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Executive Coaching

A growing recognition of coach-client relationships in school leadership circles by PRISCILLA PARDINI
Teresa Purses, superintendent of the Canton, Ohio, Local Schools, approached teacher negotiations last year knowing she really wanted to achieve a mutually beneficial contract.

"I had a plan," says Purses, now in her second year. "But it was my first time in that seat, and I wasn't quite sure how to go about the negotiating process."

Enter Purses' executive coach, Mike Gallina, superintendent of the nearby Minerva, Ohio, Local School District. The two had been paired up as part of the Executive Coaching Program sponsored by the Buckeye Association of School Administrators. (See related story, page 11.) As Purses' coach, Gallina was charged with helping her become the best superintendent she could be as she undertook the job of leading the 2,500-student Canton school system.

To be sure, in his 10-year tenure as superintendent, Gallina had negotiated four teacher contracts. And over time he had perfected what he considered an effective negotiating style and bargaining process. Yet no matter how tempting, Gallina didn't jump in to tell Purses what to do or, for that matter, even help her negotiate the contract.

Instead, Purses says, "he challenged my thinking." Gallina asked Purses if she thought she had built up enough trust with the leaders on the other side of the table to ensure they could count on her to be flexible, fair and open to new ideas. "When I thought about it, I realized that because I had only been superintendent for a few months, I hadn't had time to do that," she conceded.

So Purses sat down with the president of the Canton Local Education Association to talk about what both sides needed to do to build a foundation for truly effective bargaining. They decided to bring the labor and management negotiating teams together on a monthly, rather than quarterly, basis and took steps to improve the way information about preliminary talks was disseminated to staff members.

" What I found out was that there was a lot more I could do," says Purses. "And now I feel as if I do have a trust relationship with the association leadership." As for the negotiations, she adds, "We got a wonderful contract," noting that the formal bargaining process took only 1½ days. She described the final product as a win for both sides. "Everybody walked away very appreciative."

Purses credits the successful outcome in part to "the wonderful people sitting around the table." But she also knows that it was Gallina's challenge that prompted her to lay the groundwork for the successful bargaining process.

Gallina says his goal had been to help Purses "frame the issue" of contract negotiations in a way that was relevant for her district and its culture. "Then it's up to her to decide what the next steps should be," he says.

A New Phenomenon
The two superintendents in northeastern Ohio are part of a growing movement among school leaders who are taking their cues from corporate America and embracing executive coaching, sometimes known as life coaching, as a centerpiece of management practice.

"The buzz I'm hearing is that coaching is growing very quickly in education," says William Rentz, who as a vice president of The Brande Foundation in Rapid City, S.D., has been involved for years in making coaching available to directors of nonprofit corporations.

As far as he is concerned, it's a positive trend. "Education in America is struggling," he says. "The people responsible—primarily superintendents and principals—are overwhelmed, overworked and undersupported in terms of their professional and personal development, which we think directly affects the quality of their work and contributions. Coaching can provide a very special kind of help."

Executive or life coaching may actually be one of the fastest growing professions in the country. According to Judy Feld, president of the International Coach Federation, 15,000 people were working as business and life coaches in the United States last year, twice as many as in 1997. The Wall Street Journal puts the number even higher, at roughly 25,000. Joy McGovern, lead author of a study on executive coaching published by Manchester Consulting, says it is now one of the most widely used of all executive development techniques. A 2002 survey by the Hay Group, a management consulting firm, found that up to 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies use coaching with their executives.

Coaching is a relatively new phenomenon. The International Coach Federation, a nonprofit, professional organization, wasn't even chartered until 1996. Today, with more than 6,400 member coaches, it is the largest professional association of personal and business coaches in the world. The federation runs a certification program, sponsors educational events for coaches and offers a referral service for individuals looking for a coach.

Feld says coaching is on the increase because it works. She says most gains in the private sector come in the form of increased productivity, greater job satisfaction, higher retention rates and more skilled leadership. The Manchester study, one of only a handful that have attempted to quantify the effectiveness of executive coaching, found that coaching resulted in an average return on investment of $100,000, or nearly six times the cost of the coaching, which lasted from six months to a year.

Coaches Vs. Mentors
Feld defines coaching as "an ongoing professional relationship." She says the idea behind coaching is to allow the person being coached—often referred to as the "client" or "protégé"—to bounce his or her ideas off someone "whose sole purpose is to help you professionally and personally." Typically, she says, coaching helps clients "deepen their learning, improve their performance and enhance their quality of life."

Coaching in its purest form differs from consulting in that coaches do not offer solutions to problems. Unlike mentors, coaches do not give advice or offer guidance. And while coaches do work with clients on personal issues and maintain confidentiality, they do not deal with deep-seated emotional problems the way psychologists or therapists do.

Pi Irwin worked for 10 years as superintendent in Glen Ellyn, Ill., before starting a new career this fall as an executive coach based in Arizona. As a beneficiary of coaching herself earlier in her career, she says coaching helps clients “tap into their own resources to create answers, identify and vision the future, align their goals with their core values and identify multiple pathways to achieve their goals.”

The National Staff Development Council, a membership organization, has been at the forefront of bringing executive coaching to the field of education. Joellen Killion, the council’s director of special projects, likes coaching because it is client-driven. “Those being coached have to identify their goals, what they need, what they want,” she says. The coach's job is to listen. “That was the hardest thing to learn,” she adds, recalling her own training. “Not to go in and try to fix something for someone, but rather to listen and try to help the person find his or her own path.”

Len Lubinsky, a former superintendent in Massachusetts and founder of Educator Coach and Consult, says coaches should ask probing questions that "illuminate the conversation." The point of the process, he says, is for clients to "make decisions and take action that is right for them and their organizations."

One superintendent with whom he worked was trying to decide if she should stay in the district where she had spent her entire career with great success or start moving from district to district in an effort to increase her impact. In his conversations with the superintendent, Lubinsky asked her everything from how much of an impact she was making in her present job and how she thought her influence would change if she left, to whether or not she wanted to go back to school at Harvard University. "Just that question, 'Do you want to go to Harvard?' helped make things concrete," he says. "It wasn't meant as a suggestion she had to follow, but rather as a way of helping her think through what she wanted to do."

Coaching is designed to produce action, or in Lubinsky's words, to help clients find "practical ways of addressing their needs." But he agrees that clients have to solve their problems in ways that draw on their own experience. "When you do something just because someone else suggested it, it often has a false quality. If it's not something that makes sense in the course of your own experience, it won't work well."

Gallina, Purses' coach in Canton, says that's why he resisted telling Purses how to run her negotiating sessions. “There are so many dynamics that shape a school district's culture, it's unfair for me to overlay a template on someone else's culture,” he says. “What works here might not work five minutes from here.”

Resolving Problems
One of the first formal initiatives designed to bring coaching to school leaders was a pilot program launched in the spring of 2000 by the National Staff Development Council and The Brande Foundation. During the 14-month program, 27 school leaders—superintendents, principals and staff developers from around the country—were trained to be coaches. In addition to taking part in a series of three three-day training sessions, each participant also received four to six hours of coaching a month for a year. Part way through the program, they became coaches themselves, working with another 45 superintendents, assistant superintendents and principals in schools with large percentages of low-income students.

Killion, who along with Irwin was part of the original group of 27 trainees, says the experience of having a coach was wonderful. "Once you've had a coach, it's pretty hard to live without one," she says. "It's brought focus and balance to my life." What’s more, the school leaders she and her fellow participants coached as part of their training said the experience helped them address a number of professional problems that had been plaguing their districts.

About a year ago, in an effort to continue to provide coaching services to educators once the pilot project ended, 20 members of the group founded a coaching consortium, Coaching for Results (see related story).

According to The Brande Foundation's Rentz, more and more top-level school administrators are seeking out coaches. He estimates that about 25 percent of those enrolling in coach training through the foundation are either directly involved in education or are serving educators. "It's become a major market for us," he says.

Rentz believes educators can reap huge benefits from coaching. "When it comes to leadership development, school administrators, unlike their peers in the corporate world, don't get much in the way of help or support," he says. "We give them twice the work and responsibility humans can handle." As a result, it's no wonder, Rentz says, that many schools fail and their leaders burn out.

Irwin, who left the superintendency in July, agrees school leaders are being asked to assume more responsibility for their school district’s successes and failures. As a result, she says, they are increasingly likely to find themselves dealing with problem after problem, or what Peter B. Vaill, author of the book Learning as a Way of Being, terms "permanent whitewater." A coach, says Irwin, "helps clients find a course through that whitewater by learning to recognize their own blind spots and opening up new possibilities for action."

Lori Likis, who has worked in corporate management, founded Creative Coaching last year in Cambridge, Mass., largely as a result of working as a parent volunteer to help restructure a local school. "What I saw mirrored the same kind of management issues I had dealt with at IBM—practical issues of organization, structure and role definition, and emotional issues such as resistance to change and fear of change," says Likis. "It became clear to me that to create success for students, you have to first build organizations that create success for adults. And while there are plenty of great teachers who will succeed in their classrooms regardless of the administration around them, the goal should be to create an organization in which teachers succeed because of the leadership rather than in spite of it."

Others point out that with research beginning to link the effectiveness of school leadership to student achievement, it is critical to find ways to boost the skills of school superintendents and other top administrators. (University of Missouri Professor George J. Peterson, for example, found that the five California superintendents whose districts achieved the biggest gains on a state achievement test between 1986 and 1990 all displayed attributes of effective school leadership, such as the ability to articulate a vision for educating children and create an organization to support that vision.) Killion believes coaching is one such way. Good coaches, she says, help leaders clarify their goals and figure out ways to achieve those goals, which in turn can make schools more productive places to learn.

To be sure, no definitive data links executive coaching with an improvement in student achievement as measured by grades or standardized test scores. Yet 11 principals who received coaching through Coaching for Results reported that the experience helped them focus on the instructional strategies needed to increase student performance and on ways to give teachers clearer direction about using those strategies. They also said coaching helped them give "clearer and more frank feedback to needy teachers."

From a professional development standpoint, coaching is the perfect tool, in Irwin’s view. It's individualized to meet a superintendent's special needs, and is "embedded" or integrated into his or her workday. She also likes the fact that coaching is timely, focusing on the very issues that need the most immediate attention.

Advocates of coaching say it carries no stigma, and advise superintendents to take advantage of the opportunity if it is offered. "Don't feel threatened," says Irwin. "We may have a tendency to think superintendents need to figure things out on their own. In fact, it's an act of intelligence to say, 'I want to make this commitment to think through problems with skilled professionals.'"

Bobbie D'Alessandro, former superintendent in Cambridge, Mass., who now works at the Education Development Center, an international, nonprofit research and development group, agrees. "It can be hard at first for superintendents to admit they need help," she admits. "But we need to accept the fact that as leaders we can't be great at everything."

D'Alessandro is a principal investigator for Project LEAD, an initiative funded by the Wallace Foundation that aims to improve student achievement by providing leadership training and networking opportunities to 12 urban school districts. D'Alessandro points out that superintendents in each of the districts ("they're all excellent superintendents") worked with a coach last year as part of their involvement in the project.

Frances Shuster is a former director of staff development in the Denton and Duncanville, Texas, school districts who now coaches educators and chairs Coaching for Results. She believes coaching helps reduce the loneliness, isolation and stress superintendents experience. Just knowing coaching support is available could make more people willing to take on the top jobs in a school district, stick around when the going gets tough or delay their retirement, she says.

Convenient, Affordable
How and when coaching actually takes place depends on the preferences of the client. Typically, most coaching is done by phone, with an occasional in-person meeting. Under the Buckeye Association’s Executive Coaching Program, the coach and protégé meet face-to-face at least one hour per month and to communicate over the phone or by e-mail for 20-30 minutes twice a month. Those participating in the Brande/NSDC program received one hour of coaching a week over the phone.

In Canton, Purses says her coach’s willingness to set aside an uninterrupted block of time to work with her on a regular basis is not only generous but also critical to the success of their coaching relationship. "These days, everyone's so busy," she says. "But Mike never makes me feel I'm asking too many questions or taking too much of his time."

According to Feld, most coaching relationships last from six to 18 months. But she says some clients continue working with their coaches for years.

A coaching session usually begins with the coach asking the client about any action he or she has taken since the last session. Feld says the coach might ask, "What did you get done? How did it go? Did anything block you?" The session then proceeds to an in-depth discussion on a topic or topics of the client's choosing. Purses says in addition to discussing upcoming negotiations, she and Gallina talked about how to clarify her school district's mission and how to ensure she was using every dollar in the budget effectively.

Many coaches end a coaching session with homework. Consider, for example, a client who was working on improving the way he delegated tasks to subordinates. Shuster says she might ask that client to come up with several tasks he could delegate during the coming week, to delegate them and then to evaluate whether the process had been successful.

Although some private corporations spend tens of thousands of dollars for just a few months of coaching, it doesn't have to cost that much. The Brande Foundation offers superintendents and other school leaders four to six hours of coaching a month, over the telephone, for $8,500 a year. The cost jumps to $10,500 if the client desires a two-day meeting with the coach to work on developing his or her long-range vision. Coaching for Results charges $550 for four days of training plus $2,400 for eight months of coaching.

Ohio superintendents can receive coaching through BASA's program at no charge. The association underwrites part of the cost with the rest covered by professional development funds from the state. Coaches are paid a stipend of $1,500 a year, although some, like Gallina, return the money. "I tell them to use it to keep growing the program," he says, adding that he gets plenty of other benefits from coaching. "For me, it's a chance to gain knowledge, insight, new skills," he says. "But the best part is establishing a relationship with another true friend in the business."

Finding a Coach
Feld, with the International Coach Federation, says it is best to work with a coach whose background and experiences are at least somewhat similar to those of the client. She recommends that anyone looking for a coach first think about what they hope to get out of the experience, specifically the goals and objectives they wish to reach, and the kind of changes they want to make. Then, she counsels, ask prospective coaches, "Have you worked with people who want to follow his kind of path? Have you dealt with these issues?"

Most coaches are willing to provide a 30-minute, sample coaching session over the phone at no charge, Feld says. Anyone looking for a coach should participate in several such sessions, which she says can help evaluate the quality of the chemistry between a client and prospective coach.

D'Alessandro agrees it's best if a client can choose from among several possible coaches. But even if a client is assigned a coach, she says it is essential that both client and coach feel comfortable in the relationship.

Shuster says she likes to coach partly because "I learn from every one of my clients." She also enjoys the fact that as a coach she's not responsible for the outcome of a coaching situation. "I'm your sounding board, your mirror, but I'm not there to push or drive you to get something done. It's the client who does the work."

Then again, if they do their jobs well, coaches know they can make an impact. "We feel if we affect the superintendent," says Shuster, "we affect the whole district."

Priscilla Pardini is a free-lance education writer based in Shorewood, Wis. E-mail: pardini@execpc.com