The principal’s role is complex and complicated. Additionally, it can feel lonely and even the strongest leaders have moments of doubt. As fewer people join the profession and many more leave, we are faced with a personnel crisis. How do we ensure new principals feel supported and have the skills to be strong, resilient leaders? How do we better support veteran leaders to reach their potential? The answer may be through coaching.
In 2011, Atul Gawande posited the idea that if elite athletes and artists benefitted from coaching, couldn’t we all? More than a decade later, having a personal coach is much more commonplace. CEOs frequently employ executive coaches, many people hire life coaches, and still more use the services of other trainers and mentors to help them achieve optimal performance. Educators may be more familiar with instructional coaching but despite multiple studies indicating coaches play an integral role in supporting school leaders, executive /leadership coaching is still something of an anomaly in schools and districts.
Coaching goes beyond mere encouragement and asking good questions. A strong coach will help you see your blind spots, highlight your skills, and understand how your experiences, thoughts, and ideas are supporting or holding you back. Together, coaches and principals can form an unstoppable team that lifts your leadership to peak performance. But what does that look like in practice? Where do you begin?
Create Common Understandings
When a principal is first assigned a coach, both parties must be sure they have a similar understanding of what coaching will look like. Your first meeting may feel a little awkward, but that is OK and expected. You should spend time getting to know a little about each other and talk candidly about what you hope to get out of coaching. Knowing the focus, how much time a week you should allocate, and developing goals and a plan of action are some of the first steps you will take together.
Build Mutual Trusting Relationships
There can be no effective coaching without taking the time to develop a trusting relationship. Both of you need to learn about the other person, understand their values, and learn about their lives, both professional and personal. In order for a principal to open up and tell you how they feel and share their vulnerabilities, they must feel safe. Building this level of trust does not happen overnight, but it is requisite to a productive working relationship. The burden of establishing this trust falls largely on the coach. The coach is responsible for creating a safe space where the principal feels supported, what is shared will be held in confidence, and the sole purpose of this relationship is to ensure that the principal gets what he/she/they needs to meet their goals.
Remain in Curiosity
Elena Aguilar famously noted, “No one can learn from you if you think that they suck.” As a coach, if you find yourself taking a stance of judgment you will need to shift your thinking. One of the best ways to do this is by asking questions that are genuinely rooted in curiosity. When you see or hear behaviors that are not serving students, it is easy to get frustrated but you can reframe this judgment by staying curious and asking, “Why is this happening?” “What else could be going on here?” Through modeling, coaches empower this same mindset in the principal, allowing them to be less reactive and to look beyond the surface to see the problem.
Goodness of Fit
Coaches must be carefully selected, know how to lead adult learners, maintain trust and confidentiality, and have excellent communication skills. It is equally important, however, that the two people are a good match for each other. Sometimes, despite having the right skillset, personalities may clash and it may be in everyone’s best interest to shift. This is not a failure on either side but more of a piece of creating conditions for success. If either the coach or principal does not feel comfortable with the other person after 2-3 meetings, it may be time to reassess. Not having a good first match does not mean that coaching will not work for you, merely that you need to find the right fit.
An empowered principal is one who is confident and fully capable in their role as the leader.
1-on-1 coaching provides an opportunity to support both veteran and new principals and ensure they have the support needed to hone their craft and stay resilient. The initial meetings with a coach may feel a little awkward but it is well worth the time and effort. After all, if Beyonce needs a vocal coach and Lebron needs a coach, maybe you can benefit from one too.