Group coaching: it’s not just for corporate animals

by Cara Bouwer
Photo: Alison Reid
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely business. It can also be overwhelming, stressful and uncertain. Few understand these stressors, except for those who are also self-employed – which is why group coaching is such an important (yet underused) tool for supporting entrepreneurs.

There are, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, approximately 582 million entrepreneurs around the world. Not all fall into the glamorous or high-profile category of a Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, a Koos Becker or an Aliko Dangote, and yet most face the same (or likely more) day-to-day challenges of accessing markets, building marketing collateral, securing finance, and developing and retaining talent.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that researchers acknowledge how entrepreneurs are “exposed to conditions that are known to generate high levels of work-related stress". They experience heavy pulls on their time and attention, including working “long hours in unpredictable, ever-changing work environments” where they are often the core decision maker. This cocktail of stressors can impact the entrepreneur’s wellbeing, which in turn can influence business success and leadership style.

One of the ways entrepreneurs can support themselves and build resilience is through developing strong social and industry networks, be it an informal group of friends who meet for a wine club once a month or a more formal business networking body.

During the 2020 pandemic, Leeds University Business School Professor Nick Williams highlighted the importance of emotional support for entrepreneurs during times of crisis, noting that “a consistent finding has been how entrepreneurs have come together to provide each other with support”. Whether in the form of informal social support or more structured business networks, entrepreneurs benefit emotionally and strategically from interacting with one another, forging a collective identity by discussing challenges and listening to how others have tackled similar issues.

Because people are recognising the impact of tapping into insights and ideas from those in the same business boat, group coaching has become an increasingly popular avenue for entrepreneurs looking for a safe space, a sense of community, as a means of developing their own leadership qualities, and a way to improve their effectiveness as business owners.

What are the benefits of group coaching for entrepreneurs?

Broadly speaking coaching is an approach to learning and change that leverages personal context and an intentional process of eliciting awareness and focussing attention to achieve relevant outcomes, expand capacity and identity, and then mobilise change to achieve a desired impact around specific goals. Coaching takes many forms, from leadership coaching and life coaching, to mentoring and team – or group – coaching.

Group coaching – rather than the one-on-one variety – is not the sole preserve of executive education courses and corporate animals. In fact, the benefits for entrepreneurs span sharing and support, as well as awareness of self, and act as a doorway to learning and development. These findings shone through in a 2022 paper by GIBS faculty Dr. Gloria Mbokota and Alison Reid, director of personal and applied learning, which appeared in the South African Journal of Business Management.

In “The role of group coaching in developing leadership effectiveness in a business school leadership development programme”, Mbokota and Reid applied a mixed-method approach to determine the change in leadership effectiveness among women managers in South Africa following a leadership development programme that included both classroom facilitation and group coaching.

According to the paper, “the combination of group coaching and classroom facilitation significantly enhanced leadership effectiveness across the head, heart and hands categories”. This refers to “head”-related abilities such as business understanding, applying big-picture thinking, innovation and solution-orientated focus to decision making, and goal orientation. “Heart” is about personal attributes such as empathy and self-awareness, openness and an authentic presentation of self. The “hands” category encompasses execution-aligned actions.

As management consultant John Nicholls described the head-heart-hands triumvirate, “Strategic leadership, of the head, is concerned with path-finding and culture-building to create an effective organisation. Supervisory leadership, of the hands, is concerned with adapting one’s style to the given situation in order to achieve efficient performance…. Inspiring leadership, of the heart, engages with people, giving them an energising vision. All managers must exercise strategic and supervisory leadership of the head and hands – otherwise they are mere administrators. Good managers go further and inspire people with the heart – rendering their leadership transforming.”

Based on Mbokota and Reid’s research, the use of group coaching in a business school context supported the development of the following leadership abilities:
  • Creating a psychologically safe environment that stimulates learning among the participants. In a group coaching scenario, Mbokota and Reid note that “there is potential for members of groups to act as emotional anchors for one another’s learning, creating a safe and stimulating atmosphere that is infused with acceptance and support, which also motivates members to embrace learning and change”.
  • Facilitates learning through external input and feedback. Group coaching provides “an opportunity to learn from ‘collective knowledge’, ‘what peers think and feel about you’ and receiving ‘honest, face-to-face feedback’ and ‘objective views from others’.”
  • Stimulates self-awareness and authenticity, and improves self-confidence. According to Mbokota and Reid, group coaching “promotes individuality, self-development and self-transformation, albeit in relation to others” and it fosters the development of authentic leadership by developing self-awareness.
  • Provides a sense of direction or a game plan. According to the GIBS research, “group coaching affected participants’ ability to develop a sense of direction” and “can lead to the framing of a purpose larger than that of individuals, which encourages them to feel that they are contributing to a larger endeavour”.
  • Improves the ability of leaders to influence others positively. By enhancing self-awareness and self-confidence, as well as authenticity, it was extrapolated that leadership effectiveness would be enhanced by group coaching.
The overriding takeaway from the GIBS research was that leadership effectiveness changed markedly as a result of taking part in GIBS’s six-month leadership programme, particularly in the area of enabling self and others.

What was also observed with interest was the interplay between group coaching and classroom facilitation, which “resulted in improved personal competence (evidenced in knowing one’s authentic self, self-confidence and an improved sense of direction) and social competence (evidenced in understanding and enjoying improved relations with others and empowering and influencing others positively)”.

It was also important to note that for those who took part in the research, the programme’s group coaching component was “found to create a safe environment for learning through input and support received from others. This stimulated awareness of self and what truly matters, which contributed to heightened leadership effectiveness among the participants.”

This impactful combination of classroom sessions and group coaching is important from the perspective of developing effective leaders. It is particularly interesting if one considers how this combination might positively affect entrepreneurs who are already shouldering the additional stressors associated with building a business while trying to navigate every requirement from website development to marketing strategy and financial outlays.

If group coaching can create the safe space and support entrepreneurs need to better manage themselves and their stress, it may be the elixir South Africa needs to support entrepreneurs out of early-stage business development and into confident, sustainable growth and longevity.

Why does effective leadership matter?

There are many markers that determine whether a leader is effective or not. These include key metrics such as employee retention, team motivation and productivity levels, and greater customer satisfaction.

Putting your finger on the nitty-gritty of which factors come together to infuse that effectiveness is less simple. It’s a combination of being able to influence others, to understand motivations and support innovation and ideas; it’s about collaboration and knowledge sharing and visibly taking accountability. It’s linked to integrity, decisiveness, resilience, and self-awareness.

Business coach Natalie van der Veen and Alison Reid described this approach in a 2021 white paper, “Amplifying personal and leadership development through group coaching”. “Effective leadership is about the business of people, and great leaders foster self-awareness and relationship at all levels,” they wrote.

While the recipe changes from person to person, the outcomes of effective leadership can arguably be reflected in a leader’s ability to influence others within their organisation and business ecosystem. In the process, effective leaders are able to achieve goals that serve the entire group by galvanising teams and peers behind a mission and a vision. This is as important for an executive in the C-suite as it is for a fintech startup founder or the manager of a restaurant franchise.

Fortunately, as Harvard Business School’s director of marketing and communications Lauren Landry points out, you don’t have to acquire all these traits overnight. It’s a process of learning and developing, refining and practising. “Becoming an effective leader doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “It’s an iterative process and requires you to assess your strengths and evaluate who you are as a communicator and collaborator.”

One way is of doing that is through group coaching.

As Van der Veen and Reid explain, this most human of motivators can be developed with leaders using business coaching, and specifically group coaching, which “takes this even further, as [it] has been shown to unleash both individual and collective potential by leveraging individual growth in, and through, an interrelating group”.

The advantages of group coaching for entrepreneurs

  • Group coaching exposes entrepreneurs to new thinking and fresh ideas, through engaging with other business owners in a safe space.
  • Support from a community of entrepreneurs can counter feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Sharing knowledge and learning from the experiences of others can motivate entrepreneurs and inspire them to apply new thinking to business problems.
  • Being guided by an experienced, professional coach helps to direct sessions in a purposeful manner that enables learning and personal development.
  • Working with peers helps to keep entrepreneurs engaged and holds them to account.
  • Expanding a business networks has personal benefits as well as unlocking potential collaborations and referrals.

Useful resources:
Gordon Institute of Business Science
Making an impact to significantly improve the competitive performance of individuals and organisation through business education to build our national competitiveness. GIBS is a leading business school in the heart of Sandton’s business hub, offering a wide range of executive and academic programmes.
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