A group-based development partnership created by internal coaches helps scientists at GSK to take more control of their career, and is testament to the power of groups.
Dr Stefan Senger and Dr Patricia Elkins report
In our work as internal coaches we regularly encounter themes that our clients bring to coaching. One such theme is the almost paralysing feeling of being stuck, often being fuelled by a lack of direction (‘I know what I don’t want, but I don’t know what I want’) and feeling ‘not in control’.
Creating space for deep reflection in the sessions with our clients is a powerful way to support individuals in their attempt to get ‘unstuck’, but we both felt that there’s great potential to further boost the impact of individual coaching by combining it with other forms of support.
When we looked at what’s on offer, we quickly found three significant gaps. First, most development offerings are what we consider to be ‘single interventions’ − often delivered as on-demand remote learning items − as opposed to well-designed programmes that have coaching at their heart. Second, and following on from the previous point, we noticed that learning and development opportunities that provide true group experiences are offered less and less frequently. Lastly, we felt that whereas impactful programmes have been established for key leaders (eg, Accelerating Difference [AD], see: https://bit.ly/35UNhY4), there’s less on offer for a group we refer to as key contributors.
In 2017, the two of us joined forces with the intention to create something that would fill these gaps.
We set out to create the opportunity for being part of a group-based catalytic development partnership. We wanted to create this partnership by forming small groups of individuals who all share a deep desire to further develop themselves and their career but feel stuck and don’t (currently) see a way to get unstuck. The partnership is based on safety, support, feedback, challenge, and sharing. It’s formed to create the conditions (ie, act as a catalyst) that will allow the participants to create greater clarity (through deep reflection) and to find the confidence and determination to experiment (take exploratory action). This is what we see as the ‘coaching spirit’ at the core of our programme.
The programme design
The headline we chose for our programme is the invitation to “Take control of your career”. To allow enough time for deep inner work and learning as well as the practical exploration of new behaviours and approaches, we decided to design a year-long programme that we called ‘Deep Dive Career Intensive’.
All participants are matched with an internal coach for one-to-one sessions and also get the unique opportunity to experience group coaching. To further strengthen the group experience, we also offer monthly workshops where we put a strong emphasis on co-creation. These workshops are a place where participants can explore themes that come up in the group, share, listen and learn and practise together. Examples of workshop topics are: growth mindset, immunity to change, resilience, feedback, values, strengths, purpose, confidence, motivators and managing upwards.
The facilitation style for our workshops has a strong coaching spirit at its heart. Rather than being focused on content delivery, it aims to support participants in having a dialogue and also learn to coach each other. For this to work, we limit the size of a group to eight people. Being a member of a relatively small group and having access to the facilitators throughout the programme, aims to create an effective support structure and true group experience.
An aspect we find particularly exciting about this programme is that it’s designed to be run ‘by the business for the business’. It’s created and delivered by volunteering internal coaches/facilitators and due to the part of business we are in, research & development, it’s for scientists by scientists. Everybody involved from within the organisation is contributing on top of their ‘day job’. A consideration that we think should not be underestimated is that this also provides unique personal growth and development opportunities for the people delivering the programme. If we’d opted to engage external partners for the facilitation and coaching, these opportunities would have been lost.
Having said this, we do work with external partners where we don’t have sufficient access to internal expertise. Group coaching has been the one example so far where we collaborate with an external coach to deliver impactful group coaching and at the same time further grow our internal expertise. Finally, we purposefully decided to adapt an agile delivery approach: start small, learn through experimentation, iterate, grow organically.
The journey so far
Our programme was first run in 2017 in a single business area and has since been repeated every year with groups in the UK and US.
It was rewarding to see that participants who personally experienced the impact of the programme decided to join the facilitator team in subsequent years. This enabled us to increase the number of groups per year, but also to work with other interested business areas to make the programme available to their employees. So far, we have had a total of around 160 participants since the inception of the programme.
To almost exclusively rely on volunteers to run the programme might seem like a risky strategy but very encouragingly our experience so far has been the opposite. Despite all the movement on an organisational but also individual level one would expect in an agile organisation, our programme has experienced full support from the business and our volunteers and has continuously grown and evolved organically.
We’ve learned a tremendous amount since we started to offer this programme and it feels challenging to condense it into a small space. However, here are the things that stand out for us:
- Application beats nomination (for us) – Before we started the programme we discussed intensely whether we should run an application process or should adopt the same approach as the AD leadership programme, ie, use a nomination process. We decided to go for an application process, and believe that this has significantly helped us attract participants who are immensely committed. We also experienced that even applicants who weren’t selected told us that they greatly benefitted from answering the questions in the application form. One applicant told us: “Honestly, working on this application I have put more thought into my career planning than in all my years of service combined.”
- Creating safety – We knew very well from our work as coaches that the success of the programme would depend on being able to create safety through building trust. Considering that participants might work together this is even more critical. But how best to create safety? What works for us is a strong emphasis on contracting about how we will interact and be with each other. For many of our participants, used to a ‘let’s get cracking’ environment, this is a new experience.What we do is to invite them to create and own their Group Charter that makes explicit what the participants need and what’s important to them to feel safe and engaged. We use this charter throughout the programme to guide us and remind us about our agreed way of being with each other. Since it needs to stay relevant, we update it if required. Opportunities for being able to openly share in a safe environment are extremely rare, which means people feel isolated even though they’re working with others in teams and groups all the time. Some participants even went so far as to say that this was the first time ever they’ve experienced an alternative approach.
- Feedback – We run a tailored 360° feedback process as well as encouraging our participants to be more proactive in seeking and providing feedback. For us feedback is a prime example of something where ‘teaching how it’s done’ in most cases doesn’t create a major shift, since our emotions play a huge part in how we give and receive feedback. Hence, the focus of our group work is for participants to explore their relationship to feedback and to begin to take steps to make feedback a more powerful tool for them.Taking these steps can be scary and being able to do them whilst being part of a supportive group makes a huge difference in our experience.
- Group coaching – Feedback tells us that this is one of the most impactful components of the programme, one the majority of our participants haven’t experienced before.
- My objectives – When we initially designed the programme, it seemed obvious to us to ask the participants to identify their personal programme-related objectives. Little did we know about how much work is required to shift ‘old baggage’ related to the label ‘objectives’. We observed that participants viewed objectives as forming a binding contract, believing that not delivering on it equates to failure. This made the participants very careful and cautious before committing to anything. The label ‘objectives’ was also associated with something that’s often mandatory so using this label could cause a hostile reaction.We learned that using an alternative term like ‘goals’ made a big positive difference. We also experienced that participants weren’t used to writing objectives entirely for themselves without the perceived need to fulfil external expectations. To help with the process of identifying, capturing and challenging their personal goals, we developed a template that guides the participants through the process.
- My network and communication – Initially, we simply adapted what we learned from AD (where participants have sponsors) and asked participants to find a mentor. However, realising that our participants aren’t very well-connected made us rethink this approach and we now put the emphasis on growing and maintaining their personal networks.We invite them to create a map of their existing network and to annotate it by looking through different lenses (eg, frequency and type of interaction, redundancies and gaps). It was surprising to see that our participants consistently viewed networking (another label that comes with many limiting beliefs) as something that’s very low priority and therefore rarely actively and purposefully pursued.Not actively working on their personal network also meant that our participants generally don’t communicate their career-related ambitions, challenges, or needs. It was a real eye-opener for them that inspirations, ideas, and opportunities suddenly just seemed to come out of the blue once they started to communicate more about themselves and their career.
Since our goal is to support participants in taking (more) control of their career, this is what we look at when assessing the impact of our programme. One approach we take is self-assessment. We do this with the help of about 40 statements that we present to participants before they start the programme and again at the end. For each statement, participants are asked to position themselves on a seven-point scale from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree”.
We also ask our participants to write their final personal reflections at the end of the programme. Participants found it very useful to write these and it offers us the opportunity to observe impact that might otherwise go unnoticed. Here are examples for the feedback we’ve received:
- One of the most impactful courses I have attended
- It has had a profound change on the way I go about doing things at work and home – learning to reflect, learn, focus and having a more balanced life
- I also feel I can articulate to others and more importantly to myself what I want from my life and work
- I think one of the biggest things I will take away from this programme is the network of support that has been generated
- My only regret is that I did not complete the programme earlier in my career!
To be able to also be aware of the feedback our participants receive from their network, we actively encourage them to gather such feedback and share it with the group and us. As facilitators, we also receive direct feedback when interacting with the line managers throughout the programme. We also create opportunities for participants to interact with their leadership teams so that the members of the leadership teams can hear directly from the participants about their experience on the programme.
Similar to the situation we face as individual coaches, impact materialises over time (after the coaching/programme has ended) and it’s challenging to pick this up consistently. However, our participants have been very proactive in sharing news with us and so we know of a significant number of cases where participants, for example, went on a secondment, took on new responsibilities/additional roles, changed role/department, or decided to further pursue their career outside of GSK.
From our work as internal coaches both of us knew that having a strong desire to do something is a truly magical ingredient. Nevertheless, it took us by surprise to see what this was able to achieve on a larger scale in the programme. The partnership of volunteering facilitators, coaches and participants who chose to embark on a personal development journey created a community of development champions who are using their creativity and initiative to inspire others to (re-)start their own journey.
Paradoxically, creating something with the help of volunteers who contribute on top of a busy ‘day job’ turns out to be an effective way to better prepare an organisation for the challenges of a fast-paced world. We hope that sharing our experience motivates other internal coaching communities to continue to play an active part in shaping the development culture of their organisations in new and unexpected ways.
We would like to thank all facilitators and internal coaches for their invaluable contributions over the years. Without you none of this would have been possible. We would also like to thank the internal executive coaches, Eva Kovacs and Sue Gammons, for their contributions to group coaching. We appreciate the support we have received from Joni Kollmer, Matt Kersey, Stephanie Trotter and Patrick Murphy. A special thanks goes to Anne Welsh who contributed, supported and encouraged us every step of the way.
- Dr Stefan Senger (ACC) is a research manager and internal coach at GSK in the UK
- Dr Patricia Elkins is a research scientist and internal coach at GSK in the US