Developing Peer Coaching
10 Suggestions for Success
Okay! “Suggestions” isn’t quite as strong as “Commandments” for a title. While we have research-based data to support our conclusions, we do lack divine, mountain-top revelation or tablets of stone. Still, peer coaching is clearly an emerging strategy used to develop leaders and establish a coaching culture in organizations—especially in high tech firms. A peer-coaching relationship can be less expensive than professional executive coaching, often is more intimate and honest when compared to a boss-subordinate relationship, and provides a more diverse perspective to issues and needs. It also places coaching at a collegial level and builds coaching skills as part of a developmental experience.
One of the principal findings in a recent study conducted in collaboration with Duke Corporate Education, Human Resource Forums and Bay Area Executive Development Network was that “Most companies want and need to create coaching cultures, but struggle to build it into the corporate DNA.” The respondents were clear: leaders and team members recognize the need for coaching to help them succeed in their work and careers. They are not quite so sure about why they should be involved in the coaching process.
We discovered two reasons for the coaching capability gap. First, most leaders are problem solvers who are rewarded for their expertise. Altera’s Kevin Lyman suggests that the company culture has typically been a “master/apprentice” arrangement in which the apprentice learns but is often dependent upon his/her technical or functional leader to give guidance and be the expert solution provider. Many leaders mistakenly call this coaching. Unfortunately this approach creates a dependency model rather than an empowered organization culture.
Secondly, a coaching capability gap also exists because many organizations reward their leaders for individual achievement rather than how well they have enabled and developed others. At Microsoft, there is a major emphasis on individual commitments as the key measurement of performance and advancement. Sue Larson explains:
The focus is on shipping products or on getting things done…but there isn’t as much focus on my role as a senior leader in developing the talent below me.
The key to developing a coaching mindset is for leaders to be recognized and rewarded for making the transition from being “all knowing” to being “all developing.”
3 Strategies for Building a Coaching Culture
Our research revealed three strategies for building a coaching culture. The first focuses on development for coaching skills in leaders through programs and training. Indeed, this was the second-highest ranked approach for developing leaders in the study. Yet few organizations are satisfied with the return on this investment. IBM’s Beach reports:
We have coaching workshops…but the practice of coaching is not as pervasive as it needs to be. We don’t use the skills enough, and we don’t give leaders enough utilization time to do it.
Efforts to develop coaching skills are important, but programs without a supportive organization climate are likely to create frustration.
The second strategy introduces the benefits of coaching through bringing expertise from outside the firm with external executive coaches. Firms familiar with outsourcing production find this a natural solution. This approach has merit but increases cost, lacks scalability, and doesn’t develop internal coaching capability.
Peer coaching is the third and most rapidly growing strategy. Many firms have found success and improved program ratings from involving their leaders in this approach. In many company cultures, this can be much more accepted and respected than using outsiders. Microsoft uses peer coaching in both its high potential and college hire programs. Shannon Wallis, who runs the high potential program, explains:
Peer coaching works particularly well for the millennial generation. They don’t feel intimidated by it…Structured peer coaching…ensures learning and feedback beyond specific educational events and gives participants an opportunity to share their Microsoft work and career experience in a way that is not afforded by a manager/subordinate relationship.
Microsoft creates opportunities for this type of coaching and uses a rigorous peer coaching process that encourages participants to hone coaching skills with program peers. The most productive topics for this approach include career advancement, handling difficult team members, managing up, and strategic influence.
Peer coaches cannot be expected to have the same coaching skills, or even to use the same techniques, as experienced professional coaches. They need guidelines and techniques that are relatively simple to understand and implement. We will introduce key techniques for effective non-directive peer coaching; however, peer coaches should develop a coaching mindset in their work. Frequently, an outside professional coach can be helpful in teaching and guiding the beginning efforts of peer coaches.
The GROW Model
The essential activities of coaching were originally described in the GROW model, a simple, but powerful, framework developed by Sir John Whitmore to guide coaches in structuring conversations. Here is an abbreviated description of the GROW model representing stages of a coaching conversation. A coach assists clients in:
1. Goals: identifying and clarifying goals of the coaching conversation and longer-term goals;
2. Reality: describing the reality surrounding each goal, including previous efforts, anticipated obstacles, and feedback;
3. Options: exploring potential actions and alternatives for pursuing the goal, and the reality surrounding those actions; and
4. What is to be done, when, by whom, and the will to do it: making the goal a priority, identifying the support needed, and committing to take concrete actions.
A coaching conversation typically centers on some of these elements. A coach asks questions and guides conversations that help clarify and choose what the goal is, understand reality as it relates to the goal, generate and examine options to it, and then choosing how to proceed.
The Ten Suggestions
While the GROW model describes the essence of what a coach does, these best practices can help a peer coach understand how to effectively lead coaching conversations—and to be more successful in this key leadership skill.
- Practice inquiry and active listening rather than giving advice or problem-solving. Inquiry is simply asking questions using the four elements of the GROW model as a guide. Active listening is seeking to understand what is being said and restating or paraphrasing what was heard in order to check understanding. Active listening is easy in role playing, but difficult in an actual conversation without practice and conscious intention. Practicing this skill in routine conversations, as well as coaching projects, will prepare you to combine active listening and inquiry with the GROW model.
- Practice visual thinking (also called picture thinking). Visual thinking is a process of discovery—starting without assumptions and forming a picture (without words) in your mind of what another person is telling you, asking questions that will help you complete the picture. Listen only to what the other person says, picture it without adding details, and ask questions that fill out the picture. For example, a colleague begins a conversation by reporting difficulty in motivating a direct report. Without using visual thinking, I might immediately use my “vast knowledge and experience of motivating people” and consider all the knowledge or assumptions I have about both the coachee and the person needing motivation. Almost immediately, I am half way to “solving” the problem—unencumbered with little actual context. This solution is likely to be inappropriate and robs the coachee of a true learning experience.
- Insist on an overarching goal at the beginning of the coaching relationship and an objective for each conversation. A few points on goals and objectives may be helpful:
- Two parties begin a coaching relationship by establishing a contract in which they agree on the overarching goal(s), and timeframe of their work together. This goal must be chosen by the coachee rather than imposed.
- The objective of each conversation should be in support of the overarching goal; however, the overarching coaching goal will often be adjusted or clarified as coaching progresses.
- Encourage a tie between goals and objectives to specific desired outcomes. When coachees state a goal, ask them to imagine that the goal is fully realized, then follow with “What would achieving this goal actually get you?” This question can be repeated until the answer is intrinsically important rather than a means to an end.
- Be judicious in sharing information, tools or your perspective. Coachees should probably talk two or three times as much as the coach. “When” and “how often” to share your thoughts will depend on the coachee, the situation, and on your experience and knowledge of the specific situation. A good rule for any coach is to ask only open-ended questions. By practicing this approach, the coach stays in a facilitating role rather than being the “expert.” Try to offer information, tools, or perspective only when absolutely necessary. Coaching is an unnatural conversation that calls on the coach to assist others primarily through very effective listening and questioning.
- Focus on clear distinctions. Coaching is often about helping others make and adopt clear distinctions that will assist them in achieving their goals. For example, a coaching conversation about motivating others might include distinctions between leadership and management and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
Similarly, coaching may involve developing a clear distinction between objective reality and subjective perceptions, assumptions, conjecture, and fantasies.
- Confidentiality and integrity are paramount in any coaching relationship. In a peer coaching relationship, these qualities are exponentially more difficult than a relationship between a manager and an external coach. In peer coaching both parties must share responsibility for defining what information is to remain private, what cannot remain private because of responsibilities to the organization, and what information is impossible to hold in absolute confidentiality because the information may influence future decisions. Both parties also share an additional responsibility to avoid sharing information that could put the other in an awkward position. Discussion of confidentiality in a peer coaching relationship should occur regularly and frequently to ensure both parties remain clear on the boundaries.
- See reality as it is, not as you wish (or fear). Work with data and avoid letting hearsay, assumptions, opinions, or fantasies hijack the coaching conversation. Here are a few common areas where beliefs and desires may be discussed as if they are or will become reality:
- A desire for someone to be different from who he or she is, or for their decisions, interests, and goals to be different from what they actually are.
- A wish for circumstances to be different from reality.
- Beliefs about one’s own strengths or limitations, or those of others.
- Inaccurate beliefs about what is in (or not in) one’s control.
Unchecked assumptions, inferences, and biases should always be questioned or verified. Ask how your coachee knows “this” to be true. Ask questions like “What did you see, hear, or read to reach this conclusion?” Encourage, accept, and explore the coachee’s expression of feelings, perceptions, and concerns.
- Address potential obstacles to action plans. Ask what obstacles might prevent success in taking the action being discussed. To help realistically predict obstacles, ask, “If we are talking about this in two weeks, what might have prevented you from taking the planned action? Frequently, goals are not achieved because of small, unanticipated things that could be easily addressed. Peer coaching conversations can help identify the need to take these seemingly small actions.
- Build in accountability. To support the coachee in achieving goals and following through on commitments to action, always make a note of the commitments and goals that have been created. Follow up in the next conversation to see if the action was taken and what results ensued. Encourage the people you coach to develop habits of holding themselves accountable for commitments. Encourage them to establish reminders, mileposts, or metrics to remind and reinforce the agreements they make to themselves and others.
- Feedback provides learning for everyone. Peer coaching provides a unique opportunity for both parties to give and receive feedback. Build observation and feedback into plans to work together, and if you have difficult feedback, schedule a separate meeting for providing the feedback and helping the coachee understand it.
Remember you are also part of the learning process. Ask for feedback on your coaching. “What could I do next time to be a better coach for you?” might open the door for more receptiveness in exchanging meaningful feedback. Your willingness to accept feedback is likely to increase openness of your partner.
Peer coaching is an increasingly important and popular means of building coaching skills and creating a culture of positive development. The skills are similar to any coaching assignment but can be less expensive and a learning/developmental experience for all parties. Thousands of pages have been written on effective coaching, as they have with the original “Ten Commandments.” Our suggestions may lack the authority of the original and are not likely to be the last word on the subject, but they can point the way to the Promised Land of successful coaching.
 Fulmer, Robert M., and Hanson, Brian , “Developing High Tech Leaders: What’s Different and What Works,” HR People and Strategy, Volume 33/Issue 3 (2010).
 Whitmore, Sir John, Coaching For Performance (Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2002).
 Fritz, Robert, Elements: The Writings of Robert Fritz (Newfane, VT: Newfane Press, 2007).
About the Author(s)
Dr. Robert M. Fulmer, was academic director of Duke Corporate Education and has held endowed professorships at Trinity University, the College of William & Mary and Pepperdine University. He is author or co-author of over 150 published articles and 40 books, monographs and editions. He has conducted executive programs or coaching assignments in 25 countries.
John E. Brock, is an independent executive coach and leadership development consultant in Durham, North Carolina. He is also a coach for the Duke MBA program, and leadership programs for Duke Corporate Education, where he previously directed the development of custom programs for the world’s leader in executive education. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org.