Empowering Leaders Through Coaching

This past summer, I had the pleasure of attending a MasterMind Group, led by leadership coach and former school head Abigail Wiebenson. It was nourishment for the mind, body, and soul. As participants passed comfort food, cooked by Wiebenson herself, they shared stories of success and challenge, exchanging lessons learned and brainstorming solutions. 

Wiebenson says these monthly groups, made up of independent school heads, “validate leadership and build confidence, awareness, and a skill base.” Participants come to the group with a challenge they think could be helped by collective input. As the year progresses, her role becomes more of “ninja coach,” she says, “coming out of the shadows when it is time to summarize, remind, validate, and wonder aloud.” 

After attending the MasterMind Group, I was awed by the promise of coaching for growth and collaboration. I wanted to learn more so I interviewed Wiebenson and another coach who works with independent school heads, aspiring leaders, and boards. Their responses, which I have woven into this blog, provide insight into the power and uses of coaching.

The Rise of Leadership Coaching 

Leadership coaching has become more popular in the last decade, particularly in the education sector. Wiebenson says it’s because, “there is a much greater understanding that coaching is about “wellness” rather than “fixing.” “Many schools see coaching as an asset for professional development throughout a school and are eager to use it.” 

Leadership coach Patricia Matthews, in an interview with Trusteeship Magazine, puts coaching in perspective with the other kinds of help a leader may obtain:

“Coaches, in the purest sense of coaching, aren’t there to tell you what to do. They’re there to help spur your own thinking about what will work in your situation, unlike a consultant and unlike a mentor. A mentor implies that that person has walked in your shoes or done your job. Consultants are hired to give you advice. Coaches, in contrast, might give you advice but are more likely to think through with you what will work for you. It’s that discipline of thinking with a person so they come up with the best solution for themselves.” 

Today the work of leadership is a daily challenge, Wiebenson notes. “Ongoing coaching enables clients to tackle situations and needs with confidence and awareness throughout the school year.”


Governance and Leadership

Boards of trustees are coming to appreciate the many uses of coaching in governance. To understand more, I spoke to Kathy Cohen, an independent school trustee herself, as well as a clinical psychologist and leadership coach. Cohen says she found that “being a clinical psychologist was an invaluable skill when it came to being a board chair and was soon getting requests from other boards to help them navigate thorny political and personality issues.” 

One of the most helpful uses of coaching for boards, she says, is in the onboarding process for new heads of schools. “Coaches can help set realistic expectations for everyone regarding the challenges that likely lie ahead.”  

For example, “it is helpful for school communities to understand that the full onboarding process for a new head can take up to three years,” she adds. “Coaches can help new heads and boards avoid common pitfalls, and develop strategies for successful onboarding, like helping the board and head set agreed upon and achievable goals for the head to accomplish in the first year of work.” 

A coach also plays a very important role in building a successful board/head relationship, Cohen emphasizes. 
“Heads of schools and board chairs need to understand their own unique roles and respect the boundaries within them. Together, heads and board chairs set the tone and culture for the entire school, define the board’s responsibilities and strategic direction, and lead all stakeholders to work together constructively. But building a strong relationship that fully supports these processes is easier said than done, especially if an existing roadmap for building the relationship doesn’t already exist, if strong board governance isn’t respected or firmly in place, or if the head is leading a dysfunctional administrative team. 

“Coaches can help a new head and board chair define their respective roles and create good boundaries while simultaneously helping them learn to work together flexibly and negotiate gray areas together. Coaches can help the head and the board chair determine shared vision and goals, what can be reasonably accomplished in their work together, develop a common language and collaborative working style, and create processes for regular, direct, honest, and constructive conversations.”

I asked both Wiebenson and Cohen what kind of mindset someone should bring to the coaching process to be most successful. What’s key, according to Weibenson, is having a willingness and curiosity about leadership. “Clients profit most when they keep themselves open to possibility, validate and expand their strengths, and appreciate what it takes to embrace their foibles and missteps (and those of others) with grace, humor, resiliency, and courage,” she says. 

Cohen shared a similar response. “Coachees will get the most out of the process if they are willing to be introspective about their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If coachees can simultaneously step back and look at an issue from 20,000 feet above, they will develop an objectivity that allows them to find the best resources and solutions.”  

When it comes to tangible outcomes, Cohen offers this: “Coaching can help leaders develop skills and strategies for reaching their specific goals; define measures for assessing progress against those goals; increase emotional intelligence and gain a better understanding of behavioral dynamics; and correct behavior or performance problems.” 

NAIS Pilot Program Insights

Several years ago, NAIS undertook a pilot coaching program with new heads to investigate if it could help them launch more successfully. Overall, participants reported that coaching was extremely helpful, noting the support and validation that the experience gave them. The coach provided an outside perspective, which one participant likened to a camera “able to go in real close and then go out and get the big picture.” 

The new heads noted, too, that coaches were particularly effective in pushing their thinking, showing them how to look at a situation from a variety of perspectives. They reported one of the greatest benefits they received from coaching: confirming their intuition in situations that may have been unfamiliar to them. 

Finding Time to Think

In my interviews with coaches and through the NAIS pilot, another valuable aspect of coaching emerged—the space and time it gives you to think. In this fast-paced world, we spend so much time reacting and not enough time thinking and processing. 

“Schools can have a marathon/treadmill feel to them, all for the right reasons: doing the best for student teaching and learning in an age where technology has ramped up expectations,” says Wiebenson, who has lived the life of a head herself.  “Leadership coaching enables everyone to create space for thinking more broadly and responsively, rather than getting caught up in reacting and fixing. It legitimizes the importance of process, the value of missteps, the critical nature of both how and what is said,” she concludes.

Share Your Coaching Experiences

Leadership coaching can be both a springboard and a safety net for leaders at all stages of their careers. It can provide a valuable mirror into one’s self. Coaching is a relationship that helps leaders maximize opportunities and get through the most difficult challenges in their careers. If you have had an experience with coaching, I invite you to join this conversation.

For more information about coaching, e-mail [email protected] and [email protected].
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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.