06/28/2017 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Making This the Year of Executive Coaching

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With the new school year around the corner, we want to congratulate all the new heads of school on their appointments and wish them and their school communities great success.

We also want to offer some encouragement, knowing that every time we rise to a new position with increased responsibilities, the transition can be daunting. This is true in all professional fields, but the stress can be particularly acute in education. You were hired because you have the skills, knowledge, and experience to lead your school. We know you will do well. But we also know that there are numerous learning curves in front of you — and that you’ll need help at times.

Most of us are good at creating our own support networks, but increasingly school leaders in the precollegiate world and in higher education are turning to executive coaches both to help with the transitions into headship and to help leaders navigate the choppy education waters we often find ourselves in today.

Writing in Independent School magazine a year ago, Stephen G. Kennedy, former director of the Atlanta Area Association of Independent Schools, made the observation that heads of school are gregarious by nature. They like people and they are generally very good at connecting with a range of folks — from students to parents to teachers to staff to administrators to board members to the members of the broader community.

It’s therefore ironic, he writes, that the work of heads can be lonely. “Because the head’s desk is the place where the proverbial buck stops, it can be very lonely at the top.”

Kennedy argues that heads can feel more confident in their decision-making and have an all-around healthier and more fulfilling professional experience if they work with an executive coach. We agree.

Having a coach is not just about counteracting “that decision-making isolation.” It’s great to have an ally, a smart sounding board, and an experienced mentor, of course. But good coaches also help heads in their professional growth and job satisfaction. In doing so, they can also help schools create consistent leadership. The research suggests that schools benefit when heads happily stick around.

Kennedy quotes our colleague Bill Clarkson — a retired head of school and a highly experienced certified coach here at CS&A — on the value of hiring a coach today: “Heads know there is often no one to talk to about a difficulty they’re wrestling with. They don’t need someone to solve the problem; they need someone outside, someone objective, to help them figure out how to solve the problem.”

In an article on coaching in higher education, executive coach Beth Weinstock notes the heightened need today.

“As a leadership coach,” she writes, “I have encountered the following themes that face new leaders — a shift in identity from worker bee to queen bee, becoming tolerant of the loneliness that often goes with being on top, setting new boundaries about what information is shared, learning how to be the departmental ambassador to the larger university community, surveying the environment to determine who is trustworthy and who is not, giving hard feedback to former peers, developing a strong leadership presence, and managing their stress as well as the stress others bring to them.”

For independent school leaders, there is clear overlap here. But we would add the following challenges to the list:

  • Technological change is touching every aspect of life, especially schools. Heads need to be comfortable finding the fulcrum between tradition and innovation, and understand and be comfortable leading innovation by creating the foundation for change.
  • Brain-science research is pushing our understanding of good teaching and deep learning. Heads need to be able understand how best to infuse this new knowledge into their schools' existing programs.
  • Schools are increasingly aware of the need to focus on diversity, inclusion, and global understanding. These are socially and intellectually complex areas that require thoughtful shifts in curricula and school culture everywhere.
  • Heightened expectations of boards and parents put heads increasingly in the spotlight. Building healthy relations with all constituents is not just more important but also more challenging today.
  • Money and excellence often stare each other down across the table. Heads are in constant conversation on how to balance access and affordability with institutional excellence.

This is just a short list. Every head will discover individual challenges along the way. First-time heads will also have to come to terms with that central question about leadership style — how they want to lead and work with administrators, teachers, board members, parents, students, and community.

Perhaps the logic for hiring an executive coach all boils down to the question of how much you need to expand your skill set to meet the your school’s challenges — and, indeed, find professional and personal fulfillment in your work.

Hiring a coach is “not an admission of a lack of skill. It’s an acknowledgment of the complexity of the job and the inability of any one person to know everything about leadership,” Kennedy writes.

The research and anecdotal evidence make it clear that executive coaching pays off. In other fields, coaching is often required for new executives. There are certainly caveats, of course. You shouldn’t expect a coach to solve problems for you. You also need to choose a coach who has both a deep knowledge of independent education and knows how to support a head well. Ultimately, says Kennedy, “a coach should help you learn about yourself, your abilities, and your relationship to your school. And that process should be one that sustains you over time.”

Yes, hiring a coach is an investment, and it requires a commitment from the head of school, with the support of the board. You have to want to have a coach. But for the majority of those heads who hire an executive coach, the process turns out not to be about adding another item your overloaded to-do list. Rather, it can actually reduce the time pressure and improve work-life balance.

“I am incredibly grateful for the executive coaching I am receiving from Bill Clarkson,” writes Brad Sewell, head of school at Veritas Christian Academy of Houston.

“Bill has been a trusted guide in helping me navigate my first year as a head of school. His wisdom, insight, and breadth of experience has been invaluable in challenging me to think about situations from different perspectives; he’s been a source of confidence in decision making, and his direction has helped me develop a high level of self-awareness.”


CS&A is committed to supporting independent schools, starting with supporting school leadership. Our experience as recruiters and professionals in the field, as well as our professionally trained and ICF-certified coaches, distinguish us from other firms offering executive coaching. Recognized for 40 years as the preeminent retained search firm for independent schools, our goal is to continue providing personalized service, unique insight into school leadership, and expertise from the field in service to the critical mission of supporting and improving independent schools.

To learn more about our services, visit our website.

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