Peer-to-peer coaching: The start of the peer show

One form of coaching that seems to be bouncing along merrily is the peer-to-peer variety. Some advocates say its time has come.

The old adage of learning from experience is being given a new twist through peer-to-peer coaching – a practice well suited to an economic downturn, according to some.

Gaining currency

Peer-to-peer coaching, usually defined as a forum of non-competing business leaders, has been making huge inroads into corporate coaching for a couple of years. Now, with the deepening economic gloom, some predict that it will gain more currency, particularly among beleaguered senior managers and business chiefs who are looking for support as they prop up other people.

The approach’s growth could also be accelerated by employers’ enthusiasm for line manager coaching. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Learning and Development Survey 2008 revealed that 49% of employers predict that even greater responsibility for coaching will fall on to line managers in the next few years, but it is unclear where the support networks for these managers will come from or how its effectiveness will be assessed. The survey showed just 8% of respondents did that systematically.

Nevertheless, advocates of peer-to-peer coaching believe that it can help to establish coaching structures throughout the organisation and could help in today’s climate. “Now is the time for peer-to-peer coaching,” says Gareth Chick, director of leadership consultancy Spring Partnerships.

“Managers may need it because not only do they have anxieties themselves but they will be dealing with people from the line who are facing great stress.”

He identifies two types of peer-to-peer coaching: either within a single organisation or when an external organisation, such as the Academy for Chief Executives, pulls together a group of senior managers and leaders and facilitates their sessions. Chick runs each type.

He recommends that groups comprise a dozen people. “If it’s too small then people won’t be open,” he says. “Any more and people can hide.”

The style of moderation and facilitation is crucial. “Don’t put an HR-y person in there,” he says. “If you do, they have to work harder to understand how the commercial guys in the group feel.”

Good leadership skills are also required so that the group can be stopped if it goes off track, and so that individuals can be encouraged to work out their own issues.

Board-level expertise

At the Academy for Chief Executives, president Brian Chernett says the high level of expertise gathered in one room means that peer-to-peer coaching is “the board you could never afford”.

He says the meetings are about “digging out the problem which is normally within themselves” as the group members are guided to raise and answer questions. Each member has a follow-up in the form of an individual two-hour coaching session each month with the facilitator.

The initial contract between the Academy and the peer is three months, but Chernett says that many of the 400 members have stayed for between four and 12 years. “The power of all this is that it is lonely at the top,” he says.

He admits that the idea of being guided to knowledge sounds more of a mentoring than a coaching concept. “We are beginning to call it mentoring as much as coaching,” he says.

But at Lancaster Unversity, which runs a variety of peer-to-peer projects for client organisations and for its own staff, and offers training in coaching and mentoring for its masters degree, honorary teaching fellow Debbie Bell sees the process as coaching. “It’s definitely not mentoring,” she says. “Organisations want to create more internal capability and develop more peer groups.”

She says there are certain skills to peer group coaching, which centre around understanding team dynamics, observing what is happening to that team and questioning what you need to do to move the team forward.

Creation of registers

Bell is seeing more organisations creating registers of internally trained coaches, who can work with peers that have been assigned individual development plans or lead project teams.

She says the benefits in terms of knowledge sharing and development are manifold. “I’ve seen people in marketing and front-facing roles working together and pick up skills that are helpful to the individual and to the organisation. The conversations help them to think about the options rather than bring in external organisations.”

Case study: Web marketing adviser

Guy Levine is so convinced of the power of peer-to-peer coaching that he travels from Manchester to London to attend group sessions.

Levine, who is CEO of internet marketing firm Web Marketing Adviser, has been making the journey for two years.
“I find it helpful that I can bring an issue to the group,” he says. “Last time it was about company growth.”

He says the members of his group take turns to clarify what the issue is and then, guided by the facilitator, share what they would do – or already do – in those situations. In the next meeting, the members give an update on whether they have been successful with the solution agreed by the group.

Levine finds the approach more successful than conventional coaching.

“I tried it [conventional coaching] and it didn’t work for me because they are trying to elicit information and you don’t know what you don’t know. When someone has been in that situation they know what you don’t know, and what you need to know,” he says.

He enjoys both the camaraderie and the criticism. “Sometimes you’ll hear things you don’t want to hear. But it’s good to be helped and it’s also good to fix things for other people.”