Back to basics: What is a cohort? - Acumen

Back to basics: What is a cohort?

By Acumen on September 01, 2009

The first step towards exploring the role of cohorts in leadership development is to define the concept of cohorts. A quick Google search directed Blair and me to, which offered the following common definitions:

Co-hort [koh-hawrt]
1.    a group or company
2.    a companion or associate.

2.  Friend, comrade, fellow, chum, pal, buddy.

Expected…but is there more to the concept of cohorts in the context of leadership development programs?

Instead of reinventing the wheel, I volunteered to spend a few good hours searching through business and academic journals to see if others had already developed a definition suitable for our purpose (something I believe we don’t do often enough). To my surprise, I found not only several definitions but a great number of journals and books studying different aspect of cohorts!

From the works of these scholars, two major themes emerged which I found interesting and relevant to our experiment: First, the idea of a cohort being more than just a structure and second, the variables that characterize a “real” cohort. This week I will tell you more about the first theme.

Cohort: Structure and Holding Environment

In the context of adult learning and leadership development, cohorts are not only a structure (a group of people) but also the holding environment for learning and interaction.

What does this mean?  Think back to your college experience, for example.  In this scenario, your cohort (group, companions, comrades, fellows… as per the common definition) was your class. Together with the members of your class you assisted to similar courses and seminars as required to complete your degree and, if all went well, you graduated in the same year.

How many activities were integrated in the curriculum for you and your class to reflect on your development as individuals and as a group? Was it expected that the members of the class supported each other in matters other than academic performance? Implicitly, perhaps…as part of the explicit program structure, most probably not.

In essence, grouping people together to go through a specific curriculum does not guarantee that individuals will support each other in the process of learning and be concerned about each other’s development.  Therefore, for learning and leadership development to take place, “cohorts must be structured as environments in which individuals experience growth and development supported and challenged by the group”-Imel (2002)

So, why is this concept of a cohort as “holding environment” important?

For present or future participants of a leadership development cohort:

It is important to understand what your fellows will expect from you. Accepting to be part of a cohort is a commitment to advance a common purpose but also it is also a very, very personal journey. What I learned this year as an Acumen Fund Fellow, is that if you really want to grow as a leader in a cohort you have to get personal…be vulnerable, be open to talk as much about your strengths as your weaknesses, challenge others but also accept to be challenged, be humble and learn to fail. If you do this, you get to know yourself better, gain confidence, emerge as a better leader and hence are better positioned to give back to the group as well as the cause of the cohort.

For practitioners of leadership development:
In designing a cohort program for leadership development, selecting the right people, the number of participants and deciding the curriculum (i.e., the structure of the cohort) is a very important part of the process. However, make sure you dedicate equal amount of resources to exploring the second part: how to develop the “holding environment” for individual and group development to take place. Later on, my colleague Blair will share with you her experience in this subject.

Next week: Seven variables that define a “real” cohort.

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