Introducing Coaching into Community Leadership

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This blog is the first in a series of reflections from the Koreo team, looking back on our journey designing and delivering the Community Leadership Academy, funded by Local Trust. The CLA is currently in its third year of delivery, supporting Big Local community volunteers from across the country on their leadership development journeys.

One of the motivating impulses behind the Community Leadership Academy was a recognition of how little learning and development support existed for people playing voluntary leadership roles in communities.

In particular, the programme was conceived at least in part as an experiment in closing the gap between the leadership development and support on offer to people in organisations vs people operating mostly outside them.

Coaching might be one of the defining examples of that chasm — mostly reserved for people working in organisations, and often the preserve of more senior managers and leaders within those organisations.

But there is nothing inherently corporate about coaching, an asset-based approach that will feel familiar to many community development practitioners, and which is ultimately dedicated to giving people the space they need to do their best thinking.

This kind of space, whether through formal coaching or not, is vanishingly rare for most people. For people working in communities it might be even rarer, not only because of the isolation of leadership and the lack of formal support structures, but also because they themselves spend a lot of time in listening and support mode.

As a result, one of the hypotheses that underpinned the CLA in its earliest stages was that coaching could provide enormous value for people leading change in and with communities, and that the CLA represented an opportunity to learn how best to apply coaching approaches in community settings to support people doing that work.

It’s for that reason that coaching forms the backbone of the CLA, combining with group workshops to provide a balance of personal and collective development time focused on supporting leadership in communities.

Everyone in the first 3 years of the CLA had the opportunity to take part in 9 sessions across the 18 months of the programme with a qualified coach from the Koreo team. Those sessions were used at the participant’s discretion and following their agenda, some people spread them evenly across the programme period whereas others used them in bursts to work on particular issues/challenges. There was also some light reporting from the coaches as well as an opportunity to come together as a community of practice quarterly, creating a feedback loop which enabled us to adapt the programme content to make sure it spoke to participants’ priorities while maintaining confidentiality.

So what happened?

Our experience over the last 3 years has confirmed a belief in the power of the attention, support and challenge provided by a coaching space, and has shown that it can provide significant value to people leading in communities. We saw people with very different starting points make the most of the opportunity, leaning into a different kind of developmental conversation and using it to focus on their own goals and growth. In doing that we saw participants make huge, rapid, tangible progress in terms of developing a reflective practice which could be applied into the work they were doing, and which made them more intentional and considered as leaders. We also saw brilliant coaching practice from coaches, with a huge amount of care and attention to the kind of space being created and the relationship required to enable it. Reflecting on their coaching over the course of two cohorts, one coach said “I think the people I’ve worked with have appreciated space to reflect on their day to day, and have appreciated a space to help them do that. My coachees have historically not had anyone else like this in their ‘professional’ life, and that felt like a really valued opportunity.”

Having said that, preparing the ground for people to make the most of the space was an ongoing question for us, and we learnt a lot about introducing coaching to people who by and large didn’t have any previous experience of it. There was plenty of confusion as to what coaching was, how best to engage with it, and what types of topics to bring to the coach through the programme. Where that onboarding went well and people connected well with their coach we saw them quickly flourish into the space and make the most of it. Where it didn’t, we saw people quickly drop off or de-prioritise coaching. As a result, over the course of the programme we increasingly understood how much energy needed to go into setting up the coaching relationship in particular, from introduction through contracting to the nature of the first sessions, and what coaching as an approach required from coach and participant.

As a result of that high threshold to entry, it’s fair to say that it was often a slow start and took multiple sessions for people to get into the swing of things. Sometimes that was because of a lack of clarity about how to use the sessions, but often it was because the space was so unusual for them (and possibly overdue) that it took a couple of sessions to get past the ‘download’ stage and be in a position to articulate the goals they wanted to work towards. That download stage included the need to process significant amounts of stress and trauma, particularly in the context of public health and economic crisis, and that impacted the nature and intensity of initial sessions for both participant and coach. For some coaches that was a concern and there was some desire to push people forward towards more tangible goals, but increasingly we saw it as a common and not unhelpful part of the process for participants. One coach said; “working with people for whom coaching is a completely unfamiliar concept means it can take longer for the coaching to ‘take off’, compared with working with a client who understands coaching”.

It’s also worth noting that many of the coaches we worked with took some time to find their feet. Recognising that many of the coaches we worked with had applied coaching mostly into organisational settings, we reckoned with the challenges of offering coaching in a non-professional space with fewer of the accountability mechanisms that coaches were used to being able to rely on. Even though all of our coaches were experienced in social change work, many still struggled with last minute changes in plans, venues or methods of connection, or the need for flexibility in the kind of space they were offering to the people they were working with.

In much the same way, all sides found some rub at the boundaries of coaching as a practice, which mostly presented as people wanting direction from their coaches. Perhaps surprisingly, we found coaches who increasingly considered the need to give advice and in doing so to blend coaching and mentoring approaches, particularly where there was a sense that people didn’t know what they didn’t know, or where the ask for advice was explicit and ongoing. As a result we had a lot of conversations as a team about whether we should be offering a combination of coaching and mentoring through the project or to stick to ‘pure’ coaching. We ultimately decided that coaching’s starting point — that people had the best answers to their own questions, and by extension its centering of the participant’s learning journey, meant that it was the right approach even if it meant a slower or more winding road. As one coach said, “Coaching never has very clear, delineated boundaries between work and personal lives, but coaching on the CLA shows how these lines are even more blurred than usual. That’s a challenge to keep things ‘coachy’ rather than becoming a mentor or therapist, whilst at the same time being a human being who is walking alongside someone asking big questions of themselves. I have had to watch my practice on this to remain in the coaching space, even if that space is stretched more widely than usual — but this is something I have appreciated doing. It’s forced me to ask questions of my coaching practice elsewhere and I think my practice has grown and become more natural/human because of it. ”

In a world that had made virtual the default, there was surprise from participants in particular that they could experience coaching powerfully at a distance through Zoom or over the phone, something that also enabled us to match coaches with participants on the basis of something more nuanced than geography. At the same time, we consistently found the power of coaching sessions which took the form of a ‘walk and talk’ through a community so that the participant could tell the story of their work more physically, and facilitated a face to face meeting through which the relationship could deepen.

Finally, while coaching was a key method and worked well, we also saw the power of peer-based approaches which built on the space provided by coaching, complementing the 1–2–1 space with group work. In particular we deployed a lot of group coaching approaches through the programme and saw people embrace different ways of supporting each other and addressing issues. In doing that through a trusted, relational space, we were able to use coaching and group spaces to reinforce each other and rapidly build the reflective practice that was inconsistent across the group at the beginning of the programme.

Taken as a whole, this programme has been an unusual opportunity to demonstrate the value of coaching for community leaders, and to explore how it might be applied into community settings in the interests of better supported, better resourced community development and action.

Written by Ned Younger, Development Director at Koreo

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Koreo
Practices Notes on the Community Leadership Academy

A learning consultancy dedicated to imagining and building a better world.