Learning to lead from outsiders. The value of career communities as a source of external peer coaching
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Purpose – An increasingly popular method of facilitating employee and leadership development is via a career community (Parker et al., 2004), where individuals self-organize to obtain career support. This study was driven by the following research question: how do external peer coaching groups – which are a form of career community – impact leadership development? The purpose of this paper is to report the findings of a research study that examined one such career community focussed on providing peer coaching for managers in business organizations. The authors conducted in-depth interviews with participants who attended a leadership development program that was based on harnessing a career community for the purpose of peer coaching. The authors report the results of the study and its implications for leadership development programs. Design/methodology/approach – The authors chose a qualitative methodology to conduct this exploratory examination, where the authors conducted in-depth interviews with participants in a unique leadership development program which involved peer group coaching supplemented by one-on-one personal coaching. A key reason for adopting a qualitative methodology was that the authors were looking for a deeper understanding of interviewees’ perceptions and experiences regarding peer coaching. The first component of the leadership program involved eight peer coaching sessions over a 12-month period. Participants met in small, exclusive groups – typically in cohorts of seven to eight peers, but as many as 12 peers – every six weeks to discuss a variety of topics relevant to their jobs and stage of career and to provide each other with peer coaching and advice. Each group was comprised of people from different organizations. Sessions were led by a facilitator and lasted three hours each. The authors conducted in-depth interviews with 17 graduates of the program. The sample comprised 14 women and three men. Interviews were audio taped and transcribed verbatim and then analyzed using thematic analysis (King, 2004) to identify the key themes in interviewees’ experiences of the respective program. Findings – Thematic interpretation of participants’ responses yielded the following four major themes: first, the value of a learning community; second, the utility of a formal approach to peer coaching; third, the value of diversity and “externality”; and fourth, the value of an open learning environment (each fully described in the manuscript). The study revealed that external peer coaching and personal coaching deliver distinct types of value as part of a complete leadership development program. Research limitations/implications – This was a case study and specific to one leadership development program. Consequently, the authors cannot necessarily generalize the findings. Practical implications – The findings draw critical attention to the major contribution that learning communities can make toward leadership development. Although many leadership development programs assume that “leadership” is best learned from top leaders (e.g. Presidents and CEOs), organizations can acquire unique benefits by leveraging the concept of peer coaching, which can produce substantial results by having managers at the same organizational level learn from each other. In addition, the study underscores the potential value of external sources of peer coaching and leader development. Organizations may further maximize such benefits by sending their mid and senior-level managers to external peer coaching programs, which can deliver unique value in addition to any internal leadership development initiatives. Social implications – This study underscores the need to better bridge the gap between two literatures – careers and leadership development. Career scholars explore the activities involved in developing careers (e.g. career communities) and leadership development scholars explore activities involved in developing leaders. This study demonstrates the value of integrating knowledge from both these literatures to suggest that learning communities can impact leadership development in significant and positive ways. Originality/value – This study makes a novel contribution to the literature addressing leadership development. It draws attention to the use of career communities for leadership development – an issue which has largely been ignored. In addition, while much of the extant research has focussed on either academic or student participants, the study focussed on business professionals. Few studies have examined the use of peers from outside organizations to serve as coaches for leadership development.
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