A UK university’s novel group coaching initiative is supporting culture change, talent management, and collaborative working, and boosting leaders’ self-awareness too. Eve Turner reports

By Eve Turner

“We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet”  WB Yeats (1893)

Ten frazzled leaders turn up to a Circle, as usual dashing between meetings. The energy is low, stress levels seem high and there’s two hours ahead of us. These are action-orientated people, many are academics, skilled in critical thinking. How can I support them to stand back, develop perspective, be more self-reflective and mindful?

I draw on coaching and mirror moving out of busy doing mode to help these leaders do likewise – giving them a WB Yeats (1893) poem to read, reflect on and discuss in pairs. The poem is about creating stillness and how that can help others live better. The subsequent change in energy, atmosphere and shift to a more being mode is moving and we have a session that is positive and helpful for the participants.

This example is from one of 14 Leadership CirclesTM that have now run at the University of Southampton in the UK. The approach has helped address the range of leadership challenges facing staff in the university, and promoted self-reflection.

Unusually, the Circles exist outside the usual line management structure, bringing people together from different faculties and professional services departments. They are having a significant and lasting individual and systemic impact, supporting culture change and talent management and creating a greater sense of community, shared understanding and collaborative working.

Leadership CirclesTM

The Leadership CirclesTM were first introduced in 2012 to address an internal context that is not unique to this university nor to academia:

“The challenge has been developing widespread authentic leadership in a culture where academic expertise is valued above all else,” says director of HR Janice Donaldson.

This emphasis has also, at times, meant a lack of appreciation by academic staff of colleagues in professional services, such as HR, finance, marketing and IT – and vice versa. The Circles have also been a way to develop leadership talent, from those identified as future members of the executive team to heads of department. They are done in a pyramid scheme, where members of circles can choose to then run circles themselves.

The external context, as presented at the 2016 Coaching at Work conference (http://bit.ly/2dxEwqV) mirrors the wider VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) of our times. Higher education has faced reduced government funding, a shift towards students as customers with increased student fees, intensifying global competition for international students and, most recently, potential challenges posed by Brexit and the implications around, for example, collaboration, income and research funding.

Against this backdrop Peter Smith, professor of optoelectronics and associate pro vice-chancellor (international) at the university emphasises that rather than trying to teach ‘esteemed professors’ to be leaders through the Circles, we should be collaborative and work with professional services colleagues, creating an environment for them to teach themselves.

One participant, Nick Maguire, clinical psychologist, associate professor and deputy head of psychology, says, “I see the Circles as a ‘quiet revolution’ that can be sustained and meet changing needs for leaders.”

The Circles support cultural change, by staff, through staff.

What is it?

A Leadership CircleTM is a form of group coaching, with up to 10 members, which draws on a range of methodologies and provides space and time for reflection, challenge and support. It began with Donaldson around 2000 in a South African niche financial services company and is based on the concept of groups of leaders doing group work to help themselves lead. The role of the ‘trainer’ is only to facilitate and coach the group to manage themselves. Donaldson used the Circles at a top UK insurer, before taking up her current role in 2011.

In 2014, I was brought in to develop what had been an informal concept, provide a methodology and materials, and train the original Circle members to run their own Circles, in what we hoped would become a pyramid scheme.

I now provide master workshops to new facilitators and ongoing support when needed to those running the Circles. It’s a place where, for example, they can discuss challenges they are experiencing in a group or ideas.

My role is that of a group coach: contracting, encouraging self-reflection, helping members develop and consider other perspectives, believing others have the answers – all concepts familiar to coaches. While the facilitators are not trained formally in coaching, Leadership CirclesTM relies on them adopting a coaching approach. This adds to the richness of the leadership styles in the university and to the changing culture.

In the form I developed, and based on the need for iterative learning, we have made central Nancy Kline’s principles in order to create a Thinking Environment®. Given the number of meetings staff attend, we shared Kline’s view that “the quality of a person’s attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking”, (1999, p17).

There are, of course, links to Reg Revans and his work on Action Learning. Members vary in the amount of leadership development they have had, and other approaches may be used as needed – from the ego states of Transactional Analysis (Parent, Adult, Child) to Karpman’s Drama Triangle, Stakeholder Analysis, models of Change from Kotter to Bridges, the Johari Window, Covey’s Circles of Influence and Concern to Mindfulness techniques. These are drawn on, as needed, in each Circle, in a light touch.

Circles are a way of being as much as a process. As the introductory case study illustrates, the aim is to take members away from the hurly-burly of everyday rushing between meetings, to a stillness that allows deep thinking and a solutions focus. It is an opportunity to stand back, share challenges, collaborate and form networks.

This is done through coaching principles, believing that each person has the answers in themselves if the right conditions of trust and a safe space are created. As Prof. Smith puts it: “the Nancy Kline model is a powerful methodology … akin to horse whispering: it changes the way people are thinking and behaving and it slightly shocks them. It moves them out of their regular habits.”

Chief librarian Jane Savidge believes, “The Leadership CirclesTM have given me ‘permission’ to step back from day-to-day pressures to reflect and find creative solutions to complex problems.”

How are they run?

The likely success of a new Circle starts before one has even taken place. The facilitator(s) meets with potential members in person beforehand, and this ensures there is understanding about what is involved and how they run. It is also a chance for both sides to decide if the intervention is appropriate.

The first Circle was run by Donaldson and then deputy vice-chancellor, Adam Wheeler, in 2012, in a relatively relaxed way, modelling the idea of academics working with professional services. As Wheeler states, “Our Circles are particularly innovative and effective because they are outside the line management structures of the University and this is radical.”

When I got involved in training members to facilitate themselves, we used basic coaching principles.

Going around each member in turn (rounds), time is spent on discussing how we will get the best out of the Circle for ourselves, our teams and the university. In fact, creating the ground rules (contracting in coaching terms) is crucial, and we ensure discussion includes the use of silence, attentiveness, avoiding interruption, equality of contribution and other aspects of Kline’s Thinking Environment®.

Interruption has been a part of academic everyday life, and at first some members felt it was a useful tool for gathering great ideas. But over time members became convinced that avoiding interruption encouraged more people to contribute and the quantity and quality of ideas increased within and outside of the Circles.

Members have continued to facilitate in pairs to model collaboration, so each Circle is now run by an academic and a member of the professional services teams. The 2016 evaluation reflected this: “It was immensely useful doing facilitation with another person from PS/academic – mutual learning.”

The facilitators’ role is very much that of a coach, keeping the Circle on course, encouraging active participation, modelling the idea that every member is valued equally and being curious without having the answers so enabling members to talk, think, challenge and solve for themselves.

Facilitator and Circle member Dr Andy Gravell, associate dean, faculty of physical sciences and engineering, describes it as: “Participative training rather than instructor led, with few concerns with level or hierarchy… it has led to improved decision-making through a more democratic process… and made a deep change”.

This is mirrored by professor of English Ros King, “The impact is exceptionally positive and rewarding… it is an iterative process helping people to solve their own problems in their own way.”

Materials are provided centrally and facilitators can use and adapt these as they like – it is a ‘tight/loose’ model.
The process, which encourages reflectiveness, is there to provide the foundations, particularly at the start.

The Circles begin by looking at activities that encourage self-reflectiveness. This then moves on to leading others, before looking at understanding leadership in context of the organisation. Ice-breakers and potential questions are provided for each stage, along with exercises to do in pairs, triads (including observer), and the group. Evaluation is encouraged.

What participants say

The 2016 evaluation showed that the most important and consistent strongly modelled behaviours in Circles were respecting time, not interrupting and building trust – both inside and outside of the Circles. They talk of a “Safe space”, “Learning from each other’s experience”, and “Self-reflection”.

The outcomes mirror those from one-to-one coaching: “I value the time to step back from manic, frantic everyday activity”, and it “helped me relax and focus – learned about myself and my behaviour in meetings”. Others mention they are “learning to modify behaviours with different people”, noting that “being part of a group creates a will to challenge behaviours and change the approach” and “by holding up a mirror you can see what you might change in yourself”.

The benefits are individual and systemic. HR deputy director, Sarah Hollowbread believes: “As a result of the Circles we are working much better as a team and it has had a profound effect on my working life.” Savidge says: “I have noticed an increase in respect for individual contributions in our meetings.” Smith talks of meetings where Circle members, faced with interrupting behaviour, put up their hands to speak – thus modelling that they will wait their turn.

This is having a wide impact. Participants reflect on the creation of a “sense of community wider than your office” and participants have “found the Circles incredibly useful in having a chance to step away from my job and discuss ‘the bigger picture’”.

The future

The principle behind the Leadership CirclesTM is to ensure they continue with minimal cost to the institution. At the university they are now in their fourth round (autumn 2016).

While they are used to solve real problems and develop people’s self-awareness and leadership skills, the principles have also been used in a wide range of one-to-one and faculty, project, staff and Board meetings.

  • Eve Turner is a coach, coach supervisor and mentor and founder of Eve Turner Associates www.eve-turner.com


  • E Berne, Games People Play, London: Penguin Books, 1964
  • W Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (3rd edn) London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009
  • S Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, London: Simon & Schuster UK, 2004
  • L Hall, Mindful Coaching, London: Kogan Page, 2013
  • N Kline, Time to Think, London: Cassell Illustrated, 1999
  • J Kotter, Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions, London: Macmillan, 2006
  • W B Yeats, ‘Earth, Fire and Water’, in The Celtic Twilight, 1893



Maintaining and developing Circles

  1. Support a) Bring Circle hosts together and provide ongoing support, both face-to-face and through phone/email contact
    b) Ensure overt executive board endorsement
  2. Pairing Provide an option of pairing people together to run Circles that models collaborative working, eg, professional services working with academics/clinicians
  3. Materials Provide common materials to run a Circle on a shared site – these can then be tailored by each pair of facilitators
  4. Self-development If possible, offer additional development opportunities, such as the use of psychometric questionnaires like the MBTI, 360-degree feedback and/or one-to-one coaching
  5. Scalable So far, we have had 70 participants over 885 hours and with 30 trained facilitators. A new set of Circles starts in autumn 2016


Top tips on setting up a Leadership CircleTM

  1. Communication As well as providing written information, meet potential members. This ensures they understand what is involved and you can mutually decide if a circle is the best opportunity
  2. Numbers/Venue An ideal number is 8-10 people committed to attending regularly. Choose a venue that says “you matter” and provide refreshments
  3. Preparation Spend time beforehand working through the materials – then be prepared to be flexible on the day!
  4. Contracting  Time spent discussing how we need to “be” to get the best value for ourselves, our teams and our organisation is essential – this is not for skimping!
  5. Equality Model that everyone’s contribution is of equal value – and discuss this if it doesn’t emerge naturally in the contracting
  6. Rounds Use rounds, especially initially: it’s fundamental that you go around the group so everyone’s voice is heard and valued
  7. Positivity Set the tone by starting with something positive each time
  8. Attentiveness Encourage real listening and attentiveness and no interruptions. If this is questioned use the power of the rounds to get members’ views and introduce exercises in pairs, triads and the larger group
  9. Resourceful Believe in the power of the group to know the answers – and contribute to it
  10. Reality Discuss real issues in real time so members go away feeling better resourced. Our Circles started with self-awareness, then leadership with teams, finally examining our leadership within the system