Leader as coach with Dan Hoffman

Coaching Perspectives

Sue talks to Dan Hoffman, founder of Circles Learning Labs. They discuss different ways that leaders can empower and coach their people, and what the benefits of using this type of approach are.

Case Study: Cementing Leadership Development through Peer Learning

A world-leading food processing and packaging company runs an annual leadership development program for high-potential employees. The four-month international program aims to address individual leadership challenges to help participants transition into executive roles within five years.

After three iterations of the program, the company decided to try a complementary approach; one that would continue to keep participants engaged after the program, encourage ongoing networking with their peers and inspire them to continue the sessions themselves after the four month program. After some analysis, it became clear that peer learning circles might meet these objectives.

The goals of the circles were:

  • Engagement
    ​ – increase engagement beyond the leadership development program.
  • Relationships
    ​ – sustain meaningful relationships with peers for improved team performance.
  • Self-direction
    ​ – encourage self-directed sessions for continued learning and support.

With the peer learning circles, participants were encouraged to share both organizational ​and​ personal challenges – adding a new depth to the sessions. Building upon existing trust between the participants formed during the initial program, these sessions created a safe space for open and honest discussion, gently addressing specific challenges, and strengthening the team as a whole.

As a result, not only did participants deepen connections with their peers and build a trusted support system, they also understood the power of peer circles and committed to continuing the process beyond the program.

Download the complete case study

You Can Doubt My Opinions, But Not My Experience

I used to love riding along with my wife Kathryn years ago on Saturdays from our tiny apartment on the East Side of Manhattan to her Pilates studio in Connecticut. Saturdays were the busiest days, and I enjoyed sitting at the front desk while she taught client after client, sometimes ten in a row.  She’s better at what she does than anyone I know is at what they do. And, y’know, cause I love her and everything, I was proud to hear her instruction in the next room while I supported her however I could.

There was a part of these trips that I dreaded, though. It was the almost inevitable response she’d get whenever she shared her plans for the business, for our then-new marriage, or, basically anything about herself.  “You know what you should do?…”, her clients would begin, followed by a litany of unsolicited advice.

Now, don’t get me wrong – these are sweet people.  Supportive, kind, generous people who have been key figures in our lives, not to mention they made it possible for us to pay our rent.

Inevitably, though, I would drive home a bit deflated. Feeling like my sweet wife just got turned into a 12-year old in front of my eyes.

Fielding their well-meaning questions opened her up to inspection, comparison with choices they’d made themselves, and – of course – advice.

She navigates this much better than I do (I told you, she’s good at things).  But I’ve seen the light in someone’s eyes dim the minute being vulnerable leads to a lecture.

The thing is – we all have a story.  And, if you haven’t noticed, we each love telling our story.  What’s just as human is to want to know that we’re ok, that the choices we’ve made aren’t wrong.  One of the wounds of giving advice is that it sends the message that what you chose is wrong, and that my way is the right way.  This is what “should” means.  This wounding starts from the moment the conversation goes from listening to telling. From being with someone to teaching. The focus goes from the one sharing their challenge to the one who, apparently, has all the answers.

In that moment, a lot of potential is lost.  The possibility of a deeper connection is gone – at least for that exchange. Nothing kills the will to open up like the unspoken message that what you wanted to share isn’t the focus anymore.

Underneath that, the cut goes even deeper: we make choices based on beliefs, and when we get advice, it sends the message that our beliefs are wrong. For my wife, exposing herself to advice each day made her feel she was doing everything wrong, that she was not enough. And, still, she had to smile.

In a recent podcast interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett, one of Tim Ferriss’s big messages was that “You can doubt my opinions, but not my experience.” Advice-giving creates an unnecessary set of assumptions; our views are rarely identical to those of the person handing us the advice. In contrast, experience is data-driven, first-person sharing, without the need for others to make the same choice you have.

How different Kathryn’s experience would have been if she heard stories from experienced entrepreneurs who had gone into these challenges before her, rather than opinion.

We at Circles love stories. Committed to the belief that everyone has something to share, our structure develops the skill of storytelling, reframing your experience from self-doubt for the listener to an opportunity for a shared learning for the circle.

In our circles, we admit – we’re out for a big result.  We’re doing everything we can to make it possible for people to open up – to WANT to open up and go deeper. Why? Because when someone is vulnerable, we’ve seen again and again that the circle rallies to support them.  That’s the tricky thing – the spirit behind giving advice is good: there’s caring. Wanting the best for someone who’s struggling, or who simply doesn’t have to be in the spot they’re in right now.

We’re asking ourselves all the time – what can we do with our agenda-driven meetings to take those instincts and channel them into even deeper sharing, and supportive content? Our norms make that possible. Our learners make it happen.

In a world of physical distance, circles facilitate authentic human connection.

In a circle, 3-12 participants contribute equally, share openly, and push each other to act.

We spent years with academics and practitioners, honing best practices and building a technology platform. Our circles have helped scale peer learning, sustain manager and leadership development, move live training online, onboard new employees, support career development, teach collaboration, and build community.

We’ve been grateful for the support and the referrals from our large corporate partners, schools, and communities who have been hiring us to help design, facilitate and manage Circles programs.

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