The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers
Geoff reflects on what coaching for a school principal might look like.
Let’s talk about golf, tennis, kapa haka, dance, drama, etc. Apart from natural talent and perseverance, what separates the really good people from the merely OK? Often as not, it’s their desire to seek feedback, be challenged, and be supported.
In educational leadership, the challenge might come from inside and outside the school they lead. Potentially, by someone who sees things through a different lens. A magnifying glass or wide-angle, depending on the perspective required. And perspective is important when leading. Perspective enables leaders to better focus on what really matters.
Currently, all principals in their first two years of principalship in Aotearoa New Zealand receive support from a principal advisor. Timely, targeted, and responsive. After two years this support usually finishes, and it is up to individual schools and principals to decide what, if any, external support they will pursue.
What might a coaching relationship for a school principal could look like? As someone who worked with a leadership coach for many years, I have compiled many conversations shared with me over the years. It is a bit like a historical short story where names and places have been changed but based on events that did happen.
I met my coach 2 - 3 times a term. When we first talked about this coaching relationship, she said “We need to have a pre-nuptial agreement to clarify how we will work together, and how we will end it if it is not working for either or both of us.”
One thing she said that really stayed with me was:
This was great. I realised that my coach was not going to be my counsellor or best friend. And I was right.
As a school, we had been trying hard to raise the engagement and achievement of Māori learners and had made pretty good progress, but we still had a long way to go. Sam, one of our heads of department, did not engage in our strategies as I would have liked. The teachers in this department had not been implementing pedagogies with fidelity, and the data reflected this. I had planned my conversation with him, and strategised on how I would let him know that his current leadership was not delivering, and that change was going to be required. I would be clear, concise and convincing.
My coach listened when I shared my thoughts and said: “So, you plan on coming in hard, clear and persuasive. I suggest rather than bypassing Sam’s theory of action, you may well be better off engaging with it.” My coach suggested that I refer back to Robinson, Hohepa, and Lloyd's diagram from "School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Best Evidence Synthesis". She was right, it is a great framework to use.
This is another thing about my coach, she was always willing to put forward alternative strategies that we could explore.
After further discussion and coaching, I realised my default of jumping in, problem-solving and persuading, was once again to the fore. I felt uncomfortable going ahead with my “default” as an alternative approach, from a different perspective had been shared. I could see the value in changing the way I had originally planned to have this conversation. She coached me to develop a revised approach. I had the genesis of a plan. The coach had done her job.
The next day I met with the senior leadership team and shared my concerns regarding Sam and his department. These concerns were not new to them. We discussed who was best placed to raise the matter and agreed it was Sam's line manager, Mary. The planning over the next 5-10 minutes mainly focused on our thoughts and beliefs about Sam, and clarifying exactly what the problem was that we were trying to find a solution to. What was our contribution to this problem, and what was his/theirs?
Mary approached the conversation as a learning opportunity. She had to believe that Sam wanted to do a good job and had a challenging department to lead. Mary needed to understand Sam's motivations. She and Sam need to hear each other’s perspectives. Then, she needs to get internal commitment from Sam to change and improve the way he led.
How did it go?
Mary found out that Sam actually believed in what we were doing as a school and was achieving some excellent shifts in his classes. He lacked the courage and experience to have conversations with staff in his department who, for whatever reason, were not on board. Instead, he was defaulting to maintaining a pleasant comfortable relationship with them. He shared that at times he did not challenge when overhearing overt criticism of the new direction the school was taking. His department was suffering from a culture of “niceness.” He had hoped that his modeling would be enough to bring about the desired shifts in pedagogies. It wasn’t.
Mary worked with Sam on how to develop a shared direction with the department. This included transparent expectations and accountabilities. Sam was going to need to have a learning-focused conversation with one of his team. In this conversation, Sam would need to state what his “bottom lines” are. He was committed to having conversations with the right people, at the right time, about the right things.
At this stage, Mary reported that for the first time in his three years, Sam felt like he was becoming a leader. Mary has said she also felt like more of a leader.
As a school, we were starting to grow leaders and better things were starting to happen.
So: my coach was my disruptor. She challenged my thinking, tested my assumptions, provided perspective, and enabled me, and therefore us, to do better.
Maybe I’ll get some golf coaching next year.
Robinson, V.M.J., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2009). School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Best Evidence Synthesis. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.
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