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Why Coaching Matters

Identifying a leader’s strengths and weaknesses, then acting collaboratively to move ahead by KARLA REISS
She thought she was ready for the principalship. After all, she’d been in a leadership role as a lead technology teacher in New York for years. Renee was applying for her first principal’s job, hoping to snare a position by the beginning of the school year.

Then Renee made a stunning self-discovery. After completing a new leadership assessment, she found she possessed strengths in only five of 18 critical leadership characteristics. She realized she wasn’t quite as ready as she thought and in the process likely saved herself from an unsatisfactory performance in the role.

Renee was lucky. What she learned from participating in a model known as Leadership Coaching for School Change helped her identify areas of development as a school leader. The assessment specified weaknesses in several areas crucial to success. For example, in the category “comfort with visibility,” Renee learned “you seem to be less verbally active and socially confident than most other executives and managers, and you may not be comfortable being the center of attention.”

In a confidential coaching session that followed, Renee admitted this to be true of her. She had difficulty speaking up in group situations. She realized that although she may be highly qualified to become a principal, she would not have been successful without addressing this need and others that emerged from the assessment. She and I created an action plan for improvement. She made a commitment to voice her opinion no less than three times at an upcoming meeting. She also volunteered to facilitate a newly formed committee. Renee feels some anxiety about taking these steps because they represent new behaviors. But it’s only when we are uncomfortable and are willing to step out of our comfort zone that change happens.

Improving Efficacy
A survey in New Jersey showed that 43 percent of local school districts changed superintendents during a 2½-year period ending in 2001. Half of the superintendents in a nationwide survey indicated they are facing shortages of qualified principal candidates—which is old news already to most district officials.

With higher standards of learning, increased accountability, long hours and a smaller salary gap between experienced teachers and first-level administrators, not only are there fewer highly qualified applicants but there are fewer reasons for teachers to take the leap from classroom to administration. Leadership Coaching for School Change addresses the need to support school leaders through the challenges and crises they face. It combines executive coaching with leadership assessments in weekly confidential sessions, contributing to better organizational efficacy and increased personal effectiveness. It was designed to be flexible for the individual with minimal out-of-district time.

No two educational leaders are exactly alike. Every educator comes to a central-office role or a principalship with his or her own set of experiences, beliefs, thoughts and ideas. Every school district and school building has its own history, culture, political issues and academic goals and challenges. Though highly effective leaders are crucial to the academic success of a district, most professional development programs are not structured to provide the ongoing support school leaders need to perform at their peak. In Leadership Coaching for School Change, the coach and the school leader address the specific issues being confronted at the time. They jointly define goals for continuous improvement and schedule convenient telephone (or in-person) sessions for followup.

Most leadership professional development programs focus on external issues that affect a district—scheduling, curriculum and instruction, assessment. They’re critically important. However, they don’t deal with the internal issues of leadership—who you are and how you think and act. Leadership development is about personal development. It’s about recognizing and acknowledging your strengths and where you need to grow.

It’s easy to acquire the content knowledge needed to lead schools. It’s not easy to change who we are to acquire the personal traits necessary for success. Leadership coaching provides what’s missing—a private, confidential space for that to happen. We have to be able to admit to someone our shortcomings and take action to change where we are stuck. A coach listens deeply to the school leader’s challenges, dreams, goals and obstacles. A coach provides feedback and holds you to the action steps you create for change.

All of the research about school improvement points to the importance of sustained professional development efforts versus fragmented approaches. “Of nearly $48 billion spent on training and change programs, only 12 to 15 percent was considered money well spent,” according to Rob Lebow, a contributor to Enlightened Leadership: Getting to the Heart of Change. That tells me that the vast majority of time and money spent on typical approaches to training and change are not yielding intended results.

Coaching is common among corporate CEOs and middle and upper management in the business world. In November 2001, MetrixGlobal LLC reported an almost 529 percent return-on-investment for an executive coaching program for a Fortune 500 company. The company using executive coaching placed its value at more than five times the cost. The figure increased to 788 percent when including financial benefits from employee retention and improved culture.

Weekly Followup
Leadership Coaching for School Change began with a pilot project in May 2002. The project began with a half-day kickoff session where four participants were selected from a large eager group of mostly site-based administrators. They shared their challenges with one other. Each participant then set his or her own goals and I coached them to develop actions to accomplish them. Four months of weekly, 45-minute followup sessions were conducted on the telephone. Participants are often surprised how efficient, focused and convenient the telephone sessions are.

Coaching sessions are always confidential, enabling coach and leader to brainstorm solutions to challenges they are facing. Each session ends with specific actions to implement during the week. The coaching process is effective, in part, due to the accountability built into the coaching relationship. Clients normally accomplish far more than they intend with greater confidence and results.

Since the initial pilot, I led two additional projects in New York. Participants found almost immediate personal effects. “Coaching gives an individual a perspective and focus that enables him or her to do the job in a much truer and well-thought out capacity,” said one elementary school principal relatively new to her job. “In just a short time, I have felt growth, hope and a sense of focus I have not felt before.”

Said a mid-career central-office administrator: “[Coaching] helped me see situations with a different pair of eyes. The coach nudged me to create possible solutions that I might not have seriously considered on my own. The coach provided the gentle support that kept me focused on attaining personal/professional goals.”

At the start of each relationship, a baseline assessment is conducted of each leader’s strengths and areas for development. When, for instance, we incorporate the Spectrum 260 Coaching Report for Leaders, a 260-question tool developed by the Center for Creative leadership and CPP Inc., a detailed 17-page report is the result. It becomes the basis for improvement and provides self-awareness. As one aspiring principal in New York state noted, “The assessment was, to my mind, incredibly helpful. The read it gave me was very accurate and provided me with an opportunity for real reflection and examination of my practice.”

The assessment helps clients see why certain problems may arise. For example, one educator recently lost his position after two years and many years of successful work in several other school districts. He was at a loss to understand why he was let go. Upon reviewing the assessment results, he saw weaknesses in all three areas under self-management—self-awareness, self-control and resilience; one under organizational capabilities—responsibility and accountability; and one under sustaining the vision and self-confidence.

The assessment report provided this specific feedback: “You tend to question and challenge the rules, customs and traditions of organizations” and “You may find you are a more effective leader in a young or small organization with a fluid culture than in an established or large organization with a stable or mature culture.” It helped him see where he needed to change. He had moved from a small school district with few levels of hierarchy to a large district, where he had lost his job.

The leadership assessment has shown only about 10 percent of the nearly 50 educators I have worked with have demonstrated strengths in all 18 areas. Each client works on his or her own specific weekly action steps to improve skills. Many participants said they wished they had this assessment feedback prior to making a job move.

Balancing Demands
The coaching relationship is always confidential, enabling an open and honest conversation about growth areas, leadership crises and the obstacles that prevent leaders from implementing new practices and policies in their districts. It differs from mentoring in many ways, although both roles focus on helping the client succeed. A coach has specialized training in the process of change and hundreds of hours of practice developing coaching skills. A mentor has been in the other person’s role and shares their experiences. A well-trained coach does not need to have hands-on knowledge of the client’s role. The coach is trained to listen and nudge. They listen to doubts and fears and help turn negative thoughts into positive ones. Educators seeking a competent coach should choose one certified by the International Coach Federation, an organization that upholds professional standards and certifies coach training programs.

Coaching can help a superintendent develop strategies to deal with difficult board members or staff members, implement major change efforts and resolve conflicts. The process helps to balance the demands of a busy career and a personal life. Communication, time management, decisiveness and organizational skills improve, along with defining one’s purpose, passions and personal interests.

Coaching is all about change. Change occurs in small actions, week after week. It happens when we change what we do, what we think and believe and how we see the world. Coaching helps leaders implement personal and organizational change by supporting them through the change process. About six of 10 businesses today offer coaching to their executives, according to a survey by Manchester Inc., a Jacksonville, Fla., consulting firm. As Bob Nardelli, CEO of Home Depot, has said: “I honestly believe that people, unless coached, never reach their maximum capabilities.” School leaders deserve the same advantage so they too can perform at their peak.

Karla Reiss is president and founder of The Change Place, 4963 Sundance Square, Boulder, Colorado 80301. E-mail: changemaven@thechangeplace.com