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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Can We Make Leadership Coaching Work?

By Peter DeWitt — January 18, 2017 5 min read
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Too many leaders believe they are supposed to have all the answers when they start in the job. If that’s the case, they are being held to a different standard than everyone else, and that’s not fair. One of the ways to help leaders better prepare for their every day role, and help them grow as leaders, is to provide leadership coaching.

However, let’s begin by answering the title of this blog. Yes, coaching can be a very credible option to helping improve leadership. Research shows that coaching can help dramatically improve the principals’ ability to communicate with classroom teachers about their instructional practice (Lochmiller).

According to the National College for Coaching and Leadership (2012),

Coaching is a time-bound, formal intervention focused on shorter-term goals and challenges. Although there are many models of coaching, they all start from the premise that people have the resources within themselves to achieve their personal and leadership potential, and that the task lies in assisting them to access those resources and apply them."

Yes, I highlighted that one part on purpose. The highlighted part of the definition of coaching provided by the National College of Coaching and Leadership has a focus on what is referred to as self-efficacy (Bandura). Self-efficacy is an important aspect of learning, teaching and leading, and is something to keep in mind during the leadership coaching process.

According to Bandura, self-efficacy “refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (1997. p. 10). John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has research to show that self-efficacy can have an effect size of .63. Hattie defines self-efficacy as, “The confidence or strength of belief that we have in ourselves that we can make our learning happen.”

Self-efficacy plays a very important part in the success of any learning experience. There are four major categories of experiences that influence self-efficacy (Bandura). Those four categories are:

Personal performance accomplishments - A challenging activity brings out the strongest indicators for changing self-efficacy. When looking at leadership coaching it’s really important that the goal a leader and coach works on together is somewhat challenging. Have you ever put together furniture from Ikea? That’s a challenging accomplishment and referred to as the Ikea Effect.

Vicarious experiences - When we collaborate with others and witness the way they go about a challenging activity, we can learn through this vicarious experience. Some of our best ideas come from those colleagues we worked with.

Positive feedback - Positive feedback helps to increase a person’s level of self-efficacy. The coach helps build credibility in the coaching relationship by inspiring the leader to focus on a goal, and then provide feedback to the leader around that goal.

Physiological condition - Lastly, and most importantly, the social and emotional well-being matter because it contributes to a person’s level of self-efficacy. It’s one of the reasons why Covey told us to “sharpen the saw.”

Effective leadership coaching can play a part in each one. Through goal setting, working toward the goal, and the feedback provided by school stakeholders and the leadership coach, leaders have the opportunity to learn a great deal about themselves.

Credibility (.90) Is Important
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, credibility is defined as, “the quality or power of inspiring belief.” Credibility is about being trusted or believed in, and in Hattie’s research it has been shown to have a .90 effect size, which is well over double the hinge point. Credibility is an important factor in the leadership coaching process, because it’s one of the areas that leaders being coached most worried about.

When I wrote 5 Reasons Principals Should Be Coached, I provided a link to Survey Monkey where principals could answer three questions about coaching. One of those questions inquired about potential obstacles that principals worried about when working with leadership coaches. Credibility was a common theme that came up several times with the nearly 300 leaders who completed the survey.

Respondents wrote statements about obstacles such as, “Leadership coaches with ulterior motives; intentions to usurp authority or direction from the leader.” I look at those kind of coaches as negotiators (DeWitt. 2016) because they make leaders believe that the coaching experience is about the leader, when in fact, it’s more about what the coach wants.

Another leader commented, “Coaches not understanding our district,” which is highly important. Coaches just can’t walk in, open up a manual, and pull out the lesson plan that they think will work. They need to make sure they understand the leaders context.

Finally, one leader wrote, “A coach who has never spent time in the role of building leader.” This speaks to the credibility issue. A leadership coach who has never been in the role of a building leader, will quickly lack the credibility they need to help the leader grow.

If coaches are going to have a successful relationship with building leaders it’s important that they have the credibility to hold the attention of the leader. We create opportunities of credibility when:

  • We can provide evidence that what we are offering has worked for us and others.
  • When we show up on time
  • Listen to the needs of the leader
  • Offer effective feedback
  • Help leaders change their practice for the better.

Killing Credibility
The five opportunities listed above help coaches build trust with the leader. A leader that trusts a coach will take more opportunities to take risks, step outside of their comfort zones, and go after a challenging goal that will help build a better school community but also help increase the self-efficacy of the leader.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts we can kill credibility. The flip side is when leadership coaches talk too much about their own experiences and successes. They start their sentences with, “When I was a principal I always...”

When I was a new principal I came from teaching in a city school that had a fairly high poverty rate. Since I was new to administration, I wanted to build credibility with my staff, and help them understand that I came from the “trenches” as well. Unfortunately, that was where I put myself at risk of killing credibility. Every time a teacher would speak of one of their students who came from a tough background, I would chime in about what I did as a teacher. I soon realized that I didn’t have to keep saying, “When I was a teacher, I...” because they begin to have the reverse effect on conversations.

Those moments find the same fate of our favorite songs, and coaches can learn from my mistake. After awhile leaders will get tired of hearing the same tune by their coach and change the channel. Leadership coaching will work, but coaches need credibility by listening more than they talk, and watching the leader in action to help them find their blind spot at the same time they focus on their strengths.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the best selling Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.