Developing Individuals through Action learning 2

Peer to peer coaching for Individualised Leader Development, using action learning

Everyone is unique – and so are their leadership development needs.  So ‘one size fits all’ leadership development programmes often fail to hit the mark.

Coaching and action learning both provide more individualised support and challenge.

action-learningParticipants in an Individualised Leadership Programme (ILP) bring their own work projects to an action learning set to get coaching from their peers.

Three cross-functional and cross-cultural participants meet virtually with a coach facilitator; or five participants meet face-to-face (we can concentrate for longer when together). They solve their business problems, become independent critical thinkers, learn (virtual) coaching skills and build trust-based relationships with their peers.

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 for the ILP. Learning is directly linked to change and action, and therefore business performance. Asking the right questions is important to learning and to future success on the job. Participants learn to coach and give feedback, which are skills they can utilise in their daily work.

So what really happens in action learning sessions?

individualised-leader-developmentThere is no taught content in the program; all goals and learning is driven by the participants.

Set FacilitatorThe facilitator’s role is to introduce set members to action learning and to moderate the process during sets. They minimise process losses and maximise process gains.

Contract – set members agree their unique personal learning contract at the start.

Problems are the focus of the set – unlike a puzzle, for which there is a right answer, problems have no right solution. There may be many possible solutions. Problems will be brought by the individuals themselves.

Coaching each individual presents their issue to the group, and the group members coach them to solve their issue and move forward. This skill of coaching can be transferred back into the workplace.

Reflection on the process of learning – it is important for individuals and the group to reflect on their processes. What is working? What do they need to do differently? Both within the set and back at work.

Time action learning takes time and commitment. Organisational teams do not have a surplus of time; however, as leaders we must encourage our teams to take the time to reflect and learn from their job experiences in order to become more deeply specialized.

The guiding principles of action learning:

action-learning-developmentGuaranteed confidentiality. This principle is non-negotiable. Participants must know they have the freedom to be honest and frank in a non-judgmental environment and that there will be no repercussions in the workplace for stating their viewpoints. Leaders, coach facilitators and participants all commit to keeping information, identities and stories confidential.

Participation is entirely voluntary. While leadership may want every member to attend the training, it is crucial that participation is encouraged but not imposed. Participants who are ‘appointed’ to the training are unlikely to be successful.

The programme is for high performers, not performance management. The programme relies heavily on self-directed work outside of meetings and peers working together. This programme cannot support performance issues that require specialized attention.

Participants with reporting relationships with one another are not put together, and team members are likewise put in different sets. One or both participants will feel set up for failure and likely sabotage the process.

Coach facilitators must have an arms length relationship with those participants they lead. There must be no perceived hidden agendas or potential conflicts of interest. Coach facilitators lead participants whom they do not interact with on a daily basis, have any team or reporting relationships on the participant in the workplace.

Results are not guaranteed. Participants must agree that they are 100% responsible for their results and they claim 100% of their success as their own.


The logistics of an action learning programme (virtual example):

The Individualised Leadership Program runs approximately 10 weeks.

Participants meet in small groups of 3 people with one coach facilitator.

Virtual Action Learning calls – the sets meet on a conference call for 2.5 hours on weeks 1, 3, 5, 7.

Coach facilitators and the lead facilitator meet for a supervision conference call for 60 minutes on weeks 0, 2, 4, 6 and 8 – supporting the coaches in their role, and harvesting organizational learning.

Coach facilitators and participants are in contact with one another by email in between calls reporting learnings and accountabilities.


Action learning testimonials:

The ILP provides participants with a (in some cases their only) safe environment to discuss their concerns and obstacles. As a side-effect, they build a tight-knit, supportive network across functions. Most importantly, whilst solving their own issues, they also learn how to coach, and how to self-coach.

“My experience with the programme really helped to boost my confidence in a way that couldn’t be achieved in other training programmes.”

“Loved the transparency encouraged in each session. I appreciated the balance of the facilitator – allowing us freedom to risk and learn, and also there to prevent us from going down wrong paths.”

“Loved the people in my group. We formed a VERY strong sense of trust and a good bond (including [the facilitator]).”


Our lessons learned about action learning:

individual-developmentThe training and continuous coach supervision of the coach facilitators is key to success.

Participants need to be self-motivated learners; and committed to setting everything else aside so they can focus on themselves and their peers during each conference call. We have had to make this commitment extremely clear up front, with a contract in place that they will attend every session.

Goals need to be carefully defined and metrics for achieving them made as concrete as possible at the beginning of the programme. Goals should be related to immediate job-performance related needs if possible.

Peer feedback and coaching is as valuable as that of the coach facilitator.

Working with peers outside of their usual network enhances participants’ willingness to share their most difficult problems and development needs; and the networking opens up new opportunities to work together in the future.

In summary:

individualised-developmentUse an Individualised Leadership Development Programme, with action learning, to help individuals to :

– address their own unique leadership development needs

– become independent, critical thinkers

– 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.

2 thoughts on “Developing Individuals through Action learning

  • Shanti Sharma

    Hi Clare,

    I am trying to put together a HiPO program in my organization. The intent is to have identified participants go through formal learning And complete a project. The coaching in-between projects to happen via action learning.

    I was looking for the contracting templates. Can you help?

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