Coaching is an individually focused and customised organisational learning approach to support those in leadership roles to develop their strengths and potential. However, busy leaders in higher education do not always consider coaching. Cindy Vallance, executive coach and Assistant Director, Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery at Advance HE unpacks a few of these reasons.
“I’m too busy to work with a coach.” “Isn’t coaching a little self-indulgent?” “I thought coaching was a remedial activity to help poor performers.” These are all reasons that leaders share about why they don’t engage in coaching.
Let’s unpack these a little.
Is coaching a worthwhile priority for busy leaders? The word priority didn’t always mean what it does today. In his best-selling book, Greg McKeown explains “The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow, we would now be able to have multiple “first” things. People and companies routinely try to do just that. One leader told me of this experience in a company that talked of “Pri-1, Pri-2, Pri-3, Pri-4, and Pri-5.” This gave the impression of many things being the priority but actually meant nothing was.” – Essentialism
On numerous occasions, Advance HE senior leadership programme participants have commented “I can’t remember the last time I took that amount of time to pause” after an exercise where they are asked to shut off their video for five minutes to reflect on a topic that has been discussed. The volume of meetings, emails, deadlines and decisions create a maelstrom of activity, and it can be difficult to stop, even for a moment to reflect and to prioritise what is most important. Coaching provides the opportunity to take a different approach, to slow down, to be in the moment, and to consider what really matters.
Is coaching self-indulgent? When working with leaders, we appreciate the challenges they face. Leaders in higher education work in environments of high stakes, high visibility, and high expectations. They carry a strong sense of responsibility for their organisation and are accountable for important decisions with far reaching implications. They hold themselves to high standards and typically expect a great deal of themselves. They are often seen as the most senior expert in the room and they and others may appear to expect them to control their feelings and to hide their doubts and vulnerabilities in order to be effective and credible in their roles. Coaching provides a safe space to explore when it is appropriate to present a controlled image and when it is ultimately more effective to simply say “I don’t have the answer here.”
Is coaching a remedial development tool? Leaders who are already performing well are often asked to do even more. The coach’s ability to work in the moment with the leader; to undertake deep listening; to ask curious open questions and to explore under the surface, support the leader to reflect on their challenges and opportunities, and supports them to consider creative solutions on how to address these. Additionally, today’s complex challenges require a diverse array of responses and the ability to create thinking spaces with others that forefront inclusion while balancing the tensions of difference. Leaders who engage in coaching often quickly appreciate the relevance of integrating coaching skills in their day-to-day work and in their own approach to leadership. Engaging in coaching as a leader can be an effective pre-cursor to developing a coaching approach with direct reports and teams.
About the author: Cindy Vallance is an experienced higher education leader and executive coach and organisational development and leadership practitioner who focuses on inclusion, transformational culture and system change. Her Métis identity along with the insights and experience that she has gained living, studying and working across a diverse array of contexts and countries provide her with a global mind-set that directly informs her coaching practice.