Pub School, and the unexpected joy of group learning

Sonja Jefferson

Group Learning at Pub School

What we’ve learned about learning from the Pub School experience, and why groups seem to make action happen quicker. 

In the beginning – why groups?

Let’s go back to January 2015. Sharon and I had finally finished writing the second edition of Valuable Content Marketing. Thankfully the first book had gone down well and our skills seemed to be in demand. With a new book about to be published we had a feeling this trend might continue. Now don’t get me wrong, we were happy about this! But we were also very keen not to lose the ability to help smaller independent businesses too. How could we help those with a smaller budget to access our content strategy process?

Teaching people in groups seemed the obvious answer. We wanted to give business owners the space and support to think through the big questions, to look at how they are positioned and how they describe what they do, to create a purposeful marketing strategy and and a sales-winning content plan. This needed to be a programme not a one-off workshop.

So we shaped a 12 week course, hired a training room, recruited our inaugural group, and we were away. I think we named it ‘The Valuable Content Mastermind Group’ at the start, and we looked at it simply as a ‘Groupon’ type solution to help smaller businesses get their content sorted in an affordable way.

The birth of Pub School

It wasn’t long before we recognised that the training room was a bit uninspiring. We had a fantastic group of owners who were all up for learning and making a change in their business. It was going okay, but the location didn’t feel quite special enough. After a chance discussion with the landlady of our beautiful local pub, The Lion in Cliftonwood, we decided to up sticks and move. And so Pub School was born.

Content marketing training at Pub School

Over time we’ve added more to the experience – a regular monthly Pub Club to keep ex-Pub Schooler’s on track with their content creation; Pub Walks to nurture the big thinking that Pub School inspires, and workshops (or Pub School lock-ins as we call them) to help people strengthen their marketing and business development knowledge and skills (e.g. Google Analytics workshop coming up on 9 April).

Blimey – this group learning thing seems to work!

Pub School is so much fun but it seems to be working too. We’ve come to recognise and expect the new confidence people have once they’ve worked their way through the course. Beyond the pride (and relief) that comes with getting your digital presence and content sorted, we’ve witnessed more fundamental changes in people’s businesses and lives because of the Pub School experience. People have travelled from as far as Chester, London, and Hertfordshire to be part of the group. It’s been so rewarding to see the way people use their new confident perspective to reshape their business models, attract investment, win new clients, attract the best talent, fire up their teams – even change their lives completely (we’re looking at you Ali!).

At the beginning we had no idea at all of the power of the group. It’s been a huge learning curve for us and a real surprise. Seven programmes later here are a few reflections on the joy of group learning and what we’ve learned so far about running successful group programmes.

But why? What makes group learning work so well?

1. You learn from the challenges and successes of others. You get ideas from how other group members describe their experiences and solutions – from their questions, their reflections, their challenges. There’s always a wide range of perspectives in the room. We guide and facilitate discussion but I think people learn as much from other members of the group as they do from us. The discussion around the table helps people make sense of what they are learning and what they still need to understand. Everyone learns from each other.

“In a small company you often work in isolation so it is invaluable to be able to listen to and learn from other businesses facing similar challenges. The group is the perfect environment to share ideas and experiences.”

2. You get fresh ideas for your business. A good group is a safe sounding board for your ideas – a good place to try out different versions of your message for example. A lot of the value in Pub School is its power to help you articulate your purpose and offer – what you do and why you do it. Talking around that in a group that’s listening hard and on your side is useful. And it’s time to think. Lots of us don’t make enough time for this in our businesses. We’re too busy doing to stop and breathe. Pub School allows to to step back and make space, so that fresh ideas bubble up.

3. You benefit from the collective knowledge of the group. We’ve had a wide range of different disciplines come through our Pub School – specialists from web design and development to marketing, branding, accountancy and finance, HR, recruitment, leadership, coaching, PR, copywriting, property, psychology and health. Everyone brings something useful to the discussion and is happy to pass on nuggets of wisdom to others when they need advice.

Pub School group network

4. You get support and encouragement (something every business owner needs). Confidence ebbs and flows for most of us who run our own show. The right group can be incredibly supportive. If someone’s struggling, others will help. I love that. It reassures you that “I’m not alone! Others struggle with this too!” It’s tough running your own business, and it can be quite isolating. Good to know everyone struggles with the same challenges (few love marketing for example) and great debate the big questions and challenges facing small businesses as a group. This reduces anxiety. It’s a really encouraging community.

5. Friendly competition pushes people harder. If someone’s making big changes others are provoked to model this behaviour and up their game. If your fellow classmate has written three blogs already, or sorted their newsletter, or created a beautiful manifesto, or used their content to open doors to an exciting new opportunity you won’t want to get left behind.

6. Group experiences forge powerful connections. You get to know people well over 12 weeks. Many in the group and between groups have done work with each other post Pub School – they’ve hired other Pub Schoolers to help them with design, websites, coaching, writing, pilates, appetite retraining! Collaboration is common place amongst our alumni.

“Group learning is the new networking!”

7. Accountability. Both we as group leaders and fellow Pub School members will hold you to account – Pub Club post Pub School works this way. We invite you to make a public commitment of intent, tracking your progress against stated To Dos.

8. It’s a load of fun. Put together like-minded people, throw in some creative exercises, ask big questions. Pub School is hard work but it’s a lot more fun for isolated business owners. And the deep thinking we do, linking business goals to life goals, brings a new excitement and direction to many of our Pub School alumni.

Pub School is a delight to run that’s for sure, and the upshot is that change/action/progress seems to happen more quickly in a group.

What we’ve learned about working with groups so far

  • Location and atmosphere is everything – three cheers for the Lion! The first training room was just not interesting enough. The name alone, Pub School, makes people smile.
  • Size matters. We’re not sure what’s optimum but we’re keeping it small. Small enough so that everyone can sit round one big table, but not so small that you lose the group buzz.
  • We gotta mix it up and make it fun – keep it interesting – that means exercises that make you think creatively and test your ideas – cue big bits of paper, Sharpies (everyone loves a Sharpie), Artefact cards, T shirts! – alongside discussion and direct training

    “The balance between group discussion, personal help, and homework helps you learn.”

  • Get the right people in the room – this one is potentially a bit out of our control, but we’ve been lucky so far that Pub School attracts the right kind of people. A lot of places are filled by referrals from previous groups, and these people know what to expect.
  • Keep it moving – control discussion to give everyone air time. Some people like to talk more than others, but everyone needs the space to share their experiences and thinking.
  • Trust the process, trust the group – we worried at the start, having run projects for years with bespoke support for companies, that people wouldn’t get enough individual attention in a group. But we’re relaxing now – we trust the process and we trust the group. It means a lighter touch now.
  • Share the funInstagram is a good place to share the Pub School story. Our content is our marketing (as you’d expect from us!) so we need to market the joy alongside the hard-nosed business benefits of our programme.
  • Foster community – there’s more we can do here, and we have plans to strengthen the community even further. Content, events and a better digital platform are all on the cards for Pub School.
  • More accountability – investing in Pub School is worthwhile if you implement what you learn. We want to get even better at holding people to account so that they get fantastic results.
  • Content is a great catalyst for change We knew this before we started, but it has been underlined so strongly through the Pub School experience. People do the thinking, articulate their  purpose, think hard about their ideal clients and the work they really want to do in the Lion. And all that work doesn’t just sit in a file somewhere, it is turned into words on a website, it becomes a newsletter, it is turned into new services. Pub School makes you put your thinking into action.
  • And of course, cake! Everything is better with cake. And Fiona’s are the best.

“The best part of being with a group is that you don’t have to do everything alone.”

Group therapy for business owners?

We’ve been surprised and delighted by the group dynamic. It really is a joy to run.

Perhaps shouldn’t have been so surprised. My Mum worked as a group therapist in addictions counselling. She always loved working with groups and said change happens more quickly for people this way. Maybe Pub School is a bit like group therapy for business owners! It certainly seems to work like that. And it’s part of a shift we notice, a growing desire amongst people in businesses to come together, not to be so isolated.

There’s more to do, and we’re going to do all we can it work even better. Not sure exactly where to take the Pub School yet – it’s a very joyful thing – but we’re learning too and we’re open to ideas. We’d welcome your thoughts.

We love pub school! Thanks to Fiona and all who’ve been with us to date. Cheers.

Pub School party

Two #pubschool exercises to try:

P.S. Our next Pub School group programme kicks off on 19th April.  Do pass the word on. We’d love you to join us. Pub School info here.

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