Becoming a coach-an evolving journey

The Beginning

I first started coaching middle leaders for Ambition School Leadership when I was working full time as a senior leader. Let me begin by saying that until I was 50 I had never coached anyone or been coached myself. Having been teaching since 1983 I knew, or so I thought, how teacher development worked. I only had a very small caseload as I was leading a teaching school and supporting school improvement in a multi academy trust. I had always loved developing others and this seemed like a natural extension of what I had done for a considerable part of my career in teaching and leadership. 

Imposter Syndrome ‘Nothing in the world can bother you as much as your own mind. In fact, others seem to be bothering you, but it’s not others. It is your own mind.’ Dalai Lama 

When the chips were down though, I felt like a complete novice and almost paralysed by being called a ‘coach’. I guess this was what I now understand to be imposter syndrome. I felt the title ‘coach’ was synonymous with some sort of mystical status and worried that people would soon find out that I had little experience in the ‘art’ of coaching. Meeting other more experienced coaches and practising some of the techniques made me realise that what looked easy was anything but. My supervisor at the time told me, with a hint of impatience at my indulgent self-doubt, that I just needed to get stuck in. Put simply, coaching was about having a conversation with another person and I clearly had lots of emotional intelligence, which was what counted. It was good advice and when I met the middle leaders I was working with I couldn’t imagine a better privilege than to be granted the opportunity to work alongside such talented professionals. 

Have trodden the path they were on, I was hugely appreciative of the changes they were making to get the very best for their students and staff. The way I was working felt aligned with my core principles when supporting leaders in other schools in the day job. I loved going into their schools and sitting in real classrooms, often just vacated by students they had just taught and bumping into members of their teams before getting into what was always a fascinating conversation. I felt at home in the school environment and was yet to realise how this was defining the coach I was becoming.

Becoming more self aware “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” Ernest Hemingway

Supporting our work as coaches, Ambition School Leadership invested time in quality training, including individual supervision. This is when I began to think more carefully about what sort of a coach I was becoming and who I wanted to be as a coach. The training initially focussed on models such as Growth and useful techniques. I found this incredibly helpful as a novice coach but couldn’t help thinking that what was happening in the moment in the coaching conversations was about the sort of person I had become after 37 years in teaching and school leadership. I was a leader who fixed problems and used all their interpersonal skills to motivate people to change, most often with good results. How did that person connect with the middle leaders I was working with? The answer to that question was not a comfortable one. 

I could see that ,because of my feeling of being an imposter in the coaching world and the drive as a school leader to fix things, the following things were happening:

  1. Strategising

As soon as the conversation started to happen I would feel myself listening with the intention of identifying the problem and asking a series of investigative style questions to see what kind of strategy would be useful. I would relax in the conversation as I began to identify what I thought was the issue. Ah, I would think to myself, this is about having a difficult conversation, I know a great model to help with this as a ‘way forward’. Ensuing questions would then be skewed towards helping the leader identify that path. Strategising disguised as coaching

2. Solutions focussed

I felt happiest at the end of the 90 minute coaching conversation if the issues that had been raised had now clear actions against them that would ‘fix’ the problem. I wanted the coachee to feel that the time had been useful-or more worryingly that time spent with me had been useful. I was a good coach!

Heart versus head ‘In a very real sense we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels’ Daniel Goleman

But my intuition was telling me otherwise. I could sense that there were times when the coachees were not really buying into about the direction the conversation was taking but were unsure about voicing this. The real issues were not always immediately obvious. I also noticed that the coaching conversations which were not easily ‘boxed’ into a ‘difficult team issue’ or an ‘accountability issue’.  I listened more and allowed space for ideas to emerge from the coachee.  I had to stop trying to control the conversation and let go. And in the end, as my supervisor had pointed out, it was the emotional intelligence side of things and an appreciation of the potential of leaders that I was working with, that made letting go the right thing to do. 

I began to realise that the art of coaching was not just about models and tools and techniques, useful as they are if needed by the coachee, but about being there for a person, believing completely in their ability to come up with their own solutions and opening up new ways of looking at things. And that it’s ok not to solve the problem.

The impact of virtual coaching

At the time when I started working with a larger cohort of middle leaders, I moved full time into coaching and stopped working as a school leader. The coaching also moved into virtual-no more school visits and conversations by phone only. I was initially worried. What about credibility? How would I be able to get a sense of context and read body language? As it turns out this change highlighted the need for me to leave the old way of being behind and focus on who I was now. I ditched all the lists of ‘useful questions’ and read more about the art of coaching, getting into the theory more deeply thanks to my new supervisor. ‘Presence-based coaching’ by Doug Silsbee was a big influence. The use of the phone made me listen more carefully-I wasn’t distracted by the school environment and I could tune in more quickly. I found that I could build relationships more quickly than I thought and didn’t feel the need to ‘make a good impression’.

I began to see the conversations not just as 90 minute stand alone sessions but as a journey and that as much happened between the sessions as it did in them-and that was up to the coachee.

I began to question who I was becoming as a coach and it was not the same as who I was as a leader. This was a whole new arena. I was back to being a novice.

Conclusion of this blog but not the journey!

Finally, some thoughts around the significance of coaching in schools. 

1. Why do new leaders need a coach?

When I started out in my first leadership role as Head of English in 1992, there were no leadership programmes and coaching wasn’t even on the radar. I learnt on the job and made many mistakes. Fortunately I worked as part of a wider faculty and had access to more experienced leaders than me from whom I learnt a great deal. Role models were key for my development from then on in. I sought them out and was lucky enough to work with many brilliant leaders. But what about new leaders who do not have this?  A great relationship with a coach who gives you time to think with support and challenge can make a massive difference to helping you transform as a leader and encourage you to keep going in a profession that needs great leaders more than ever. As one of the leaders put it ‘confiding in someone confidentially is something that I really struggle to do in school; having a coach enables that’.

2. Why coaching is a great way for experienced leaders to play a role in system leadership?

Thanks to Ambition School Leadership I coach 16 fantastic middle leaders in challenging schools from around the country. The chance to support the work they are doing to improve the life chances of disadvantaged students is a privilege. These leaders will be different and better than my generation of leaders and at this stage of my career its great to have the chance to contribute to the wider system in this way.  Reflections on the coaching process such as ‘every conversation opens a door’, ‘I have grown so much in confidence as a leader’ and ‘my development continues past the phone calls’ show something of the way a coaching relationship can have impact.

3. What sort of a coach will I be in 2 years time?

Hopefully one who can be herself with skill! 

More on this in future blogs along with some shared tips for those new to coaching like myself.