I want to introduce you to two people you might know, or at least you may find their stories similar to those of people you know. In fact, they might even sound a lot like your own! Let me introduce you to Nicola and Steffen, both of whom are leaders who are suffering.

They sometimes feel inadequate, inefficient, or ill-prepared for the demands of their role. Steffen & Nicola have moments when they wish that they could learn & adapt more quickly and have times when they feel alone. The emotions that come with change sometimes overwhelm them or colleagues. 

It is through Nicola’s and Steffen’s true stories, struggles, & challenges as well as their future possibilities that you will find out what this article is about.

Struggles and Challenges of Every (Aspiring) Leader

Meet Nicola.  She came to her organization because she loved the idea and believed that they could really help with refugee integration.  She recently got more responsibility than she wanted at this organization with huge potential impact and a brilliant, passionate team that was going through big growth challenges. These challenges had reached an emergency level and Nicola had to make unpopular decisions that happened much more quickly and less collaboratively than is her usual leadership style. She knew that these decisions were necessary and she was determined to stay the course despite pushback among colleagues – some who directly questioned her own capabilities. This constant pushback was exhausting at the least and sometimes painful, keeping her awake at night, questioning herself.  While she was still able to spend time with her family, she was not always fully present with them and had no free time at all for herself.  She decided to give a time limit to reach her short-term goals for the organization and to reflect on her own path.  She needed this “deadline” in order to better cope with the stress and discomfort she felt.

Meet Steffen. He quickly went from being a teacher to becoming a school leader, wanting to bring to life his ideas for democratic education through the theme of exploration. He loves his students very much but was frustrated with how much the school system (and his own boss) seemed to work against anything creative and perpetuated learning experiences that were not what his students needed. He felt like he hit the ceiling of his own competencies each day (and that the ceiling of competencies needed for the role somehow seemed to rise daily!). Despite all of this and his own deep feelings of self-doubt and unpreparedness, Steffen pushed on and tried to lead his teachers and staff to develop a strong community and to create constructive learning opportunities for their students.  He didn’t sleep much, but he somehow maintained a serious relationship. When Steffen and his partner met to see a show or film after work, he often fell asleep once the lights dimmed – exhausted from the challenges and failures of the day.

Do you know Steffen or Nicola?  Do their stories remind you of anyone you know or perhaps even yourself? I know these two extremely well because I am Nicola and Steffen. 

Their stories describe what I went through and how I felt at times during two of my previous roles (and I could have described my other roles similarly).  While I have been very fortunate to have had lots of great experiences and successes in various organizations and schools at all levels of development (i.e. conceptual, start-up, growth, scaling locally, scaling nationally, scaling globally, and improvement/intervention), I have also gone through lots of failure and pain – much I would argue that was not necessary, even avoidable. I often felt alone, I thought that I was not learning quickly enough, and I falsely believed that my problems and my situation were unique. 

How Do We Tackle These Challenges? 

In my 20+ years of work as a leader and coach, I have spoken to a lot of leaders, teams & organizations across the US, Germany, & Europe.  Whenever I share my stories of suffering that was always just beneath the surface of any successes (or failures) I had experienced, I always feel a deep moment of recognition. The air in the room changes and there is this wordless acknowledgement that we are sisters and brothers in pain. Fortunately, the conversation quickly moves to discussing ways in which we can help each other and others to have less suffering and more impact in their work. Much of what we talk about next is the ways in which we can learn together.

So how do we begin to address inefficiencies caused by leaders & teams going through many of the same things and making some of the same mistakes? How do we end – or at least reduce – the suffering & loneliness felt by too many leaders, entrepreneurs & teams?  How do we increase learning, sharing, and collaboration within and across organizations and sectors? And how do we do all this in order to increase our individual and collective societal impact?  How do we help Nicola, Steffen, & other current and future leaders?  I certainly do not have all the answers, but I have seen some promising best practices, heard some great ideas, and am interested in participating in this evolution in how we work, live, and learn.

Learn and Grow Together

In general, what I am advocating for are curated learning communities & coaching. (I realize that once you name something, it begins to take a life of its own and eyes begin to roll because of assumptions about what is meant and past experiences you might have had that these words remind you of. So let’s pay less attention to the name and more to what I mean.) Curated learning communities & coaching see the coach not only as the leader’s (or aspiring leader’s) coach, but also as the co-curator and co-facilitator of the learning experiences that help each participant to both develop & connect with other participants in the learning community. 

Curated learning communities and coaching rely on quantitative and qualitative data at various levels. Looking at organizational impact data identifies potential areas of learning and sharing across the community. Nicola’s & Steffen’s coach looks at their organization’s impact data – focusing on gaps and best practices – to see how to use learnings across the community to support them (and others). He would also work closely with them to understand their learning interests and learning styles to ensure that selected learning experiences are relevant and engaging. Finally, the pairs (coach & participant) look at which dimensions identified for developing into an organization for our times (i.e. adaptability, diversity & inclusion, humble leadership, etc.) should be taken into account, when designing their learning experiences.   

Build Trust

Curated learning communities and coaching depend on strong relationships. In order for it to work, Nicola’s and Steffen’s relationships with their coach need to be based on a deep understanding of each other’s experiences, context, and goals. If they are members of the same learning community, then the relationship between Nicola and Steffen should be built on common interests, shared experiences, and a safe space for exchange.  

Conditions for reflection, sharing, innovation, and collaboration are created and nurtured. For example, there are Innovation Labs where Steffen’s ideas can be quickly prototyped and piloted. There are also mindfulness & presencing tools and practices to allow Nicola and her team to be fully present. Also, conferences, working groups, and other shared learning experiences are facilitated so that Nicola and Steffen can think and work differently and creatively. Finally, all learning experiences– whether a learning portal or blog, massive open online course (MOOC), organization visit, conference, or video – are not only engaging & relevant, but are also designed to improve impact.

Designing the Learning Community

The coaching component of curated learning communities and coaching includes the co-development (with the participant) of a learning plan that is based on data (incl. learning interests & styles). Nicola and her coach develop their learning plans together and share in the facilitation and curating of the included learning experiences to ensure cohesion and relevance. The coach helps her to examine and reflect on her learning - addressing pain points as they are identified. Her coach captures needs and best practices from Nicola, Steffen and across all leader participants and brings in best practices and research from the field in order to continually improve learning experiences, learning plans and the coaching process itself.

Both learning plans and learning experiences leverage both technology and in-person time. Technology is applied and adapted to ensure that Nicola can access the tools & resources she needs and time together is maximized so that Steffen can build relationships and have deep opportunities for learning, developing and collaborating with others. For both Nicola & Steffen and their coaches, the curated learning community and coaching is a continuous practice that allows for flexible participation. Access to their community is continuous and open so that they continue learning & growing and sharing across the community at each development phase. Their time, interests, needs, & availability are also taken into account.

A Living System & Continuous Improvements

The curated learning community and coaching are in a perpetual learning loop and ongoing evaluation cycle. All aspects of the community and coaching are regularly reviewed, evaluated and revised – looking at relevant data, user (Steffen’s, Nicola’s, & others’) experience analysis & user testing, collective (shared goals) impact, etc. Additionally, there is continuous interaction with the larger community through external learning and sharing. The learning community connects with other communities and participants - creating new communities and having a multiplier effect on learning, ideas, and outcomes. Ideally, there is also cross-sector learning and collaborating so that learning communities (and/or specific learning experiences) include participants from various sectors (i.e. NGOs, government agencies, corporations, etc.) as this kind of collaboration is needed to address today’s complex challenges. In other words, Nicola and Steffen have the opportunity to work with other leaders & teams working in their fields, geographic location, or larger theme/challenge area.

It’s Already Happening

So, why aren’t we doing this?  Where are the curated learning communities & coaching? The good news is that we are already doing this and that these communities do exist.  There is hope for Steffen, Nicola and all of you, leaders & aspiring leaders! In fact, there are some great best practices already (to mention just a few – LEAD Academy, On Purpose, Teach for All, tbd*, Eleven, Collective Leadership Institute, The Do School, SEEK Development, Ashoka, Impact Hub Berlin, etc.), but we are just not doing it completely or frequently enough. There is a clear appetite from leaders & teams, foundations, networks, and coaches. Funding, of course, is a big challenge. There is also the idea in the NGO space that coaching is needed only for when something needs improvement and is not yet seen as an ongoing process.

Additionally, curated learning communities & coaching works best when participants share common goals. Outside of an existing network, they are difficult to develop. Time of course is an issue – until participants see this as worth their time and as a time-saver. Finally, there is a lack of capacity & skills. They exist, but to prioritize and apply them differently will require changes – structurally & operationally – in how we plan, fund, & organize our work and teams.

What’s Stopping Us?

We need to prioritize resources for developing more curated learning communities and coaching. There is a big and justifiable focus on organizational impact and outcomes and I think that there is a tendency to wait on this kind of coaching and learning until after there are problems – when we are not reaching our goals. However, curated learning communities and coaching help us to reach our individual and shared goals and should be seen as a necessary part of how we work and not as a remedy for poor results. At the same time, they also enable more cross-sector/team/organization collaboration, improve well-being, and help us to be efficient & sustainable.

What’s Stopping YOU?!

I believe in learning by doing, but I do not believe in unnecessarily suffering and failing through something that others already know or could help with. The challenges of our time require cross-sector solutions, strong & new ways of leadership, and continuous learning and improving – as individuals, teams, organizations, and as both small and large communities. 

Doing good, meaningful work and leading full, rewarding lives will require us to be more healthy, efficient, and collaborative in our practices. Why waste time making the same mistakes? Why be miserable? 

Let us all do our part of having less suffering and more learning in all of our lives. Take action! Create these communities, coach others, fund a learning community, build coaching practices into your organization, continue this conversation,...  Here’s to more curated learning communities and coaching – for the Steffens and Nicolas in all of us!

Scott Goldner is a Leadership, Strategic, & Organizational Development Coach. He is currently employed as the Chief Educational Program Officer at Kiron: an open online education platform for refugees.