Rule six: Be prepared to be totally inflexible about key ground rules
Summary: Over generations, coaching teams have been taught to be as flexible as possible, and to be as nice and accommodating for participants and their managers as you can. Honestly, that doesn't help.
Written by Alistair Gordon 04 Jun 2020

In small group coaching you need to be able to motivate three participants to turn up to many sessions at different times over many months.

Participants electing to miss some sessions because “other urgent things needed doing” destroy the momentum of the learning for the other participants, and also destroy the layer upon layer impact for the participant who doesn’t turn up. (See the Six Layers of Learning on our Fastlead website.)

The commitment you seek from participants is the commitment to turn up because of the learning of the other participants, not just their learning.

The settings we are about to suggest run contrary to the mindsets and values of many learning and development professionals we interact. Over generations you have been taught to be as flexible as possible, and to be as nice and accommodating for participants and their managers as you can.

Our advice – that won’t work applied uniformly across all of the settings you need to establish with small group coaching. There are times when total inflexibility is the right setting. And believe it or not, participants and their managers will thank you for it (eventually!).

On the next page are examples where we strongly advise inflexiblity.

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, being inflexible works. If the coaching sessions aren’t seen as sacrosanct, then they will get moved all over the calendar, momentum and learning will be lost, and the program deemed a failure. Why? Not because you did a poor design, far from it. But because the participants and managers couldn’t follow rules, they had agreed to up front. But we all know who will get the blame. Ensuring discipline among participants managers is a thankless task early on, but holding the line will pay big dividends down the line. They’ll thank you for it – eventually!

In our early days managing small group coaching programs, we were too nice. Now we have a draconian system. Firstly, there is a big fat fee for anyone requiring the re-arrangement of a session. We tell the participant who wants to move the session how much it is, and who we are going to charge it too. Secondly, if it’s a second time we let the L&D team know that this person isn’t committed and should be pulled off the program. Thirdly, when asked if our coach could bring the participant up to speed after they have missed a session, we say of course and tell them it will cost them a monstrous fee.

These tactics have a miraculous impact – people turn up, and move other things so they can. We learned early that communicating these draconian settings at the very beginning of the program – not when the situation arises during the program - solves most problems.

When you should be flexible or inflexible with small group coaching rules?

Attendance at sessions – INFLEXIBLE

Dates and times are set well in advance for all six coaching sessions. Sessions are allowed to be moved only with a months’ notice. If you don’t turn up, you lose the session. Bad luck. Our rationale: it’s two hours a month, and if you can’t organise yourself to be available for that time effectively, you shouldn’t be on the program.

Responding to emails and surveys – INFLEXIBLE

You all signed up for the program, wanting development, so take responsibility for making things happen in the order and timely fashion that they should. This applies as much to managers as participants. (The #1 category for late response to 360-degree surveys in our experience is managers – the people who nominated their participants for the program. That’s simply unacceptable.) You will find this setting unenforceable if you send too any emails, or emails that are poorly written, have terrible subject lines, and waffle. Or have the important information buried in the last line. Required actions should be in the first line for each email.

Responsibilities – INFLEXIBLE

We make it clear to all participants that their learning is their responsibility. We are simply the facilitators of learning opportunities. If they fail to get great impact from a well designed and proven program, then that’s on them, not us.

The advantage of us having run so many pods, for so many clients, is that we can claim this with impunity – we have the data to show that 95 per cent of participants rate the program and its impact very, very highly.

Request for changes made in a timely fashion for good reasons – FLEXIBLE

We obviously don’t suggest we are completely inflexible. If sufficient notice is provided, and good reasons, then of course changes can be made.

Flexibility in changing topics – FLEXIBLE

In fact, we do this all the time. Participants might choose Conflict Resolution for session 5, and then in session 3 and 4 they realise that a key leadership capability they need to work on is Delegation – a topic they didn’t initially chose. Can we swap out CR for D? No problem. In fact, we encourage such flexibility in the system. It means that learning and commitment to the program is elevated. As we discuss later in this paper, people love being listened to and accommodated. We just need to make sure for it’s the right reasons (learning) not the wrong reasons (poor organisation, lack of commitment or laziness).

Manager pulling a participant out of a session due to a ‘crisis’ – INFLEXIBLE

Managers are the single most quoted reasons for why participants can’t attend sessions. We make sure that managers understand that it is absolutely their prerogative to pull their participants out of session, but we have a policy of use it or lose it. No extra sessions will be organised. The coach won’t spend free time. Bad luck. We also make a point of explaining to managers the negative brand impact such decisions make on their leadership brand. Crucially, we do this right at the beginning of the program – we explain our unreason-ableness up-front.


One of the responsibilities our Program Managers and senior consultants willing take on is talking to out-of-line managers.

As external consultants, we have the ability to talk privately and candidly to managers in a way that internal people and culture professionals cannot. We can with clarity explain the negative impact on their reputations. That we will have to point out that they didn’t support their participant as they should have done.

If you are organising a program internally, it’s wise to choose a senior person internally who can handle these conversations. When managers of participants behave, learning magic happens!

Download 13 Rules to build and run your own small group coaching program