Why do I need a coach?
Overwhelmingly, that’s the initial reaction from education leaders when we introduce them to coaching, which plays an integral role in the Holdsworth partnership.
“Many leaders – and not just in the field of education – equate coaching with performance issues,” says Kirsten Hund, who directs Holdsworth’s District Leadership Program. “The implication is that something is wrong with you and we are sending in somebody to fix you.”
Holdsworth views coaching much differently. We believe everyone has the potential to grow and improve. We also believe coaching helps leaders connect to their purpose on a daily basis, a practice that is essential to becoming a better leader.
“When things get stressful at work or you have a big event or important deadline looming, a coach can help you step back and think through how you want to show up in these moments,” says Dr. Michael Greenwalt, senior manager of coaching and facilitation at Holdsworth. “They can help you process what’s happening and center you on your values so you can respond as your best self.”
Coaches as advocates
Through the Holdsworth partnership, principals, superintendents, and district champions (a central office leader chosen by the superintendent to help align efforts around the development of a strong leadership pipeline) receive one-on-one executive coaching as well as coaching that involves stakeholders, a concept we will dig into later.
Executive coaches work with leaders to set growth goals such as investing more time in developing others, delegating meaningful work to their teams, becoming more influential communicators or managing their time more efficiently.
Coaches also advocate for leaders in ways they find it difficult to do themselves. .
When Dr. Shelley Handcock, principal at Eisenhower Elementary in Grand Prairie ISD, heard she would be getting a coach, she planned to be guarded, giving just enough information to not incite concern. Then she met Dr. Liz Garcia, one of Holdsworth’s full-time coaches.
“Liz has been one of the most impactful people in my life,” Shelley says. “She has this gentle and loving way about her and guides reflections effortlessly. She truly wants me to be the best leader I can be.”
With Liz’s help, Shelley began empowering those around her to take on greater responsibility. Instead of working late every day and arriving home distracted and stressed-out, she leaves the building by 5:30 p.m. and gives her family full attention when she gets home. The result? She’s not only happier, she is better able to support and grow her staff so they can provide an excellent learning experience for students.
“Coaching is one of the best gems that Holdsworth has to offer. Now I see why CEOs have them,” Shelley says.
Allie Martin, principal at Klenk Elementary in Klein ISD, has a similar story. A hard-charging leader with a brain wired for logic, Allie tends to default to thinking rather than feelings.
Sharing her story with a stranger felt uncertain. a safe space for Allie to let go and be vulnerable.
“Coaching is not about mastery and a checklist, it’s about exposing the rawness of the journey and being OK with that,” Allie says. “It’s about committing to being uncomfortable and trusting your coach. You are giving them permission to know you, to ask challenging questions and to speak into your life.”
Involving others in your growth
Once our district leaders are comfortable with the one-on-one coaching process, we take it to another level by involving stakeholders in the process.
In this approach, the coach talks to people around the leader – peers, bosses and people they supervise – to help the leader get a sense of what they do well and what aspects of their leadership need growth. The leader sets a goal focusing on a growth opportunity and shares the goal with stakeholders. Each month, the leader circles back to solicit feedback – did I make progress? Do I still need work?
We’ve been inspired by Marshall Goldsmith’s Stakeholder-Centered Coaching, and invited him to work with our first cohort of district leaders. Watch a video of Marshall explaining the concept at the bottom of the page.
“You can work on yourself alone all day long, but unless you talk about it with those affected, you will not change their perception,” Kirsten says. “If others are not experiencing you in a new way or as a more effective leader, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, it’s about them, not you.”
Allowing others to point out your shortcomings might induce deep discomfort, especially for leaders in top positions who feel perfection is expected of them or that critics are waiting to seize upon any sign of weakness.
Jenny McGown, deputy superintendent at Klein ISD and district champion for the Holdsworth partnership, said she was initially “skeptical and nervous” about having a coach.
A few months into executive coaching, she wondered how she had ever moved forward effectively without it.
“The opportunity to spend time thinking about my own leadership development and having somebody to listen objectively and give feedback was invaluable,” she says.
A dedicated leader with a seemingly bottomless well of energy, Jenny knew she needed to do a better job of prioritizing her time but could never strike the right work/life balance. When she held it up as a goal and shared it with those around her, they offered great ideas: Set clear boundaries on your time – no texting or calling between 6:00 and 8:30 p.m. Pick a maximum number of events you will attend at night during the week. Ask others to attend on your behalf.
“Talk about feeling loved by your people,” Jenny says. “The amount of mental relief that sacred time provided me and my family has been completely transformative for me as a professional and a person.”
Her progress set an example for others:
“My example of functioning as if there were no limits was not good. I work hard, I like to get things done, but when others see me prioritizing my health, that sends a signal that they can do the same.”
Inspired by the experience, leaders at Klein ISD are introducing stakeholder-involved coaching to around 300 principals, assistant principals, and central office leaders. Each leader will receive feedback via survey, identify stakeholders, set a goal, solicit ideas for improvement and conduct regular check-ins to monitor progress.
“This will be a big first step for us and we are excited to see how it goes,” Jenny says. “The difference between having one person holding you accountable and a team of people holding you accountable is highly motivating to keep you pushing forward.”