This is the best decision a leader can make
At a convening last year, some of our member deans were sharing strategies for managing their leadership challenges. Many of the challenges likely sound familiar: how to re-allocate the budget; how to empower faculty leaders; how to deepen partnerships with districts.
But you may be surprised by the strategy for dealing with those challenges that one member shared: “The best decision I made was to get a coach my first month on the job…There is no way I would have stayed in this job as long as I have without that.”
At Deans for Impact, we completely agree in the power of coaching to help leaders be more effective in the short-term, and to develop problem-solving capacity that leaders can continue to draw on when the coaching relationship ends. That’s why we provide coaching to Impact Academy fellows. To build the kind of leadership capacity that will pay off in the long-term, we ask our coaches to focus on three principles.
Coaches’ goals are defined by the goals of fellows
We believe that coaches need to be fully invested in supporting the learning of fellows, as defined by what fellows think is important. In the words of one dean, is the coach “trying to sell me a 12-step development model or…really interested in my growth as a leader?” But that doesn’t mean just going along with whatever a fellow says. Coaches have to be willing to push the learning of fellows, even if it feels uncomfortable, and have to hold fellows accountable to their goals.
Coaches are curious, not judgmental
To grow as a leader, one must be self-aware, self-reflective, and willing to acknowledge that there are always areas to improve. For a coach to be helpful in this process, fellows must feel comfortable sharing their biases, assumptions, and emotions. A coach who is sincerely eager to learn more about how a fellow thinks of him or herself as a leader might ask questions, such as “What are you hoping to achieve?” and “What’s holding you back?” A coach coming with curiosity will listen rather than talk as fellows sort through their thinking, and will notice and name changes in a fellow’s body language or word choice that might be signal a deeper internal struggle. By contrast, a coach who brings judgment into the relationship may trigger defensiveness in fellows, which is contrary to the introspection that leadership development requires.
Coaches provide scaffolds, not answers
We believe fellows can develop their own solutions to problems. The coach my help a fellow get unstuck by asking probing questions, suggesting a new frame, or helping to broaden a fellow’s solution set, but ultimately, the coach shouldn’t be providing the answers. It’s tempting to do so, but we ask our coaches to refrain for two reasons. First, a coach will never know as much about the context or the challenge as the fellow will, so the fellow’s solutions will be much more informed that a coach’s could ever be. What a coach can do is continue to ask questions to help fellows refine and expand their thinking. Second, our aim is for leaders to develop their own diagnostic and problem-solving skills through the coaching process. If a fellow’s coach disappears, we want him or her to be able to use the techniques the coach employed to solve their own problems.
For example one of our members said her coach asked her to look back at her calendar to see how she spent her time. The dean acknowledged that without the coach’s prompting, “it’s not something I would have done for myself.” But the exercise gave her data about her own time allocation that she used to make some immediate changes and gave her a structure that she could re-use in the future.
One fellow summarized the value a coach can bring to a leader:
She listens to my “deanly” point of view. I feel I can express myself to her in ways I cannot to those who report to me or who “supervise” me. She has very valuable insights as a fellow education dean, and I feel that she cares about my professional role. She has my interests at heart in a way no one else does.
We believe coaches support leaders in their development, helping them become more effective over time, and in turn enabling them to better improve their preparation programs.