All posts by Shana Montesol Johnson

Shana Montesol Johnson is a certified executive and career coach who works with international development professionals who want careers they love, that make an impact, and allow them to have a life outside of work. She has coached clients working for such organisations as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the World Health Organization, U.S. Agency for International Development, Peace Corps, and the Millennium Challenge Corp., among others. Born in the United States and raised in Mexico, Shana has been based in Manila, Philippines since 2004.

Peer coaching: is that something we can interest you in?

The problem: isolation

If you have worked in international development, you have probably experienced isolation. It seems to be a fact of life in this industry. Field-based expat staff may be the only person at their level in their local office, or the only expat on the team (or one of very few), separated from their local staff counterparts by cultural, language, and organisational barriers. Even people working in the home office may feel isolated. Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable sharing their struggles with their boss.  Or maybe the boss him/herself is the problem.

Many people working in aid and development tend to spend a lot of time talking about work with their spouses, partners, or close friends.  This can be a great source of support.  However, it can also put undue pressure on the person who is getting an earful.  Over time, they may tire of hearing the same complaints.  Someone who doesn’t work with you – or work in development – may not “get” your work context.  And a spouse will likely have a hard time remaining neutral and impartial because they have a stake in their partner’s career success.

In situations of isolation, it’s great to work one-on-one with a professional coach or mentor. However, this is not always possible, practical, or financially feasible.  An alternative that works well is peer coaching.

What is peer coaching?

A peer coach is someone who is at a similar level to you in your organisation (or even in another organisation).  He or she knows and/or understands your work context. While not trained as a coach, he or she is willing to coach you according to a simple (yet effective) peer coaching model. This involves actively listening without judgment, reflecting back what he/she is hearing, asking probing questions, and helping you generate concrete action steps to move you forward.

Peer coaching is different than mentoring or advising. It is not based on the premise that your peer coach knows better or is more experienced than you. A peer coach’s job is not to give you advice or tell you what they think you should do. A peer coach’s role is to listen, to provide a sounding board, and help you find the answers yourself.

Whether you are studying, beginning your career in aid and development, or a seasoned professional, it’s great to work one-on-one with a coach who can help you identify blind spots, gain clarity on your priorities, and help you design actions that will bring about desired changes. This what Cassie and Leanne have established:

Cassie and Leanne (names and details have been changed) both work as managers in an international development NGO. Cassie is based in Nepal, and Leanne is in Bangladesh. As expat staff, the only other non-local in their offices are their bosses — and sometimes they don’t feel comfortable sharing all their struggles with their supervisors. Cassie and Leanne  met at an internal training that brought together international staff from various country offices. Since their organisation does not offer executive coaching to staff at their level, Cassie and Leanne decided to team up to provide peer coaching to each other.

They conduct their coaching sessions via Skype. They take turns sharing what’s on their minds, and providing coaching/feedback. They cover a range of topics, whatever is pressing: tough decisions, managing a difficult relationship with a boss/staff member, tricky cross-cultural issues, musings about career moves.

Leanne reports that one of the main benefits of peer coaching is simply the opportunity to think out loud. By talking through a problem or challenge, she ends up coming up with a solution that hadn’t even occurred to her before the peer coaching session.

Cassie values the opportunity to vent, share, and trouble-shoot with someone who understands where she is coming from. Since they have similar roles in different parts of the same organisation, the two women don’t have to explain all the details of their respective situations.

They admit that they could benefit from scheduling their peer coaching calls more regularly. Sometimes their jam-packed work schedules mean that several weeks go by between peer coaching sessions. But they also know that if a crisis comes up, or a decision needs to be made, they can set up a last-minute call and have a thinking session when it’s most needed.

Find a peer coach

We are excited to announce that, through a collaboration between whydev and Development Crossroads, we are launching a peer coaching matching service. We believe that young professionals, graduate students, and others starting out in international development could benefit from peer coaching. We want to develop a service that best matches up with your needs, and supports your peer coaching relationship. We also want to know if you would actually use such a service!

We are still in the design phase, and would like to use this opportunity to get your thoughts through the online survey below. Would you want a peer coach? What would you like to get out of such a relationship? How often would you keep in touch? How much input and oversight would you want from us? These are the type of questions we would love to get your thoughts on.

Please take 2 minutes to complete the survey, and you are more than welcome to provide feedback in the comments below.

Peer coaching survey

Click HERE to complete the survey through GoogleDocs or simply complete the form below:


Hey, aid worker! Enough already about your New Year’s resolutions.

I admit it.  I love New Year’s Resolutions. I love making resolutions, hearing about the ones friends have made, and telling them about mine.  Yet, research shows that if I want to maximise my chances of accomplishing these goals, I’d better just shut up about them.

Check out why in this 3-minute video:

Conventional wisdom tells us that we should announce our goals from the rooftops, share them with our friends and colleagues, write about them on blogs.  Yet some researchers have found that when people talk about their goals with others, they’re less likely to achieve them. It’s because when we tell someone that we are going to do something big – say, move to a new country, land the dream job in international development, or start a non-profit to bring clean water to poor communities – the praise and positive reaction we get from our audience gives us a part of the experience of having already accomplished these things (Psychologists call this “social reality”). And, so we are less motivated to actually work toward these goals.

I have experienced this myself. Last year, I decided that it was time to end my years of hiding from the internet and launch a blog for international development professionals who want to have high-impact careers they love. Soon after I made this decision, I left Manila for a 5-week home leave in the US.  When I visited friends and relatives in the Midwest, California, and Washington, DC, they invariably asked what was new. I readily replied that I had decided to start a blog. To a person, everyone was supportive, excited, and positive.  “That’s great, Shana!” I heard numerous times. Apparently, the support was so nice, it was all I needed…and my blog remained a mere twinkle in my eye for the next 5 months!

Of course, as a career coach, I am not advising anyone to be silent about their goals. Yet, the way we talk about our goals can make a difference. Instead of simply announcing our plans and then basking in everyone’s support and advance admiration, we can:

  • Ask others to hold us accountable for doing the work required,
  • Ask people for specific assistance, and
  • Celebrate actual accomplishments and emphasise what remains to be done.

Ask others to hold us accountable for doing the work required

I told everyone, “I’m going to start a blog for aid workers!” and then sat back and did nothing to make it happen for months on end. It may have been more productive for me to say, “I plan to start a blog this fall, which means I’ve got a lot of work to do.  Can you check in with me 2 weeks from now to ask if I’ve come up with a list of potential topics to write about?”

Ask people for specific assistance

In addition to holding us accountable for doing the nitty-gritty work required, there are other ways people can help us. If you plan to move to a new country, ask your friends or acquaintances who have lived there before for their tips, ideas, and information.  If you’d like to land a great new international development job, ask your network to introduce you to contacts in specific development organisations you’re interested in.  If you aspire to start a non-profit to bring clean water to poor communities, let your network know that you would like to meet experts in the field.

Celebrate actual accomplishments and emphasise what remains to be done

Celebrating your progress at key milestones can help you work toward and meet your goals. Just make sure that you celebrate after you’ve already accomplished something, rather than feeling good about your noble intentions in advance of actually doing anything about them. And, keep your eye on the ball – be clear about the tasks that remain to be done.

Have you made any New Year’s Resolutions for 2012?

Great!  Stop talking about them and get started working toward accomplishing them.  And, if you’re looking for accountability, specific assistance, or celebration of a milestone, please share in the comments below.