The Power of Peers: Lessons from an Executive Director Learning Group

August 14, 2018

When in a position of leadership, it’s easy to forget that we don’t have to go it alone.

However, as leaders we benefit from spaces with our peers where we can learn, share and grow. This is especially helpful to remember in a time of tight funding and fewer professional development dollars.

ICL recently facilitated a network of new Executive Directors in the Chesapeake Bay region meant to foster strategic thinking, problem-solving, and peer support around nonprofit practices.

At the program’s beginning, each participant completed a professional learning plan to set personal goals and share the urgent issues they were facing. Based on this, we co-created the nine-month program, which included a retreat and monthly virtual sessions, as well as individual coaching. The topics for the sessions ranged from big picture issues, including organizational culture, board development, and staff management, to more specific tools they could apply, such as mapping their organization’s impact and designing dashboards to share critical data with their Board of Directors.

Through this process, I was reminded of the powerful potential of peer learning – especially in light of the unique experiences of Executive Directors. Over the course of the program, participants were able to:

Feel less alone. “It’s lonely at the top.” This sentiment was expressed early on as the peer-learning network was forming. Being able to compare notes, share wins and challenges and get feedback from peers was invaluable. It helped those in the network feel less lonely as they developed a group of trusted colleagues to whom they could reach out in times of doubt and challenge.

Think bigger. Several participants came into the program feeling confident about their abilities in running programs. They were unsure, however, about shifting to a more strategic level of organizational leadership. Through feedback from participants and others, they were able to shift their perspective and see how they could take their program management skills and use them as the foundation for their strategic work as Executive Directors.

Gain confidence. New Executive Directors find themselves suddenly having to make many difficult calls and decisions on their own. Participants used a “solution circle” to approach challenges they were facing. (The solution circle is a variation of a process described by Parker Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey to an Undivided Life.) Participants explained what was happening to the group, and those listening were only allowed to ask follow-up questions. If those listening begin providing advice, the person sharing can feel obligated to accept or dismiss the advice, often ending with everyone feeling attacked and defensive. Instead, asking questions helps the participant open up, think more broadly, and assess the situation more fully. By the end of the session, they had a clear idea of what next steps they should take and were grounded in their ability to see it through.

Build accountability. For new Executive Directors, this may be the first time they’ve worked without a direct supervisor. To help each participant achieve their goals, they paired up with an accountability partner and regularly met to discuss their progress. This practice is grounded in research that shows that if you write down your goals you are more likely to achieve them. If you share them with another person and then check in with that person on how you are doing on your goals, you are even more likely to follow through. These pairings not only helped participants advance their work, it strengthened their connections within the network.

This shared learning experience proved so meaningful that the group has continued to meet even after the nine months were complete. Using some simple tools and thoughtful structure, the participants created a powerful learning community – a testament to bonds established and the wisdom found among peers.

PS. Are you looking to set up or strengthen a peer learning community?

Let us know how the Institute for Conservation Leadership can help! Reach out to us at info (at) icl (dot) org to share your hopes for structured peer support.