This article appeared in “Canadian Government Executive”, September 2007 issue. By Bruce Joyce and Gerry Pulvermacher.

Peer Network Coaching: a pragmatic approach to leadership development

Public sector leadership is not light duty. While focused on the multiple complex issues, one can lose sight of the need to build the next generation of leaders. The demand for leaders is racing ahead of the supply. Who will lead the public service in the future? What skills do they need? What are we doing today to ensure they are ready to lead when the time comes?

Peer Network Coaching – a pragmatic and accelerated approach for developing new leaders is one option. It grows effective leaders in a focused and disciplined manner — better, faster, and more cost-effectively.

Peer Network Coaching is:

  • An ongoing process characterized by the mutual commitment of peers to their development as leaders
  • Guided by an external coach and internal mentor, then increasingly guided by the peer groups themselves
  • Rapidly deployed, enabling organizations to see observable and measurable results sooner
  • A mutual journey that creates more cohesive leadership teams by fostering trust, respect, and greater understanding between peers and across functions
  • Integrated with the organization’s goals and objectives
  • A catalyst for growth of coaching in the organization
  • Able to develop seminars to meet the aggregate needs of the peer team
  • Action Learning
  • Cost-effective — about half the cost of 1:1 executive coaching

Prior to launching a Peer Network Coaching program, information is gathered on all participants to assess their individual development needs, using a 360 degree view of the participant – input coming from their superiors, subordinates, and peers. The external coach analyzes the information on the whole group for key themes in order to deliver training targeted at the specific needs of both the group and the individual participants.

Individual information is also communicated to participants to help them develop their own leadership development goals and action plans. Each participant selects key leadership development goals important to them, and then commits to several specific actions in support of each goal. It’s important for participants to focus their plans on a small number of key goals so their attention and effort is targeted, rather than scattered. But the more actions in support of these goals, the better.

These goals and action items need to be well considered. Participants commit to them. Peers support each other in a variety of ways, drawing on best practices of coaching gained from the program. They also hold each other accountable: “There is a personal obligation to both my peer coach and to the internal and external coaches,” a participant noted. “We realize how serious the organization takes the program because of the level of support being provided.”

Sending leaders one a time to a variety of offsite leadership development programs results in learning some new concepts, meeting a lot of interesting people, but otherwise returning to one’s organization to resume performing much as they had before. In contrast, Peer Network Coaching generates a favourable return on investment — a matter of importance given the number of leaders the public service needs to develop. It also uses action learning, focusing on tackling specific, real organizational issues.

Minting leaders doesn’t need to cost a mint.

  • Benefits accrue to the organization sooner and more durably
  • The learning environment is the real world in which the leaders perform
  • Travel-related expenses are minimized, as are the indirect costs of leaders being away
  • Other than the external coach, the resources to run a successful Peer Network Coaching program come from within the organization and are already paid for

Those who will benefit most are already high performers, and have high potential. They are in the early years of their leadership career, or are established leaders being prepared for greater roles. In either case, they need to grow as leaders to achieve their potential. Don’t underestimate how difficult this is – for them and for the organization. High performers often face a formidable obstacle on the path to leadership — the need to change the way they work. This is difficult, because the patterns they are most comfortable with are the patterns that have brought their success to date. The need to change is an obstacle that usually can’t be seen; but it can be felt, by the leader and those around them. “They are quite receptive to building self-awareness and focusing on areas for further development” a participant observed.

Peer Network Coaching helps them navigate this demanding terrain by:

  • Clarifying the required leadership competencies of the organization
  • Creating self-awareness among participants regarding their individual strengths and development needs
  • Providing participants with the knowledge and tools necessary to close the gap between present and desired leadership behaviours
  • Developing personalized plans
  • Ensuring participants are accountable for their plans, and are supported in achieving them by their peers, internal mentor and external coach

The process creates the conditions that attract, develop and retain leadership talent. The early career focus fits the new generation’s desire to get in and make a difference quickly.

Peer coaching is not new or revolutionary. However in the absence of a disciplined framework, implementation is haphazard at best. A view is sometimes expressed that leaders naturally emerge where leadership is needed. This may be an acceptable risk for some organizations, but don’t count on it for the public service. As residents of the Gulf Coast experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, public service leadership is no place for the unprepared.

Present leaders have a great challenge on their hands – to leave the public service in the hands of a new generation of strong and capable leaders. Failure to do so would profoundly affect Canada, because while leadership is only one of many factors affecting the quality of public services, it is the determining factor. Nothing else is capable of changing so much. Peer Network Coaching meets the challenge with a disciplined program of leadership development, built on a shared foundation of knowledge, purpose, responsibility, and accountability.

It doesn’t happen all at once, the product of one week under the leader lamp. Growing leaders happens over time, on purpose and by design. As in nature, growing conditions have a lot to do with the results you eventually see. Human nature works much the same way. Peer Network Coaching is a pragmatic way to create the conditions in which leaders grow. In time it will seem as though leaders grew by themselves; which of course they did.

Bruce Joyce, FCA, is a partner at Deloitte and a leader of the firm’s services to the federal government. Internally, he is also leading Deloitte’s peer coaching program in Ottawa.

Gerry Pulvermacher, PhD, is a partner with PulvermacherKennedy & Associates, a firm specializing in executive and high potential leadership strategy, succession and development. Gerry was the innovator of Peer Network Coaching.