Peer coaching can be as effective as one-on-one coaching if roles are understood and feedback is structured properly.

Last year I participated in my first peer coaching process as a peer coach and client when the National Speakers Association invited its Certified Speaking Professionals to a weekend summit. We were formed into groups of 10 to 12 participants and assigned a facilitator. We then shared our specific professional challenges with one another. The question I posed to my peer coaching group was:

"I have recently moved from New York City to Tampa, Florida. I will be splitting my time between NYC, where I have had clients for more than 30 years, and Tampa, where I have no clients. I would like some ideas about what I should market to potential clients in Tampa."

After giving my business history and background, my peers offered such perspectives and questions as:

  • Of all the things you can do, what do you love to do?
  • Of all the things you can do, what will this market buy?
  • You have a different credibility than others do in that market; get a contract to work with the best business in your market, match your credibility with theirs, and others will follow.

During the process, I felt supported and not judged because I was coming to them, as peers, for help. I also knew that the questions were coming from people who had real and practical experience. Nothing they said felt academic. By the end of the weekend, participants also had at least one "accountability buddy" with whom we were expected to share our action plans and check in with every other month.

Although the temporary nature of this group resulted in unevenness in the follow-up process, almost a year later I encountered one of the summit participants who lives near me. We met for lunch and decided to form our own local "mastermind group" (another name for a peer coaching group). We are scheduled to attend a professional conference together and have agreed that we want to expand our group locally with other Certified Speaking Professionals when we return. This will be my next experience as a peer coaching participant, and I'm looking forward to the support I hope it will provide, particularly in learning how I can more effectively develop social media strategies and technology-oriented learning platforms.

Power of peer coaching

This example demonstrates the power of peer coaching—a process that enables two or more people who share common interests or goals to collaborate to help each other become more successful in their work or personal lives. Peer coaching enables people to share their plans and progress with one another and help others to overcome obstacles or resolve issues and problems.

Although my clients value my advice as a professional executive coach, sometimes circumstances and resources preclude those who need coaching from getting such help. If there is a good structure, peer feedback can be equally as valuable.

In peer coaching for individuals who may or may not work together, it is important to form a trusting environment to help each other engage in self-directed learning. Peer coaching differs from executive coaching or mentoring, which is when someone who is designated as having more expertise or experience is expected to provide wisdom, counsel, or advice. During peer coaching, participants alternate between playing the role of coach and client, and provide each other with both emotional support and a structured process for self-discovery based on the principles of adult and action learning:

  • People learn best when they direct their own thinking and learning toward their challenges, rather than being dependent on an expert to advise them.
  • People can more openly face their issues and options for action when they are asked to respond objectively to questions of inquiry and explore options for action.

This was the case when I, as a peer coach certified by the Edward Lowe Foundation, was selected to take on the role of chapter chair for the Women President's Organization, a peer advisory organization for women CEOs of multi­million dollar businesses. In that role, my job is to facilitate 12 to 15 women executives in three-hour sessions each month to share their progress and their challenges.

The goal is to effectively serve as each other's board of advisers by using a fairly structured process that prevents giving each other advice using the "Well, if I were you I would ..." approach. When you are in the peer coach role, your job is to

  • ask clarifying questions
  • confront discrepancies in "facts"
  • offer experience-based perspectives
  • suggest resources, not offer advice
  • provide emotional support.

When you are in the peer client role, your job is to

  • describe the results you are trying to achieve
  • explain what you have been attempting to do
  • identify the obstacles blocking your goal
  • be honest about the role you play in your progress
  • listen
  • answer questions
  • remain nondefensive
  • explore action options and develop an action accountability plan
  • say thank you.

For those of us who are internal or external learning professionals, peer coaching groups can provide opportunities for us to

  • present specific professional challenges and receive, through inquiry and advocacy from our peers, third-party perspectives, direction toward new resources and tools, and exploration of action options
  • have a forum for holding each other accountable on action plan progress
  • introduce new learning content and platforms and technologies to each other
  • network with each other and with each other's networks
  • develop peer coaching competencies discussed earlier
  • gain satisfaction and camaraderie resulting from helping others
  • make real progress in our professional development.

Creating or finding a peer coaching group

The first step to create or find the right peer coaching group should come naturally. As in any learning endeavor, you start with identifying the learning needs or objectives. What professional development need, benefits, or results are you trying to achieve?

One possible strategy for answering that question may be to refer to the ASTD competency model, which outlines the foundational competencies, areas of expertise, and professional roles for learning professionals. By using this model, you can highlight those areas that you want to focus on for your own professional development. Using the competency model or some other form of assessment will next lead you to answer the following questions.

  • Other than peers capable of effectively serving in a peer coach capacity (not all of your learning professional colleagues are fit for that role), what areas of expertise or experience will best serve you?
  • Alternatively, what areas of expertise and experience are you in a position to offer perspectives and resources?

A peer coaching group should be no more than 12 people. Ideally you should be able to meet face-to-face. If that's not possible, meet using some form of virtual technology that will enable you to develop trust and communicate effectively.

You can find such a group by identifying one to two people who want to collaborate with you, based on initial goals, and then each can identify others with similar interests and goals. In the example at the beginning of the article, we were a temporary peer coaching group brought together for the specific purpose of a professional development weekend. What has emerged from that experience is now a local and ongoing peer coaching group that will hopefully expand as we move forward.

Tips for peer coaching success

While there are several elements that contribute to peer coaching success, the key factors are that peer coaching participants must be

  • mutually committed to each other's success
  • goal and results focused; peer coaching is not just about networking and relationship building
  • willing and available to invest the time to participate
  • equally satisfied in giving help and support as well as receiving help and support
  • willing to be candid and vulnerable to ask for support and help
  • able to share perspectives, experiences, and resources
  • able to overcome the need to give advice
  • accountable to making progress.

Finally, peer coaching will only sustain itself if participants provide one another with ongoing value-added experiences. So it is worth the effort to periodically check in and evaluate whether the peer coaching process, whatever form it takes, is providing everyone with a return on their investment.