Leaders need to keep ahead of the way the world is changing, and they are being called on to lead with energy that they’ve never had to tap into before.

Leaders are moving away from the traditional command and control style toward something different, but they don’t always know what that new behavior looks like. Within that context, every leader is unique—and so are their leadership development needs. Try putting in place a one-size-fits-all leadership development program, and you fail to support these leaders to create momentum in tomorrow’s world.

Coaching and action learning both provide more individualised support and opportunities, and enable leaders to adopt a coach-approach themselves. Action learning is not just a good way to learn; it’s also a great way to build a coaching culture.

Reflect, plan for action, take action, repeat.

Adults learn best when they decide what they want to learn, and the learning is closely linked to issues or problems of immediate concern, hence the use of an action learning approach to provide individualised leadership development. With support from a facilitator, participants choose a goal and then learn from each stage of the learning cycle: reflect, plan for action, take action, repeat.

Asking the right questions is important to learning and to future success on the job. Participants in an action learning set learn to coach and give feedback, skills they can utilise in their daily work.

Action learning has the advantage of rotating the leader into different roles within the set. In a group of up to six people, each leader gets time to think about their own issue, with coaching from their peers; they then provide that coaching to the other participants in the group when it is their thinking time. The facilitator helps them to stick to coaching, rather than stray into giving advice, which seems so helpful, but is not as useful as using a coach-approach to develop independent, critical thinking.

Of course, team members don’t always come to the action learning set with formal coaching skills. Generally, however, they’ve had enough training on active listening and open questions to start the process with no more than a 30-minute reminder. They know in their heads what active listening is and they know theoretically what open questions are, but it’s in the practice that they really learn and embrace these skills. They also pick up the skills of establishing the coaching agreement, creating coaching presence, communicating directly and facilitating learning.

What enables them to develop these skills?

It’s partly the in-the-moment interventions that the facilitator makes early on: For example, asking someone to rephrase “advice disguised as a question” into a more open question. It’s partly the facilitator stopping the process with a time out to ask the group what they are sensing, which enables them to become more attuned with what is not being said.

Emerging coaching skills are also nurtured by the process debrief that happens after every round of action learning. This is what makes action learning truly unique. The facilitator asks the thinker first what the group did that helped them to move forward and what the group did that got in the way of their newest thinking. Then the group members each identify one thing they did well and one thing they would like to do differently the next time. They might observe the power of silence, for example, or the kind of questions that seem to work (or not work). Last, but not least, the facilitator offers any extra feedback, all in service of improving the coaching process for the next round.

In each subsequent round, their coaching gets better, as the participants put into practice the feedback they just discussed. Their feedback skills get better each time too, as they start to become more observant and more succinct in the way that they offer the feedback. And of course, the participants can start using these newfound coaching and feedback skills back at work. Their mindset has shifted as they experience the power of coaching themselves, and their skill set has shifted as they practice coaching with feedback.

Implementing an action learning program is not without its challenges, but you can see how it builds coaching skills across an organisation.

Action learning can empower individuals working in organizations to address their own unique leadership development needs; become independent, critical thinkers and learn how to coach and self-coach. Along the way, they’ll also make great contacts and experience learning as they have never experienced it before.


Executive Coach and Coach Supervisor Clare Norman is based in Southampton and also works in London and Bournemouth. Clare works with clients who want to make high impact transitions from one company to another, from one role to another, and when stepping up to more senior leadership levels.