Cohort Coaching for Leaders: Unlocking Growth Potential

Dear Coach,

I read your article in SHRM where you talk about cohort coaching for leaders. I have some questions.

  1. What is your definition of cohort coaching for leaders?
  2. What is the structure or approach taken?
  3. What is the optimal size of a cohort?
  4. How should membership be determined?
  5. What are the requirements and expectations of cohort members? 
  6. What are the requirements and expectations of a cohort coach? 
  7. Can the cohort coach be different from individual members’ coaches?
  8. What kinds of topics typically get covered?
  9. In larger organizations, how do you scale this program?

Best regards, 


Dear Maria,

I will answer each of your questions in the same order you put them. 

Question one

I would describe cohort coaching for leaders like this: it is when a small, tight-knit group of folks who are leaders in their organizations team up. They are all really dedicated to improving how they lead and also to helping each other grow as leaders.

Question two

It’s pretty straightforward how things work. Every month, the group gets together for an hour, usually online. Then, each week, there’s a quick check-in between the coach and each group member, sometimes just through emails. On top of that, there are these “Just in Time” talks. That’s when the coach helps out a group member with a new problem they’re facing. Other times, if possible, the rest of the group joins in on these chats.

Question three

I usually suggest having 3 to 5 members in the group. Here’s why: Having three people creates a nice group dynamic, and having five sets a limit. This limit helps for two reasons: first, it makes sure each person gets enough focus on their growth, and second, it stops the group from getting too big and making introverts feel less comfortable participating.

Question four

You don’t have to be a top-level leader to join a cohort, and it’s not necessary for everyone in the group to have the same seniority or authority. For instance, I’m currently working with a cohort that includes both a CEO and a front-line supervisor.

A cohort can even be made up of leaders from different organizations who all want to improve in their roles.

Now, there might be times when it doesn’t make sense to have certain people in the same cohort. Let’s say I report to you. It could get a bit uncomfortable if you start talking in our cohort meetings about challenges you’re facing with me.

But don’t take this idea too far. Even for people in a reporting relationship, being part of the same cohort could lead to personal and mutual growth. Consider this scenario: you’re a CEO thinking about who could succeed you. Would you look within the company or outside? Imagine if you could see potential successors in cohort meetings. You’d not only learn from the issues they bring up but also get insights into your own challenges, like dealing with the Board of Directors.

Question five

The most important thing for a good cohort member is being really committed to making progress, both for themselves and for their fellow cohort buddies. And part of this commitment is building strong trust, being open and honest, and keeping everything confidential within the group. What’s talked about in the cohort stays in the cohort, unless everyone agrees otherwise.

Being committed also means showing up for all the planned meetings, being there when a fellow cohort member needs help, and following through on any promises made.

Think of cohort members as sort of like assistant coaches. As the group gets closer, they share their thoughts on each other’s challenges and give support. They’re actively involved in each person’s journey as a leader.

Question six

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright defined an expert as “someone who has stopped thinking because he already knows.” Don’t be an expert! You’re the Dept. of Coaching and Facilitation, not the Dept. of Answers.

Does this mean the coach can’t express an opinion? No. Here’s what I do. Let’s say cohort member “X” brings up a challenge she’s having with a direct report. And let’s say I have a pretty good idea in my head regarding what “X” should do. Instead of expressing that idea, I ask the other cohort members to contribute their thoughts, ideas, and suggestions. If a cohort member suggests something I like, I give that person recognition. I don’t say, “That’s what I thought too.”

Humility goes a long way for both cohort members and their coaches.

Question seven

Yes. Cohort members can have individual leadership development coaches who are different than the cohort coach. Indeed, there’s no reason there can’t be a healthy dynamic between the individual coach focused on his or her coachee’s specific development goals and the cohort coach who supports the overall group.

Question eight

Based on what I’ve seen, here are some of the typical problems that get tackled:

  • Employees who are repeatedly late, absent, unreliable, underperforming, or not working well with others
  • Interdepartmental conflict
  • A senior leader needs to teach/coach direct report on how to deal effectively with their own direct reports
  • Employee selection
  • Performance reviews/management
  • Internal harassment/bullying/mistreatment complaints or problems
  • Disputes with a contractor, vendor, or customer, including mistreatment of company employees
  • Time management/delegation/efficient meetings and other communications
  • Managing change

Question nine

Scaling happens as the initial cohort members progress. Once each member successfully completes the process, usually taking at least six months, they can become coaches for new cohorts.

Let’s do some math. Imagine there are five cohorts, each with five members. When these 25 people become coaches, they can guide 25 new groups (one group for each original cohort member). That could bring in around 125 new cohort members who will grow as leaders and might later coach new groups themselves.

Of course, you’ll need to manage things like coordination, organization, and training the new coaches. I’d suggest a mix of external resources along with internal HR support. It’s an investment for sure. But I believe the cost will seem small when compared to the benefits for the organization’s culture, leadership, and overall outcomes.


Maria, hopefully you will find this information useful, and that cohort coaching will become an important part of the services you provide others.

Best regards,


Jathan Janove is a Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching Master Coach and Practice Leader. You can learn more about him here. If you have a question you’d like him to address, please email us at


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