What Executive Coaching IS NOT
By Charlene Roberts
Executive Coach and Wellness Coach
Doors Wide Open Coaching Systems
So, a colleague, another school director, has hired an executive coach and you’re wondering why she needs coaching. Is there a problem? Did her board mandate that she needed the professional services of a coach to remediate some important issues? Is she on probation? Are there marital problems? What kind of therapy is she getting? Are there health issues?
Those are natural questions because executive coaching is relatively new to school leaders. And let’s be honest, most directors and leaders in international and independent schools are proud, talented individuals who work hard, have extensive teaching and leadership experience, a large tool bag of skills including financial planning, curriculum development, conflict resolution, strong interpersonal skills, and the list goes on. Your board hired you because of your demonstrated competencies, dispositions, and vision. So, it’s natural to wonder why you would need executive coaching.
It may help to understand what executive coaching is, by taking a closer look at what executive coaching is not.
First, an executive coach is not a therapist or counselor. Counselors and therapists help a person resolve identified health, emotional or behavioral problems. The executive coach, however, works with you to focus on your professional or personal goals, challenges, and aspirations. It is your agenda that drives your sessions with the coach. The coach believes in your capacity to lead and knows that your greatest strengths are your self-efficacy, resilience and drive.
An executive coach is not an advisor or consultant who “fixes” problems. The coach doesn’t helicopter in with bandages or solutions. Your coach is unlikely to have deep insights into your specific school organization. Rather, they use their understanding of the breadth of your leadership responsibilities to listen carefully to you, then ask a lot of probing questions to help both parties arrive at a deeper understanding of an issue, challenge, or opportunity in your context. This process helps you reflect on your own perceptions, reactions and behaviors. The coach might help you recognize your “blind spots”. When you see your blind spots, your perceptions shift. And when your perceptions shift, you might choose to shift the way you respond, communicate or behave. A common result is that the leader sees new opportunities for growth and change in the challenges they face.
The coach is not judgemental. She or he might ask you to see something from a different angle or role, consider alternative points of view, or suggest an assessment you could use to gauge your own behaviors or values. It is your choice to use the suggested tools or not, and the coach will be neutral about the results of the assessment. It is for you, in discussing and reflecting on the results, to draw conclusions. For example, you might find that some of your soft skills such as compassion or motivation are not being perceived as strong by others in your school, or you might find that you are an excellent orator but need to enhance your listening skills.
The Executive Coach is not your cheerleader. Do not expect a coach to be your “validator”, to continuously compliment you on what is going well, or encourage you to maintain the status quo. Part of a coach’s role is to push the client out of his/her comfort zone. Therefore, a coach might challenge you to consider alternatives, to reflect on the feedback from any critical voices in your school community, or ask you to consider if you are in avoidance mode with a board member or a bubbling issue in the school. You are always free to accept or decline such challenges. However, if a coach senses that a client is deliberately avoiding specific issues or ways of operating, he/she is likely to come back to the issue in the future.
Executive coaching is not the same as other forms of coaching. There are several forms of coaching that will already be found in your school. Many schools benefit from having teachers and leaders trained in cognitive coaching and heighten the level of collegial interaction and professional dialogue. A growing number of schools are hiring pedagogical coaches to work with teams of teachers—sometimes in specific disciplines such a language or math, but increasingly in cross-disciplinary areas such humanities and STEM. The role of these coaches for teachers is primarily to sharpen skills and develop a cohesive approach to teaching in a particular area. Sports coaches are also an integral part of your school’s sports program, with coaches providing athletes with guidance in both individual skill development and strategies for the team. And some of your employees may be working with a life coach to guide them in transitions to a new lifestyle or career. There are similarities between the various types of coaching, but Executive Coaching is unique.
Like sports coaches, executive coaches also target skills, and like pedagogical coaches, executive coaches might assist in developing a cohesive approach to an area of operation. As with cognitive coaches, executive coaching strengthens thinking skills, and self-awareness; as in life coaching, an executive coach articulates and operationalizes the client’s aspirations and dreams. However, executive coaching goes beyond these outcomes of skill development, cultivating a cohesive approach, and enhancing self-awareness. It is unique because the coach’s central focus is on the leader’s professional and personal capacities-- to effectively lead the organization in the face of rapid change, numerous challenges and strategic goals.
The Executive Coach may not work exclusively with you. In the process of coaching, you may decide that you want to broaden the services of the coach to some or all members of your leadership team because you believe that the sharpened skills and self-awareness will enhance your collaborative efforts to meet a particular goal, or will increase your collective effectiveness as a team.
So, why are school leaders now turning to executive coaches? Today’s educational leaders are no longer merely “administrators” responsible for managing a static organization. The role—especially in international and independent schools which are autonomous enterprises—now includes responsibility for leading the school into a rapidly evolving future. As a result, this new role brings with it enormous, unprecedented complexity, including responsibility for nurturing a professional culture that embraces change; creating new pedagogical structures, spaces and practices that support self-directed, personalized learning; and optimizing technology by understanding both the opportunity and limitation of new learning tools. It’s a whole new game, with new rules and roles!
An executive coach is simply one more resource for a school leader to tap into on the path of personal growth, along with already-proven resources such as networking, reading, taking courses, and attending conferences.
So, your colleague has hired an executive coach. What do you think now?
Charlene is an experienced Executive and Wellness Coach who works with innovative educational leaders, both international and North American. She is the Program Director for the Vancouver Chapter of the ICF.