Developing your school leadership team – the case for executive coaching

by Fiona Eldridge – The Coaching and Communication Centre
Copyright Fiona Eldridge

Article first appeared in CPD Update March 2003

If you have any comments to add to this topic or would like to be in communication with other people exploring this field then please email us

The Government Strategy Unit’s report, Strengthening Leadership in the Public Sector (Strategy Unit "Strengthening Leadership in the Public Sector" March 2001) urges senior managers to ensure they stay ahead of the challenges facing the public sector – including the modernisation of services, ever-increasing demands from the public and the increased capacity and need for partnerships with the private sector. But these demands, allied with the need to watch funds, places senior managers in an awkward position – how to develop new skills on a low budget? Try coaching, suggests Fiona Eldridge, ex teacher and sixth- form college principal, from The Coaching and Communication Centre.

The Government continues to place school leadership high on its agenda for improvement and reform in education. At the recent New Heads Conference on 21st November 2002 Education Secretary Charles Clarke said "Effective leadership is vital to school and pupil achievement". This then raises the question of how to achieve effective leadership.

During the past decade we have seen a major shift in the role of the head teacher and the school leadership team. New programmes of training have been formulated and the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) has been established. While these are vital tools for the development of leaders, senior school staff may benefit from individual coaching sessions which directly tackle issues "on the spot".

In the commercial, industrial and public sectors the provision of coaching support for the development of senior leaders is well established. Successful coaching empowers and motivates people to develop skills and knowledge, solve problems and make decisions and thus, fulfil their true potential. The Hay McBer research (2000) ("Models of excellence for school leaders" 2000) into highly effective school leaders also stressed the importance of coaching. But what is it?

What is executive coaching?

Coaching is a professional and personal development tool. It is one of the main tools organisations can use to develop people. For busy school managers it is especially useful as time is at a premium and it is often difficult to take time away from school particularly during term time. Coaching is powerful because it is centred on the individual and acts as a catalyst to encourage action based on increased self-awareness. It gives a sounding board, suggests action from a different perspective and can often fill the role of "critical friend".

The higher you climb in an organization, the greater the potential for isolation. One of the challenges facing nearly every senior manager is that often situations arise that may confuse or seem beyond their experience or skills. While some senior managers may be fortunate in having a good support system, quite often managers are alone and traditional networks of friends, colleagues and family are not always sufficient to help conquer the challenge. A coach can help to fill this need.

Generally the reasons for seeking out a coach are linked to the desire for change at one or more of three levels. For example, there may be issues around:

  • Intrapersonal – e.g. a desire to become more effective at time-management within the individual
  • Interpersonal – e.g. a desire to develop more productive relationships with other senior members of staff
  • Organisational – e.g. a need to develop a more strategic approach to whole school policy

By changing a school leader’s behaviour at any one of these levels the school as a whole will benefit as the individual increases his or her effectiveness.

What executive coaching is not

Coaching is not about ‘fixing’ poor performance. The reasons why people come to coaching are as varied as the people themselves. For example, a school leader may have great potential and demonstrate good performance but has one or two areas for development. Coaching can help target these areas. Coaching may also be used to help a newly appointed head or deputy who is making the move to a higher-level position to grow more quickly into the position.

Coaching is not counselling or psychotherapy. Psychotherapy tends to focus on considering the impact of an individual’s psychological and emotional history on his or her current situation whereas coaching focuses on the now and how to move forward. It is action and future oriented rather than looking at what may have gone wrong in the dim and distant past.

What executive coaching IS – and its benefits

An executive coach assists a client by assessing his/her current situation, creatively brainstorming alternatives to the current situation, honing the goals and initiating and evaluating options for behaving differently. Most of all an executive coach can help in designing a rigorous action plan, and encouraging momentum. Almost – a professional ‘nag’!

There are many claims for the benefits of coaching, and even allowing for the ‘transformations’ of the devotees, there are nonetheless some excellent quantifiable results.

Many school leaders may be engaged in formal, traditional training programmes. A recent study in the private sector has found that while training alone improved productivity by 20 percent, when coaching was added into the equation an improved of 88 percent was achieved.

A key area for development for school leaders is in leading, motivating, supporting and challenging staff. To do this effectively the school leader needs to be able to develop good relationships with staff. A study of 100 executives (Cathi Turner: "Coaching can make a difference in career success") found that, after coaching, working relationships with both superiors and subordinates improved.

In addition to the improvements in personal productivity and relationship building, coaching also increases overall leadership effectiveness. Dell Computer Corporation found that "senior staff members… tend to be promoted more often that those who do not participate in one-on-one coaching": ("What do you know about executive coaching ROI?" April 2002).

Many people come to coaching for assistance with a specific challenge. However, in many cases the sessions promote change within many areas of their lives even if not directly addressed.

Individual benefits obviously vary enormously, but some of the areas where coaching is likely to be useful include:

  • Greater clarity of purpose and goals
  • Developed more options and more choices
  • Increased confidence levels in the individual being coached
  • Motivation to take concrete and constructive action
  • A knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the school
  • An action plan for improving personal performance and the functioning of the school.

Commonly asked questions about coaching

Engaging a coach for a school leader is the same as any other investment decision – what are you going to get out of it? Investing in a coach demonstrates a belief that the leader’s potential is greater than their current performance. Below are some commonly asked questions.

What might Executive Coaching help me to achieve?

It should help you to tackle areas for professional development and also think about key areas of focus for the school and ways to implement changes.

How many meetings are involved?

This is difficult to determine, as it depends on the issues to be considered. Different companies vary, but The Coaching and Communications Centre recommends that each meeting should be of one-to-two hours’ duration, with a maximum of six hours per coaching arrangement. It is a good idea to decide the programme at the initial meeting.

When should I consider coaching?

A coach can be a powerful asset to leadership learning at any time. It is probably of most benefit at a time of change be that after promotion or when a specific challenge is facing the school. Some heads have found it particularly beneficial after they have completed LPSH.

How much does it cost?

Quite often, the first meeting is free. This is in order to establish whether the coaching relationship is appropriate and that both coach and coachee are comfortable with the arrangements. After this, you could expect to pay anywhere from £120 - £250 per session.

How confidential is the process?

It should be TOTALLY confidential. In addition, check that any notes made during meetings, are the property of the coachee.

What if I don’t get on with my coach?

Given that the benefits of the coaching rely to a large extent on trust, it would probably be better to terminate the relationship immediately. Again, while companies vary, the agreement should state that both coach and coachee have the right to withdraw from the relationship if, despite genuine efforts, it is not working.

Final thoughts

The pressure is on for the public sector to operate more effectively and – if recent publications from the Government are to be noted – in a more private sector way. While for many head teachers and senior managers in schools, this may be an anathema; there are many useful tools from the private sector which could be used for the benefits of schools. Coaching is just another of these, and given the lack of investment for so long in many of our school leaders – it is perhaps time for its inclusion in the professional development portfolio.

Questions to ask a potential coach

It’s important to have a good ‘fit’ between you and your coach so here are some possible questions:

  • How long have you been coaching?
  • How does your coaching and other experience equip you to help me reach my goals?
  • What are the typical qualities, life experiences and challenges of your current clients?
  • What training programs have you participated in?
  • Do you offer sample sessions?
  • How can I contact you between sessions? (Most coaches will not have time to have ongoing conversations between sessions, however, it seems appropriate to be able to contact your coach via email or fax between sessions.)
  • Give the coach a situation or scenario (that you are challenged by) and ask for his/her opinion on how they would or have coached someone on that issue.

Fiona Eldridge is Director of The Coaching and Communication Centre providing coaching and training services. She has extensive experience of senior team leadership as a company director and sixth-form college principal and in educational and professional matters at a national level. She trained in the UK and USA with leading authorities in the field of personal development and communication. She is a Master Practioner and Certified Trainer of NLP.

Fiona has appeared on television and radio and is a frequent contributor to newspapers and journals in the sphere of education.

For further information contact: top of page