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Doing Life Together
The Rewards of Peer Coaching
Just last week, I finished my new book, Rising Together, about how men and women can better support one another at work. Getting that huge project off my desk and into the hands of my editor has put me in a reflective mood, spurring me to think about what got me to where I am now and how I might want to move forward.
One habit that’s been essential in helping me meet big and satisfying goals has been the regular practice of peer coaching. It’s one of the most useful tools I know for navigating through life. I’ve been working with the same peer coach for nearly 15 years and over time it’s become clear that our partnership has provided us with both the insights and the support we’ve needed to become the people we always wanted to be. It’s helped us move from wishing into action.
I first heard of peer coaching at a Learning Network retreat in January 2008. The Learning Network is a small group of coaches and leadership writers founded by Marshall Goldsmith in 1995. The purpose was, and still is, to provide people who mostly work alone with a network of colleagues who share their experience and can serve as allies. We continue to meet yearly.
Before our 2008 gathering, Marshall had attended a seminar in which the concept of peer coaching had been introduced and he was eager to share it with us. The basic idea was to work with an accountability partner to identify our personal goals and then break them down into specific actions that would increase the likelihood of our being able to meet those goals. Each partner agreed to check in with one another on a regular basis– preferably daily– to report on our progress.
Unlike life or leadership coaching, no money changes hands in peer coaching because it’s done for mutual benefit. In the course of articulating what you hope to achieve and reporting on how you are doing, you each become more effective and less hampered by long-standing fears and doubts. Peer coaching is the very definition of a win/win.
I left our Learning Network meeting that year determined to adopt this simple practice. It was a challenging time in my life. What would soon become a full-fledged financial meltdown was already starting to fray my livelihood, though I had no idea what lay in store. The uncertainty forced me to face up to the fact that I’d made some pretty poor financial (and life) decisions. I needed to shift my approach.
I asked a long-time close friend, Elizabeth Bailey, at the time a financial writer and therapist, if she wanted to give the practice a try. We started by using the technique Marshall recommended, which he called Daily Questions. After we identified what we wanted to get better at, we each came up with ten questions that would hold us to account and committed to asking one another those questions.
For example, in addition to my financial decision-making, my bête noir has always been self-marketing. It’s not just Reluctance to Claim My Achievements, one of the classic How Women Rise behaviors. It’s also an aversion to technology and a deep-rooted wish to fly under the radar and live a sequestered and highly private life as “just a writer.” But guess what? The whole purpose of writing is to communicate with others, and if you can’t bring attention to what you’re writing, you almost guarantee that you will lack impact. By playing the recluse, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Not surprisingly, most of my daily questions in those early peer coaching days related to finance or marketing. Did I make a weekly budget? Did I stick to it? Did I put any money aside? Did I develop that new description of my workshop for my website? What did I do to improve my online skills?
Elizabeth had different questions, different concerns, but we were almost always able to help one another. Every month, we revised our questions as our challenges and our goals shifted or became more expansive. The simple discipline of updating our lists helped us both to become more intentional, more aware of what we really want from this month, this year, this life. More conscious of what really matters, what lies within our circle of control and what does not.
Peer coaching is great in terms of providing support but it also instills us with a kind of radar. For example I began to realize that I had internalized Elizabeth’s voice in my head. When I was tempted to take some action which I knew in my heart did not serve me, I would mentally hear her reminding me of what happened last time I took this approach. This helped me bring more clarity to my own decisions and become more skilled at holding myself to account.
Peer coaching is a joy, a way of “doing life together,” as Elizabeth and I call our practice. But it’s also a discipline that requires showing up, talking about things we would often prefer to avoid discussing, being rigorously honest with ourselves and with one another. The returns reflect what we’re willing to invest. But in my experience these returns can be enormous. As I look forward to my next phase, I can’t imagine doing life without it.