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How Zillow used peer coaching to build community among managers

In July 2020, Zillow CEO Rich Barton announced that remote work would now be permanent at Zillow, the new standard for how work gets done. Chief People Officer Dan Spaulding wrote,  “This is a drastic change from where we started the year. We have historically discouraged employees from working from home, preferring face time and in-office collaboration versus virtual exchanges. Our old preferences have been debunked during the pandemic.”

Zillow has long been known for their culture of innovation, and now they’re leading the way in redesigning the workplace as we know it. They are reimagining their corporate offices to be primarily places of collaboration, launching new work norms and flexible schedules.  In doing so, they are creating a model for the new world of work.

At the heart of all this change, however, was the reality that they also needed to redesign how they support and develop managers.  Managers define the culture, experience and performance of their teams. But now, they’re also facing extreme complexity and unprecedented challenges.

"Coaching skills are critical to the scalability of our company. It's key to us being able to hire all the people we need, develop them, and so on. Being a coach is a big focus at Zillow. Peer coaching has been phenomenal, because it puts into practice all the coaching skills we teach."

Corina Kolbe, VP of Learning & Development, Zillow


“Uncertainty and change is a big issue for managers,” Corina Kolbe, VP of Learning and Development said.  “The manager’s job has always been to create clarity out of ambiguity, but in the past, that has been focused only on aspects of work. Now, there’s so many societal, economic and global issues that are also on their plates. Human skills and human connection are really what managers need more than ever.”  

The Zillow leadership team needed a new core solution for their remote managers, something that addressed wellbeing, inclusion, belonging and building coaching skills. They wanted fresh thinking, based on neuroscience--something that could address where other solutions failed: Combatting the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, addressing psychological safety, and built on how people actually learn (10% formal training, 20 social learning, and 70% experiential learning).

The existing programs in place couldn’t meet all these needs, nor could they be scaled or personalized to solve each manager’s unique situation. With managers’ schedules full to the brim, any new tool needed to be something that required no prep, was in the flow of work, and unlocked energy and productivity.

Corina and her team partnered with Imperative to create a new, ongoing program on the Imperative peer coaching platform. It enables continuous development and support of managers in the flow of work. This model inherently builds inclusion, connection, and networks across previously siloed departments. It also evolves learning and development from episodic to ongoing coaching and human skill building.

To quickly and effectively launch, Corina and her team connected peer coaching to their existing learning programs. Managers were paired as part of these formal learning programs and then each quarter matched them with new managers to continue social learning as part of a larger community of managers.

The Imperative platform pairs employees for dynamic, science-based coaching conversations that require no training or prep work. In each bi-weekly conversation, employees commit to specific actions they want to take before the next conversation - moving from social to experiential learning. This intentional action and accountability can be directly connected to powerful behavior change and trackable growth.

Through these ongoing conversations with a peer, employees build trust, learn new skills, and practice those skills in the flow of their work.

Immediately, Zillow managers reported that their conversations were extremely valuable: 97% of employees reported the conversations being “helpful,” “very helpful,” and “breakthrough.”  New relationships were built across the company that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, given the increased potential of silos in a distributed work environment.

One employee said, “Peer coaching creates a safe space to let you work on things and grow in ways that I just don’t see a similar opportunity elsewhere. It really expands the kind of spaces that are available.” Another employee shared, “There’s a lot of value in being able to have these conversations and having to articulate the answers to these great probing questions. It’s really like understanding your own superpower.”

As Corina and the leadership team continue to create the playbook for the new world of work they’re pioneering, they view peer coaching as a critical and strategic pillar. They plan to further scale the Imperative platform so more employees can experience the powerful benefits of peer coaching.

Challenge: Support and Connect Remote Managers

Managers define the culture, experience, and performance of their teams. But now, they’re also facing extreme complexity and increased challenges. Zillow leadership identified four areas where managers working from home needed additional support and training:

1. Cultural Consistency. Zillow created a Leadership Blueprint to define the expectation of managers leading teams. How do you promote consistent values adoption to create a common experience for all employees?

2. Human Skill Development. Managing remote teams requires exceptional human skills, from listening, to goal-setting, to feedback, to conflict resolution. How do you create a social and experiential learning program to continuously develop these skills?

3. Inclusion. Zillow has a diverse workforce and it was a priority to proactively consider the positive and negative impact of work from home on inclusion. How do you build an inclusive, virtual workplace?

4. Wellbeing. Social isolation directly impacts the wellbeing of people working from home and can have a large impact on physical and mental health. How do you not only help managers care for themselves but also for their teams?

Corina wanted fresh thinking, based on neuroscience--something that could address where other solutions failed: combatting the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, addressing psychological safety, and built on how people actually learn (10% formal training, 20 social learning, and 70% experiential learning).

laptop

Solution: On-going Peer Coaching

Zillow’s existing programs didn’t meet all these needs, nor could they be scaled or personalized to solve each manager’s unique situation. With managers’ schedules full to the brim, any new tool needed to be something that required no prep, was in the flow of work and unlocked energy and productivity.

Corina and her team partnered with Imperative to create a new, sustainable program on the Imperative peer coaching platform, which enabled continuous development and support of managers in the flow of work. This model inherently builds inclusion, connection and networks across previously siloed departments. It also evolves learning and development from episodic to ongoing coaching and human skill building.

1. Cultural Consistency. Zillow linked the Leadership Blueprint to the peer coaching conversations to bring them to life and enable managers to support each other in living them.

2. Human Skill Development. Zillow connected peer coaching to their core manager training programs to increase the adoption of the skills needed to effectively lead virtual teams.

3. Inclusion. Peer coaching conversations on Imperative were designed to match managers with four other managers each year to build strong relationships across the organization while developing empathy and understanding for different experiences.

4. Wellbeing. Zillow used peer coaching to prevent social isolation and enable managers to identify personal goals to care for themselves, in addition to supporting the wellbeing of their teams.

To quickly and effectively launch, Corina and her team connected peer coaching to their existing learning programs. Managers were initially paired as part of these formal learning programs.  Then, each subsequent quarter, they were matched with new managers to continue social learning as part of a larger community of managers.

The Imperative platform pairs employees for dynamic, science-based coaching conversations that require no training or prep work. In each bi-weekly conversation, employees commit to specific actions they want to take before the next conversation - moving from social to experiential learning. This intentional action and accountability can be directly connected to powerful behavior change and trackable growth.

Results: Increased Connection, Productivity and Wellbeing

97% of employees described their peer coaching experience as “helpful,” “very helpful,” and “breakthrough.”  84% of the actions employees pledged to take after each session were completed.

Some of these included:

  • Clarifying their thinking and reducing ambiguity
  • Identifying and challenging their biases
  • Intentionally creating a sense of belonging for their colleagues
  • Celebrating the diverse contributions of their team
  • Share more constructive feedback

Benefits: Culture of Coaching and Community

After having peer coaching conversations, employees reported having more trusting relationships, powerful conversations, increasing their engagement and role clarity, owning their personal career growth, and building their active listening skills.  

Overwhelmingly, employees reported a desire to continue peer coaching, as it is a “time multiplier” in their week.

Employees described peer coaching as something they look forward to and continue to see the value grow as they get new peer coaching partners and continue to have meaningful conversations.

“That's what I really love about peer coaching on Imperative. You can apply it to anything: reinforcing core values, leadership principles... You can use it to further the learning of anything. This takes stress off the L&D function, because we put concepts out there and now people can go learn and practice on their own."

Corina Kolbe, VP of Learning and Development

“I’ll tell you what I found was valuable, which was the ability to connect one-on-one in a candid way with a peer that was remote from me. They’re not somebody I work with every day or interact with directly. But we’re both Zillow so we had this baseline of shared experience. The distance freed us up to be quite candid. That was awesome.”

Manager, Zillow

Employee Story: Power of Connection

Peer coaching conversations are powerful for a host of reasons, but one particular benefit is how it can bring together people who have never met before and quickly build trust between them.

When Zillow first launched peer coaching on Imperative’s platform, two managers from very different parts of the business were matched to be peer coaches. One manager leads teams in Field Operations and their peer coaching partner is a Manager in Product Design. At the outset, both employees thought they were too different to truly be able to connect and help each other.

After the first conversation, they both reported surprise and gratitude that they had been partnered. Though their day-to-day roles differed dramatically, the core manager challenges they faced remained the same. Through their five conversations, they developed coaching and management skills, created an inclusive shared space to be open and heard, and were able to support each other during a tumultuous year in the world.  

“I’ll tell you what I found was valuable, which was the ability to connect one-on-one in a candid way with a peer that was remote from me. They’re not somebody I work with every day or interact with directly. But we’re both Zillow so we had this baseline of shared experience. The distance freed us up to be quite candid. That was awesome.”

Manager, Zillow

Cultural Consistency: One Culture Across the Company

“I really appreciated being exposed to those differences and similarities. It gave me a better sense of how big the business is and also how things like the core values in our company culture actually permeate and the ways they manifest,” the field manager said.

Their partner echoed the value of working through shared challenges. “Even though we work in different sectors, there are similarities of the same issues we’re going through. I think when it comes down to coaching, management, and just dealing with those stresses that resonates across departments, it was really good and really easy to help my partner and have them help me because, though they may not understand what my sector does, the principles are all the same.”


“I realized that people face similar leadership challenges, even if the details are all different. It’s validating to not feel alone in this. Because, you know, they say the higher up you go, the more alone you are.”

Field Manager, Zillow

“It’s not that they’re going to come with some answers to your questions. It’s that you have a partner to talk this stuff through and that you can be a partner for them to figure out their own stuff too. We are there to facilitate our own selves.”

Manager, Zillow

Human Skill Development: Manager as Coach

The field manager also observed that over the course of their 5 conversations, they added coaching skills to their manager toolkit.

“This is an opportunity where you have to sit and listen and the only way to really help this other individual is by asking questions. So that’s a skill that some people don’t utilize all the time. But this platform gives you that perfect way to do that where they listen and you listen. And then you’re like, ‘That really worked’ as opposed to just always trying to be a direct manager… which I think people tend to do that, they tend to lean on the direct side and just tell people what to do.”

“It’s not that they’re going to come with some answers to your questions. It’s that you have a partner to talk this stuff through and that you can be a partner for them to figure out their own stuff too. We are there to facilitate our own selves.”

Manager, Zillow

Inclusion: A Space to Share and Explore

As managers, they were also able to discuss how current events, like the protests and the election, were impacting their team and the company.

“It allowed us to express how we feel about things,” they said. “We were able to be frustrated together, and I think that’s valuable. I think sometimes we over-index towards action in work. And I think it’s just as important to know when not to take action, especially when it’s an emotional thing. Sometimes just...naming it and sitting in it for a second, resolves it enough to let you move on.”

After processing their own reactions, they were then able to focus on how they as leaders could play a role in supporting their team and activating Zillow’s value, Include and Empower.

These two employees would never have met had it not been for the Imperative peer coaching platform, and now they have a meaningful relationship that they can continue long past their few months as a peer coach for one another.


“It helped me go to bed at night knowing ’I did my due diligence to include diversity and check my biases.’”

Manager, Zillow

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