Leaders, is it lonely at the top?

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How do performers become leaders?

Leadership is fuzzy. It can also be lonely. Frequently, people find themselves on leadership teams because they’re high-performers, not necessarily because they want or are ready to lead. This can leave CEOs frustrated with direct reports on their leadership team who aren’t “stepping up.”

So what is a CEO to do?

Consider the power of the coaching circle. 

“Everyone needs a coach,” said a recent corporate exec on the leadership team for a charitable foundation. As we chatted, she exuded enthusiasm and gratitude for her organization’s investment in her development; it resonated with my experience coaching leaders. And as a facilitator, I see an excellent opportunity to build a coaching culture that moves beyond “the coach” to the group. There’s wisdom inside groups that, when well-facilitated, can support fellow leaders in times of need and as part of the ongoing investment in organizational health.

Because 93% of what we communicate is non-verbal, the secret to coaching is listening. Simply by listening to each other, we can give one another the support we need to get to our next level of personal success. A coaching circle acts as a well-rounded sounding board.

Think about it, how often is the advice you get actually helpful? 

As leaders struggle with unprecedented challenges, we need useful tools.

Here’s a technique we use in our facilitation work with clients, enabling small groups to come together and listen to one another to create new actionable insights. I first came to know this method through the Harvard Kennedy School. It’s a powerful device for eliciting feedback from peers in an open and psychologically safe environment.

It’s a simple approach.

Folks gather together in small groups and listen to the “case giver” – the person who has a leadership challenge. Each participant becomes a coach. In presenting the challenge, the case giver shares:

  • a current challenge
  • their highest hope for the situation
  • a perspective of the stakeholders in the challenge
  • and where they see a learning edge for themselves.

As the case giver shares their story, the coaches (other participants) drop into a deeper level of listening. This is not just listening for facts or being able to repeat back the information they just heard. The listeners tune into the highest potential of the person facing this challenge.

The benefits of small-group coaching come from learning interactions among leaders who work in a facilitated coaching process. And it produces some pretty cool results:


The Benefits

Immersion in real-time group dynamics

  • A fresh point of view. Group members with different personalities, experiences, and goals who see the world differently automatically provide new perspectives. The “huh, I hadn’t thought of that” effect. Contrasts allow for deeper insights; identifying commonalities and differences helps leaders better understand their strengths and the impact of their blind spots.
  • Opportunities to practice new skills. The small group is a powerful vehicle to enhance leadership skills; things like listening and empathy, getting comfortable with others’ perspectives and emotions, asking insightful questions, giving and getting direct feedback, and helping people find their own solutions. These skills directly relate to learning objectives and help leaders better coach, motivate, and develop people.
  • A healthy support system. It’s often hard for leaders to get direct and honest feedback at work, especially in the non-profit sector, where we suffer from a culture of “niceness.” With time and practice, the group develops a foundation of psychological safety, and feedback becomes more useful and valuable. This regular input also helps develop greater accountability for leaders to progress towards goals.
  • A reliable network. With enough time together, most coaching groups develop a foundation of openness and trust. Being a senior leader can be isolating; business issues and personal concerns often cannot be shared with direct reports. Group members become a source of support and valuable insight. Often, leaders, having experienced the group’s deep bonding, will continue their relationships well after a formal coaching circle to create greater connectedness at work and in their personal lives.

Leadership is listening, and listening is an act of generosity. Encourage your rising stars to circle up with peers and grow!


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Hey there, I'm Kimberley

Welcome! I believe our social sector organizations are at the forefront of making here better. With more than 33 years of diversified fundraising and nonprofit experience, I partner with courageous organizations committed to building clarity and confidence. Let’s connect and chart your nonprofit’s path to thriving. 

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