Episode 39: Five Lessons I’ve Learned From Running Group Programs

I learned some of these lessons the hard way, but you don't have to! I'm going to walk you through the five things that I learned, or better yet, the five things I wish I had known before I started running group programs in this week's episode.

39: Five Lessons I've Learned From Running Group Programs

This is the third episode of our four-part series exploring group coaching. In the past two episodes, we've looked at how you can figure out whether group coaching is the right choice for your business and what you need to consider when designing your group coaching program.

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Show Notes

This is the third episode of our four-part series exploring group coaching. In the past two episodes, we've looked at how you can figure out whether group coaching is the right choice for your business and what you need to consider when designing your group coaching program.

Now it's time to get personal.

I'm sharing the five lessons I've learned (some of them the hard way!) from running group programs. I hope that by sharing these honestly with you, you'll be able to skip over some of them yourself so you can start running group programs effectively from the beginning.

I'd love to know which of these lessons resonate the most with you. Find me over on Instagram (@CoachWithClarity) and let me know!

Topics covered

  • Why you shouldn't approach your group program like a course
  • The huge value you create by giving yourself and your students enough time
  • Five stages of group development you'll see in your group programs
  • How you can strategically incorporate one-on-one calls into a group program
  • The way I implemented one-on-one calls in my first group program
  • Why it's essential to clearly communicate the who, what, and how of your program
  • Taking the time to figure out your non-negotiables

Resources mentioned

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Well, hi there, my friend. Welcome to the Coach with Clarity podcast. My name is Lee Chaix McDonough and I am so grateful to have you joining me today for today's episode. And this is the third episode in a series of four, where we are exploring group coaching. 

So in Episode 37, we looked at whether or not a group coaching program was the right choice for you and your business. And last week in Episode 38, I welcomed learning design expert Emily Walker, who shared with us the things that we need to be considering from a learning design perspective to make sure that our group program serves our clients powerfully and helps them achieve the results that they want.

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Now each of the episodes in this four part series are stand alone. So you do not have to have listened to those two episodes in order to get a lot out of today's, but that being said, if you haven't listened to them yet, you'll definitely want to. So make sure you download them, add them to your feed, and I can't wait to hear what you think of those episodes, as well as today's. 

And today actually feels like a bit of a personal episode, because I'm sharing with you the five lessons that I learned from running group programs, and I'll be honest with you, some of these lessons, I learned the hard way. And so I'm sharing them with you because if I can help you maybe skip over some of the life lessons that I learned so that you can start running group programs effectively from the beginning, well, then it will have all been worth it. And so today, I'm going to walk you through the five things that I learned, and maybe the five things I wish I had known before I started running group programs. 

So the very first thing I wish I had known was exactly how a group coaching program is different from a course. So as I mentioned in earlier episodes, I started the first cohort of From Couch to Coach my very first coaching program in the summer of 2018. So a little over two years ago, and as I was preparing for the course, and putting together all of my modules, I was really coming at it from a curriculum based perspective. I was thinking about all of the things that my clients needed to learn or know, in order to get their coaching businesses off the ground. And that is a very helpful thing to do when you are building out a course, and the focus is on providing knowledge to your students. However, that's a little different than a group coaching program, and Emily and I did talk about this a little bit in last week's episode, because a group coaching program is not meant to be instructional or as didactic as a course, it's meant to be experiential, where we are learning through doing and we are learning through connecting with each other. That was not something that I really fully understood, until I had the experience of planning out a group coaching program from a curriculum oriented perspective. So as I was preparing for that first cohort, I was certain that in an eight week program, we were going to have four modules, each module would be two weeks, the first module would be on this topic, and the second would be on this topic, and so forth and so on. And I would have a session where I would be teaching and then there would be a session for Q & A and coaching. And I really thought I had everything all planned out perfectly. And then we launched the program, and I realized that my perfectly designed plan was not going to work for this group coaching program, because it wasn't really meeting the needs of my clients. 

Now I'm going to give myself a little grace and a little compassion here because as I was preparing this group program, and I was talking to people about what do you find most difficult about starting your coaching practice, and what do you feel like you need to know, the feedback I was getting from people was that they needed like nuts and bolts, how do I do this, what does this look like, etc. and so I had structured this program to meet what they were telling me that they wanted. But I quickly came to discover that there's a big difference between what a client wants and what a client needs. And sometimes our clients don't necessarily know what it is they need until they're actually in there doing the work with us. So my clients wanted a clear roadmap and how-to guides for building their business, but what they really needed was support, camaraderie, a space to explore and connect. And what I found was that the informational component, while important, was secondary to the process, and had I known that going in, I could have structured the program very differently from the onset. Where the emphasis was really on the experiential component of learning through observing and then learning through doing, as opposed to more of a traditional course oriented lecture style approach. And so I learned the hard way through that first cohort, that if I were to approach a group coaching program, like a course, I would actually be doing a disservice to my program clients. 

Now, the good news is that I was able to figure this out pretty early on. So as I mentioned, it was an eight week program, and by week two, I was already starting to see that the way I had structured things was not going to work and I was able to pivot and course correct, and the remainder of the program was structured in such a way where it really did meet the needs of my clients versus what they thought they wanted. And I do think it's fair to say that I wouldn't have known that had I not had the experience of going about it a little backwards. So I don't necessarily regret that experience, and I also believe that the members of that first group cohort still got a lot out of the experience. But I will say that when I ran future cohorts of From Couch to Coach, I structured it completely differently. I led with the experiential components I made sure hotseat coaching was a part of every session. And yes, I was able to provide information that my group members needed, but that's not what I led with. And I was able to provide that information more as a supplementary resource to the group coaching program. That's what I found worked best for this particular group coaching program, and I would strongly suggest to you that if what you want is a group coaching program, focus on the experience first, that is what differentiates a coaching program from a course. A course really can focus on the material that you're covering, and the knowledge and skills that your people will develop as a result of completing your course, but the group coaching program should center the group experience. So start there, and let any knowledge or information support that experiential process. 

So that's lesson number one, arguably maybe the most important lesson, which is that a group coaching program is not a course. The second lesson I learned is the importance of giving yourself and the group time, and I mean that in multiple ways. First, I mean that logistically. When I ran From Couch to Coach that first time, I believe my group sessions were 60 minutes long, and as I was running the group, I realized, “Whoa, 60 minutes is not enough time for us to have the experience that my group members deserve and the experience I want to provide”, and so I learned that I actually needed more time in session with my group members. And so subsequent cohorts, I believe were 75 minutes sessions instead of 60. Now, I realize 15 minutes might not seem like a lot of time, but actually, within a group session, that can be the difference between feeling rushed and feeling like you have the space to explore, and so shifting from 60 minutes to 75 minutes sessions was huge. So I share that with you because I want you to know that if you're planning something out, and you think, “Oh, yeah, I can do this in 45 minutes, or 60 minutes”, give yourself the gift of time, give your clients that gift of time, and schedule it for longer than you think you'll need because inevitably, whether I'm teaching a class or running a group program, things take longer than I anticipate. So give everyone the gift of time, and even if you think it's going to be 60 minutes, go ahead and give yourself 75. Trust me, you will thank yourself for it later. 

So that's the time perspective logistically, I also want to encourage you to give yourself and the group time from a process perspective, and those of you who have run groups before know that it does take time for a group to develop a level of cohesion and trust with each other. If your group members don't know each other before they come into group, then it will take time for them to build relationships, to build trust, and to create that space or that container in which growth can happen. So if you're running, say an eight week program, understand that it may take two to four weeks for your group to really have a sense of cohesion. And so what you'll find is that you may have a deeper level of intimacy and you may see more vulnerability from your clients much later in the group than you did in the beginning. That's normal, that's part of the process. So as you are planning out your group program, again, give yourself time and understand that it may take a few weeks for the group to really come together and to really gel, and that is a normal part of group dynamics and functioning. I remember when I was a social work student, I took a course called Social Work Practice with Groups, and we went through what many of us know are the five stages of group development – there's forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning – and they always pronounce it “adorning” to try to rhyme it. But whatever, it's adjourning. But again, that forming stage and the storming stage can take a little bit of time where you're coming together, you're learning about each other, you're setting rules, maybe you're even having some conflict, as you are figuring out how this group is going to run, but once you make it through the forming and the storming stages, then you create the group norms, and the expectations that will serve the group so that the group can perform together. This is a very common process that we see in groups, and so if you see this as well, and if you're feeling a little frustrated, that you're not getting to that performing stage faster, just slow down, take a breath, and remember, this is all part of the process and things will unfold as they are meant to. And oftentimes that storming period, and that norming period, can be really important opportunities for growth, both for the individuals within the group program, and for the group as a whole. And that process is part of the experience that you are creating within that group program. So don't try to rush through it, understand how to facilitate it, yes, but keep in mind that that may be a very important part of this experiential process that you are creating for your group clients. So that's the second lesson that I learned is the importance of giving yourself and the group time, certainly from a logistic perspective in terms of the length of group sessions, but also from a process perspective, and the time it takes for a group to come together and develop that group cohesion.

The third lesson that I learned from running group programs, is how important it is to incorporate one on one calls strategically. Now, I know some people have group programs, and there are no one on one calls involved, everything takes place within the group, and that is a perfectly acceptable way of running groups. So if you have no interest in having individual calls as part of your group program, that is fine. However, if you do want to have one on one calls, or if you're on the fence about whether or not you want to include it, here is how I would suggest you make the best use of them to serve both the individual client, the group, and your business. I have found having three calls within a group program can be very helpful. I have a call before the group starts with each person individually, then we'll have an individual call after the midpoint of the group, and then there's a third call that comes after the group completes. 

So let's take each of those calls one by one, and we can talk about considerations for each one, and I want to start with that first call that happens before the group starts. This call is so important because it will provide you with so much information about what your clients expect from your group, and how you can meet their wants and their needs. In many ways, this call runs almost like a client interview, where I'm asking them, “What do you hope to get out of this group? What goals do you have for yourself? What would need to happen over the eight weeks, say that we are in group together for this to be a successful experience for you? What resources do you have at your disposal to help make that happen? What things might you need to bring in whether it's a person or a resource to help you achieve that?”. So we're getting really clear on what that client's individual goal is, and we're setting them up for success by helping them identify the assets they already have in place and the things that they may need to learn or develop or add in order to achieve their goals. So in doing so, we're creating realistic expectations for the client as to what will be possible for them within your group program. And if your client has any sort of unrealistic expectation, then this is an opportunity to discuss this now in advance, and to partner with the client to help them come up with maybe a more realistic goal. So from a one on one perspective, this is incredibly helpful for the client, it's also going to be helpful for the group, because you will know what the shared goals are. And so, as you are preparing for each session and deciding how you want to structure it and the things that you want to explore, you can ensure that you're meeting the group level goals, and you can also tailor it to ensure each individual member is getting what they need as well. So these one on one calls serve the individual, but they're also an important part of making sure the group as a whole receives what it needs as well. Having this preliminary one on one call not only serves the individual client and the group, but it serves you and your business too. It is so helpful to get information from your clients in advance so that you can plan out your program so that you know it's going to meet their needs, and you know it's going to help them achieve the results that they want, and that's going to lead to really satisfied group members. And when you have satisfied group members, then we have opportunities for testimonials, which can be really powerful when it comes to marketing this group. And ideally, you'll love this group so much, you'll want to run additional cohorts, and so having testimonials will really serve you. And as we talked about a little bit in Episode 37, you may find some of your group members will be ready for a one on one work after the group program. And if they've had a positive experience with you, in which they've achieved the results they set out for themselves, well, then the next logical step would be to continue that through working with you in a one on one basis. So you can really set your business up for success by having this one on one call before the group even begins. It ensures that each individual client receives what they need, that the group as a whole receives what it needs, and it sets you up for business growth, whether it's through satisfied customers, testimonials, or even clients deciding to engage with you in a different service after the group concludes. 

So that's how I like to use my one on one calls before the group even begins. That's the first call, the second call typically takes place after the midpoint of the group program. And depending on your group program, this call can have different purposes, it can be a way of checking in with your group member to see how the program's going for them, what gains they've made so far, where they're at in their journey, and what else they might need in order to have that result that they articulated during the first session. It's also a chance to have some personal exploration around their goals, their challenges, and their opportunities. So they feel like they have that really dedicated support from you. It also may be an opportunity for you to illustrate some of the concepts that you've been talking about in your group program. And when I ran From Couch to Coach, that was the main purpose of this call. During From Couch to Coach, we talked a lot about how to connect with ideal clients and how to welcome them into your practice, and we explored if and when using a complimentary coaching session would be a way to introduce potential clients to the way that you work, and then ultimately to invite them into your practice as a paying client. So to illustrate that, this second call in From Couch to Coach was me guiding the client through that complimentary coaching call process. And so I would conduct a coaching call with them as if they were a potential client, and so this served two main purposes. Number one, they were receiving powerful coaching within a coaching call so we could tackle any issue that was on their mind, and they were going to get 90 minutes of coaching from me around that topic. So it was serving them on that level, but then the second piece was that they were able to observe what this coaching call could look like. So while they were being coached as a client, we could also break it down, and they could ask questions from the perspective of the coach. So it was a little meta, but it worked so well. They were getting so much bang for their buck in that session because they were walking away with some insights and ‘aha’ moments and a strategic action plan for next steps in their business, and we were able to talk about the format and the process and how the call evolved and what they could take from that and use their own process. It was such an effective call from my program, and so I would encourage you to think about what that call could look like in your program. How can you continue to build on the elements that you're covering in your group coaching program, and construct that one on one call, so that your client leaves feeling really powerfully served by you as well? 

So that is an example of how I used the second call in my coaching practice, and then that leads us to the third and final one on one call in the group coaching program. And this was a follow up or a check in call, and this was essentially my way of saying to my clients, “Yes, the group program is over, but you still have access to me”. So if you've got questions about what we've covered, if you're unsure how to implement it, if you are implementing it, and you want some support in kind of tweaking it to make it work for you, that's what this session is about. It was typically a 45 minute session that my clients could schedule at any time after the group program ended. Whether that was a week later, a month later, or a year later, they would have that call, to connect with me and to gain support. Having this call served multiple purposes, first and foremost, it was a way for the client to continue to feel powerfully served by me, knowing that they essentially had a call in their back pocket that they could pull out anytime they needed it, and they knew that I was going to be there to support them. So it wasn't simply, “see you later” when the group program ended, I was still going to be there for them and support them. The other thing is that it kept us connected. So even after the group program ended, there was still a line of connection between the client and me as the coach so that if they needed additional support or additional help, yes, they could get it in that one session, and then maybe they would also want to explore other ways of continuing to work together in the future, whether that was a different group program, the membership, even one on one coaching, but it kept that connection alive. 

So when I talk about using one on one calls within your group program strategically, that's what I'm talking about. I'm talking about letting these calls serve double duty, if not triple duty, in terms of their purpose, we want to make sure that we keep the client at the center. And so the number one priority for these calls will always be serving the client and helping them establish their goals, meet their goals, achieve their results, and to feel supported. And these calls can also help us build our businesses too, through information gathering, through modeling the experience that we want to create, and by keeping the lines of communication open even after the group program ends. So that was the third lesson I learned which was using one on one calls strategically, to support my clients and to grow my program and to grow my business. 

The fourth lesson I learned is how important it is to clearly communicate the “who”, the “what”, and the “how” of your group program, as you're marketing it, as you're screening potential clients, and even within that first one on one call. One of the things that we talked about back in Episode 37, is the importance of making sure that you are bringing in clients into your group program that will be a good fit, and one of the ways we can do that is by being really clear about who the program is meant for. Using From Couch to Coach as an example, it was very clear that the program was meant for therapists and healthcare professionals who were interested in building coaching practices. So the “who” was very clear, and that helped me when it came time to market the program because I knew exactly who to focus on and who to speak to. And then I could talk about the “what”, which was essentially the result they could expect to achieve at the end of the group program. Being clear on the “what” made sure that every single client who was participating in the group had a reasonable expectation about what they would gain from the program. So I was not promising that at the end of an eight week program, they would have a thriving six figure coaching practice, but I could reasonably say that at the end of the eight week program, you will have all of the foundational building blocks in place so that you can go out and find your first or your next client. So by being clear on the “what” on that ideal end result, my clients were setting themselves up for success, and I was setting myself up for success too, because the expectation of what would be possible was clear. And then finally I was able to talk about how we would accomplish this, and I could talk a little bit about my process and what each group call would look like. I could talk about how hot seat coaching and what that would entail, I could talk about the individual coaching calls and what they could expect, and so as I talked about my process and the client journey through the program, my clients could start seeing themselves walking through it, and then hitting that end result that they wanted, which was a coaching practice. So that's why I would encourage you to take the time to get clear on the “who”, the “what”, and the “how” of your group coaching program well in advance, because that will inform how you market and to whom you market your group coaching program and it will make it so much easier as you're talking about it and as you are welcoming new members into your program. So that is lesson number four, the importance of clearly communicating the “who”, the “what”, and the “how” to your ideal client, and really taking the time to do that prep work before you get going. 

The last lesson I want to share with you today is the importance of knowing your non-negotiables. So when you are starting a group coaching program, or when you're running your next group coaching program, it can be really tempting to accept anyone and everyone who walks through the door, because you want this group program to run and you want to make sure that you have enough people. And so it's very tempting to say yes to everyone who expresses interest but when you are running a group program, you have to think about group cohesion and dynamics, and you want to make sure that every person who enters your program is a good fit. And in order for them to be a good fit, you need to know not just what qualities they should have, but you also need to know any excluding factors that would make them inappropriate for your group right off the bat, and those are your non-negotiables. Now, non-negotiables are very specific and very personal. So I can't sit here and tell you what your non-negotiables should be. What I can suggest, though, is that you be explicitly clear in your business values, in your vision, and your mission, and that you make sure that your clients know what those are, and that how they want to approach their work is in alignment with how you approach yours. Now, that doesn't mean that their values, their vision, and their mission need to be identical to yours. It simply means it needs to be aligned with yours so that they're complimentary. So as an example, if you have made the commitment to be an anti-racist business owner and coach, and you believe Black Lives Matter, if you are speaking with a potential client who does not share that same view, if they take an “All Lives Matter” stance, for example, well, that might be one of your non-negotiables. And it's not passing judgment on that person, it's simply recognizing that there is likely going to be a values clash in how you view the world, and then how you work with your clients, and that clash would likely be disruptive to the overall group cohesion and dynamics. So that could possibly be a non-negotiable for you. That's why it's so important to think about your non-negotiables in advance, so that as you are connecting with potential group members, and vetting them for your program, you can assess whether or not they fall under any of your non-negotiables. And if they do, then they're not going to be a good fit for your program, and then your responsibility perhaps is to refer them to a coach or to a program that would be better aligned with their values and their interests. I think this lesson is actually pretty important for coaching in general, but is especially important for group coaching programs because you do have to consider the group dynamic and all involved. 

So there you have it, those are the five lessons I've learned from running group programs that I wanted to share with you today. 

Number one is that a group coaching program is not a course. 

Number two is that it's important to give yourself and the group time. 

Number three is to incorporate your one on one calls strategically. 

Number four is to clearly communicate the “who”, the “what”, and the “how” of your group coaching program. 

And number five is to know your non negotiables. 

Now that we've gone through all five of those lessons, I think it's time for this week's Clarity in Action Moment. This week's Clarity in Action Moment is brought to you by my brand new free resource to help you start your first or your next group coaching program. So if you have not already, head over to CoachwithClarity.com/groupdownload, you're going to want to do that right now because there you will be able to sign up for a free resource that will walk you through the five elements you need to consider as you are thinking about and building out your group coaching program. It takes a lot of what we've discussed over the last three episodes, and really synthesized it into five aspects that you need to consider so that when you are getting your group program up and running, you know you're doing so on a strong foundation. So to access that guide, just head to CoachwithClarity.com/groupdownload, and I will send it to you via email right away. And here's a little secret, by signing up for that free guide, you will also gain first access to a brand new one day virtual retreat that I am hosting in December, all about launching your next group coaching program. It is going to be such a dynamic experience and heavily focused on implementation so that by the end of the retreat, you will have a clear concept for your group coaching program, you will know exactly who you are targeting, how you are going to build out your program, we're going to talk a little bit about marketing as well, and you'll have an action plan to actually get it done. It's going to be a highly collaborative experience where there will be plenty of time to connect with other attendees, we’ll have breakout sessions, and the emphasis is going to be on implementation. So this is not going to be a day where you're just sitting and receiving information. Nope, if you sign up for this retreat, come ready to work, and you can gain first access by signing up for the free guide at CoachwithClarity.com/groupdownload

So for today's Clarity in Action Moment, I'm going to ask you to really take lesson number four to heart, and lesson number four was the importance of clearly communicating “who”, the “what”, and the “how” of your group coaching program. I want you to sit down and really think through those three elements because I think once you have those set, it's actually going to help you with the other lessons. Once you know who this is for and how you want to go about building your program that may also inform your non-negotiables. It will also help you develop your group coaching program in such a way where you're focusing on the experience versus the content, and it's going to help you as you are designing your program in a way that provides time and space for the group as a whole for each individual program member and for you as the coach. So I am encouraging you to carve out some time on your calendar this week. Let's start with 30 minutes and give yourself 30 minutes to really explore “who”, the “what”, and the “how” of your group coaching program. And that free resource I was mentioning, that can be a great tool to help you in this exploration process, so again, head to CoachwithClarity.com/groupdownload, to access that free resource and to really start clarifying “who”, the “what”, and the “how” of your group coaching program. And for even more support, you'll definitely want to look into participating in that virtual retreat that I'm hosting in December – more information to come on that. 

Well, my friend, I hope that you have found these five lessons to be helpful and that they support you as you take the next steps in building out your group coaching program. I would love to know which of the five lessons most resonated with you. So come find me over on Instagram @CoachwithClarity and let me know! You can comment on this week's episode post or drop me a DM and let me know which one of these really hit the mark for you. I look forward to connecting with you next week as we wrap up this four part series on group coaching with a coaching call, and y'all know coaching calls are some of my favorites and I think you're really going to enjoy this one. So if you haven't already subscribed to the show, be sure to do so, so next week's episode will appear automatically in your feed. Until then, this is Lee Chaix McDonough encouraging you to get out there and show the world what it means to be a Coach with Clarity.

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