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: