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How Action Learning Sets can Support a Culture of Coaching in Organizations

Posted by Clare Norman, PCC | December 12, 2017 | Comments (3)

Leaders need to keep ahead of the way the world is changing, and they are being called on to lead with energy that they’ve never had to tap into before. Leaders are moving away from the traditional command and control style toward something different, but they don’t always know what that new behavior looks like. Within that context, every leader is unique—and so are their leadership development needs. Try putting in place a one-size-fits-all leadership development program, and you fail to support these leaders to create momentum in tomorrow’s world.

Coaching and action learning both provide more individualized support and opportunities, and enable leaders to adopt a coach-approach themselves. Action learning is not just a good way to learn; it’s also a great way to build a coaching culture.

Adults learn best when they decide what they want to learn, and the learning is closely linked to issues or problems of immediate concern, hence the use of an action learning approach to provide individualized leadership development. With support from a facilitator, participants choose a goal and then learn from each stage of the learning cycle: reflect, plan for action, take action, repeat.

Asking the right questions is important to learning and to future success on the job. Participants in an action learning set learn to coach and give feedback, skills they can utilize in their daily work.

Action learning has the advantage of rotating the leader into different roles within the set. In a group of up to six people, each leader gets time to think about their own issue, with coaching from their peers; they then provide that coaching to the other participants in the group when it is their thinking time. The facilitator helps them to stick to coaching, rather than stray into giving advice, which seems so helpful, but is not as useful as using a coach-approach to develop independent, critical thinking.

Of course, team members don’t always come to the action learning set with formal coaching skills. Generally, however, they’ve had enough training on active listening and open questions to start the process with no more than a 30-minute reminder. They know in their heads what active listening is and they know theoretically what open questions are, but it’s in the practice that they really learn and embrace these skills. They also pick up the skills of establishing the coaching agreement, creating coaching presence, communicating directly and facilitating learning.

What enables them to develop these skills? It’s partly the in-the-moment interventions that the facilitator makes early on: For example, asking someone to rephrase “advice disguised as a question” into a more open question. It’s partly the facilitator stopping the process with a time out to ask the group what they are sensing, which enables them to become more attuned with what is not being said.

Emerging coaching skills are also nurtured by the process debrief that happens after every round of action learning. This is what makes action learning truly unique. The facilitator asks the thinker first what the group did that helped them to move forward and what the group did that got in the way of their newest thinking. Then the group members each identify one thing they did well and one thing they would like to do differently the next time. They might observe the power of silence, for example, or the kind of questions that seem to work (or not work). Last, but not least, the facilitator offers any extra feedback, all in service of improving the coaching process for the next round.

In each subsequent round, their coaching gets better, as the participants put into practice the feedback they just discussed. Their feedback skills get better each time too, as they start to become more observant and more succinct in the way that they offer the feedback. And of course, the participants can start using these newfound coaching and feedback skills back at work. Their mindset has shifted as they experience the power of coaching themselves, and their skill set has shifted as they practice coaching with feedback.

Implementing an action learning program is not without its challenges, but you can see how it builds coaching skills across an organization.

Action learning can empower individuals working in organizations to address their own unique leadership development needs; become independent, critical thinkers and learn how to coach and self-coach. Along the way, they’ll also make great contacts and experience learning as they have never experienced it before.


clare norman headshot

Clare Norman, PCC

Clare Norman, PCC, coaches business leaders, individually and in teams and groups, to grow through big changes rather than being stuck in homeostasis. She also works with coaches to keep them safe and sharp in their practice, and to gain their ICF Credentials.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (3)

  1. Chris Padgett, PCC, CPCC says:

    Clare, this is an important post. I coach executives at the director and vice president level. A few years ago, I had an executive who was struggling to tailor her leadership approach to the different team leaders reporting to her. When I asked the coachee to name a metaphor to describe how she experienced her situation, she indicated being the leader made her feel like being “conductor of an orchestra.” How valuable this metaphor proved throughout the engagement. Unfortunately, the coachee didn’t feel her approach was working as she felt she kept directing her team leaders the same way over and over again. Working with her, we used the orchestra metaphor as the theme of her leadership coaching engagement.

    Early on in the engagement, the coachee was interested in an easy to understand learning model that could help her tailor her approach to leading different work teams and asked me to help her identify best practice approaches. Given where the coachee was at in her learning journey and the type of organizational environment she was operating, I shared the Situational Leadership Model by Hersey and Blanchard to help her see how as a leader, there were different leadership styles based upon the behavioral types of the team leaders she was leading. This rather simple, yet insightful, body of work deeply resonated with the coachee and allowed her to begin tailoring her leadership style to meet the unique needs of each team. Depending upon the situation and the team leader she was interacting with, she used the model to bring more nuance and contrast to her leadership approach. Coupled with ongoing coaching related to “live” situations she was encountering, the coachee found the learning quite valuable.

    Overall, the engagement was a success. As our sessions dwindled down to the end, I asked her how she wanted to celebrate her achievements, the coachee suggested we go to the orchestra for her last session! As coach, it was a beautiful way to celebrate the magical learning moments the coachee experienced during our time together.

  2. Clare Norman says:

    What a wonderful way to celebrate the ending. And yes, I agree that the situational leandershop model is a simple yet powerful way to allow leaders to realise their options for engaging individuals in their teams

  3. Lisa James says: Thank you, ICF for such an amazing opportunity to learn, grow, and develop. It is always my desire to give so much to people’s lives. I have been working with women for the last 15 years and have created programs that lead to success in life on different levels. Now in doing so many have found strength and empowerment but this is a time for me to do what I love with accreditation and a high level of professionalism and expertise. I printed this article on Action Learning because I strongly believe in interaction and collaboration.

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