By Eric Cook
When I was a Junior at Transylvania University, I worked in the athletic office. One day, a man came in and told me the gym was going to be locked for the next two hours because the Kentucky basketball team was going to be using it for practice. I nearly fell out of my chair! Having grown up in Lexington, I was (am) a rabid Wildcat fan. Besides that, the team was loaded with the best talent in the country (they won the national championship that year). My little office was attached to the gym, and they did not ask me to leave!
Before long, the best team in college basketball walked in our pathetic little gym. Of course, alongside the team was their coach, Rick Pitino. I was the only person in the facility besides the team and staff. I watched for two hours as coach Pitino yelled, cussed, instructed, and lost his mind on his elite-level athletes. There was no letting up the entire two hours. I remember him saying repeatedly that they would practice at nothing less than game-level intensity. The level of focus and precision was incredible and unrelenting. In those two hours, I was able to observe what top-tier coaching really looked like. It was both painful and exhilarating.
I realize very few people have access to elite level coaching of any kind. Not only do most Heads lack accessibility to an elite level coach, but most have never had one at all (over 60% according to the SCL’s latest Head survey). However, one does not need only an elite level coach to improve. There is a deep well of great leadership resources available to anyone who wants them. No doubt, every Head of School is thinking about how they can get better at what they do. Every Head is thinking about improvement because they know, if they are honest with themselves, that they don’t have anywhere near the knowledge, skills, abilities, and wisdom necessary to do everything well. In fact, there is a high likelihood most Heads carry around a strong sense of inadequacy most of the time.
I contend that the Head of School job is as challenging a job as any leader can take. So, do the wise thing and hire someone to give you high quality support, instruction, and feedback!
Two points of disclosure before I make my passionate plea for executive leaders to hire a coach! First, I was the recipient of excellent executive coaching over an extended period during my time as a Head. It was transformative for me as a leader, and thus, I am very biased. I have been advocating for Heads to seek coaching ever since. Second, I coach Heads of School as part of my consulting work at SCL. Having said that, I strongly encourage every key leader in a classical Christian school to hire a coach, especially if you are a first-year Head.
Here are 10 reasons why:
- Even the best performers in the world have coaches. No matter what level of success one has achieved, no one is beyond a coach. The best athletes, the highest performing executives, the best musicians in the world, all have a coach. You can never see your weaknesses and you can always get better, but you cannot do it alone. Invite someone who is farther down the path to help you get better.
- A coach will help you go farther, faster. Getting a coach does not mean you are doing something wrong. It does not mean you are ineffective. It means you can still get better and that you will get better faster with someone looking in from the outside. You will see things you did not see before. You will ask yourself questions about things you have taken for granted for too long. And, the improvement will happen faster than you could ever manage on your own.
- Hiring a coach will improve your leadership simply by asking you thoughtful questions. Coaches don’t just dole out prescriptions and solutions. They help the leader make sense of the situations and complexities they face. They help the Head reason through the issues and figure out their own meaningful path to the right decision. Your coach should be excellent at asking questions and wisely guiding you towards wisdom, not dictating solutions that will evaporate when he/she leaves.
- Coaches can give you access to the experience and wisdom you lack. One problem, especially for younger/newer Heads, is that you cannot generate the experience you need to lead well. The stakes are high. Some mistakes can cost you your credibility, your dignity, and/or your job. Your board chair has never been a Head. Likely, no one in the school has been a Head either. Getting access to someone who has done the job, can provide you with context, knowledge, skills, and nuance is absolutely critical. You need wisdom and experience and since you cannot manufacture that, hiring a coach is your best option.
- By mere reflection and attention, your coach will make you better. Richard Chait argues that, at minimum, non-profit boards make institutions better merely by organizing a gathering called a board meeting. The process of asking where are we?, how are things going?, what can we do better?, etc. at least increases the likelihood that things will indeed improve. The same is true for small groups, reading groups, going to music rehearsal, and just about everything else. Coaching will require you to walk through a process of reflection and accountability that you don’t normally conduct on your own. You will improve and other leaders around you will improve as well.
- Coaching will help become more self-aware and better able to manage yourself. When you have a good coach, their questions will become your own. You will internalize the areas of improvement that were ingrained in you through the process. You will be more cognizant of your deficiencies, more empathetic towards others, and more in control of your emotions. By being more self-aware, you will become a better leader.
- By hiring a coach, you will become a better coach. Coaches will teach you how to manage yourself (as mentioned above), but being coached will help you do a better job of leading others. You will inevitably employ the same things you learned to your direct reports and make your own team better. Coaching can be an immense personal encouragement. Almost every Head of School struggles with loneliness and isolation. It is extraordinarily helpful and supportive to be engaged with someone who has done what you do, something a Head rarely has the time, opportunity, or access to. Thus, you will become a better coach by hiring a coach.
- An executive coach will increase the likelihood for meaningful change. As leaders, the people we lead have a vested interest in NOT telling us what we need to hear. Turns out, we have the same issue. We often tell ourselves what we want to hear because the alternative is not very desirable. By identifying clear goals, finding areas of improvement, and digging deep into how your strengths and weaknesses impact those around you and your school, you will increase the likelihood of real improvement.
- Coaching is biblical. The discipleship model is ordered around shepherding, modeling, instructing, admonishing, and counsel. Jesus instructed his disciples through small, intimate relationships over an extended period of time. Paul mentored Timothy and became a powerful source of influence in his leadership. Christian mentorship provides a foundation for a deep, gospel-centered approach. A biblical mentor provides the context for both profound deficiencies and real hope for meaningful change.
- A great coach can be an important bridge and mediator for Heads and boards. In every coaching engagement I have been a part of, I am able to help the board chair understand more about who the Head is, how they lead, and how better to coach them. I have also helped them better understand the Head’s value, renegotiate their contract, and understand the critical role of the board to serve their Head through a high functioning Head Support and Evaluation Committee. Boards would do well to understand the value of coaching as it pertains to their ability to lead and serve the most important position in the school.
Hiring a coach will make you a better leader, and likely, that commitment to improvement will trickle down to your entire school. Of course, hiring a coach is an investment. It is not cheap to hire one, and it should not be.
Discuss and pray about it with your board. SCL is happy to provide a strong bench of seasoned leaders who can coach any Head of School and your other key leaders. If you are interested in pursuing this, please reach out to us so you can go farther, faster.