded in many organisations, sponsors are increasingly looking for ways of capitalising on the value of employing a cadre of internal coaches.
Working with a group is different to a one-to-one coaching relationship, and some may argue it uses a different skillset. It requires an appreciation of one’s self and one’s impact within the system. It takes an exquisite ability to be prepared to question and challenge what is happening in the moment. And it takes courage to have the honest and truthful conversations that very often don’t happen across our businesses.
As Margaret Heffernan points out in her TED talk (bit.ly/10ChDKP), most people instinctively avoid conflict, yet good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates how the best partners aren’t echo chambers – and how great research teams, relationships and businesses allow people to disagree deeply. Internal coaches are in a great position to help facilitate more of these kinds of dialogue.
Equipping internal coaches with a deeper understanding of group/team dynamics develops a culture of coaching conversations. The labels for this kind of coaching intervention vary depending on the context, perceptions and how it is likely to ‘land’. Terms such as ‘action learning’, ‘team coaching’, ‘peer group coaching’ and ‘peer mentoring’ are being used, and it could be suggested there are unique aspects to each of these.
However, the common thread is the power and impact of facilitating the learning and thinking of groups in the same system. If we are to foster an organisational environment where leaders are willing to be challenged, to be courageous and to accept diversity in thinking, then deepening the group/team coaching capability of internal coaches is a great place to start.
Working on two recent group coaching programmes has been a privilege, and while they have been different in their make-up, the learning has been similar.
Both programmes have been set up to run over a 12-month period, where the groups have come together on regular occasions. The agenda is owned by the groups and the internal coach is there to facilitate the conversation, challenge, offer feedback in the moment and to collate organisational themes, which are shared back with the board and retained in the business.
Investing what felt like a controversially luxurious amount of time at the start of the group coaching conversations, enabled deep levels of trust and confidence within, and increasingly outside of, the sessions.
Exploring individual and group expectations, agreeing ground rules, and providing a focus to get to know each other at a ‘human’ level, was hugely important. The benefit of giving adequate time for these basics paid dividends. All too often, we expect more from technology and less from each other. Investing time in a face-to-face conversation and thinking deeply about the connections a group must have to be exceptional, makes a significant difference in how individuals respond and engage in the process.
Over time, individuals chose to explore increasingly sensitive issues or became more open about the details of their situations. What this achieved was a growing depth of work and ultimately higher emotional intelligence and awareness, for both individuals and groups. Through exploring deeper issues and opening up conversations in the groups, individuals recognised their growing courage and conviction to transfer this into their day-to-day working environment.
It is fascinating that when we are ‘in work’ we often feel unable to fully be the person we are outside of work. Of course, there are things we choose not to share with colleagues, however one of the most lasting lessons from our group coaching work is the power we can achieve through being willing to share our ignorance and vulnerability.
There is strong opinion as to how much, or often how little, of any one of these it is sensible to demonstrate and it very much depends on the culture of the organisation and the actions and role modelling of those at the top.
What does this mean for an internal coach when coaching groups?
Coaching senior groups in the same organisation in which we are employed can sometimes lead us to feel more exposed than if we were in a one-to-one relationship. Where our role is to help the group gain clearer purpose and insight, we need courage to be able to share our experiences and ourselves in an honest and open way. We need courage to hold group members to account. And we need to ask for the courage of those in the room in how we challenge them to think out loud in previously uncharted waters.
By bringing more of our selves to any conversation – the willingness to think out loud when we don’t know the answer, share what we notice, tell our stories and voice our opinions – we are being courageous and inspiring courage in others. Modelling this as internal coaches in all our work means we can continue to ignite small fires that, over time, will turn into an everlasting beacon of light.
It takes inner strength and commitment to speak honestly and openly, particularly, I think, as an internal coach. To work successfully and deliver value in groups requires a good grounding in the form of development programmes, an understanding of the complexity of group dynamics and sponsorship from the top.
And yet, often the richest insights come from the experience of doing and reflecting. Reflecting through the process of supervision is a distinct and critical component that supports and enables an internal coach to work with groups in this way, and be at their best.
As the internal coaching profession grows and the experiences of internal coaches themselves deepen, widening the offer to include group, team and peer coaching support can be a tremendous lever to embed a culture of coaching conversations. If we can continue to create a positive impact with a greater number of people, we can continue to foster change, on a micro and macro level, in our teams, organisations and communities.
Sara Hope is co-founder of The Conversation Space and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on +44 (0)203 7006870