Tania is a higher education leader with a reputation for delivering strategic and innovative solutions. Her career has spanned all sectors and four continents, with the last sixteen years in universities. Her most recent role in a university was in Australia where she spent five years as the Vice Principal of External Relations at the University of Sydney. She is a trained consultant, facilitator, and a qualified and accredited coach. In 2022 she established Otus Advisory, a higher education and coaching practice, in order to build on a long-held ambition to share her experience and expertise more widely across the sector.
This may be a bold statement, but every leader would benefit from the support of a coach from time to time. Leadership, whilst fulfilling, is demanding and often lonely. Countless surveys have demonstrated that what we expect from our leaders has changed and evolved in recent times and in addition to the technical skills necessary to manage an enterprise they are also expected to demonstrate a broad range of personal characteristics including, but not restricted to, being an effective communicator, demonstrating an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, being open to giving and receiving feedback and the ability to be innovative, creative, and effective problem solvers. We want them to be open, but only within accepted boundaries because we also need them to shield us from their vulnerabilities, fears, and insecurities. They have to have one eye on the present and another on the future, to be adaptable at the moment with the ability to respond appropriately and swiftly to any circumstance or crisis, but also visionary in outlook developing strategies and ways to capitalize on them.
Universities add a whole different level of complexity. Our institutions are often messy and complicated organizations that strive to deliver for the public good, but are structured around collegiate, but also competitive communities and are expected to be run with business-like efficiency. In a context of diminishing resources, evolving external expectations, and a career to date that is less likely to have prepared individuals for the demands of leading a multi-million-dollar enterprise it’s no wonder university leaders can benefit from a little external support.
So how does coaching help you become a better leader? It’s no coincidence that as our expectations have grown and our leaders demonstrate these capabilities and behaviors, executive coaching, with its personalized approach, has evolved as a means of supporting leaders to develop these very personal attributes. The personalized approach of coaching has been described as one of its major benefits; it facilitates an individualized approach to specific areas of development and targeted support, including a range of techniques, methodologies, and models which can consequently lead to a more significant and sustained growth.
A coach who has built rapport with a coachee and is trusted with confidential information provides a safe environment in which a coachee allows themselves to be vulnerable and perhaps more compassionate. Being kinder to themselves as they work through problems can have positive benefits for a leader’s performance, resilience, and well-being.
Coaching supports leaders to better understand their own values, feelings, preferences, and behaviors and how these impact others and helps leaders identify a broader range of options and approaches.
Seeking feedback in both formal and informal ways is common practice but knowing what to do with the feedback and how to use it to improve performance is sometimes less obvious. A coach can help a leader understand and interpret what is being said and identify what needs to change and, perhaps more importantly, the impact of making and not making that change.
By combining techniques like active reflective listening, powerful questioning, Clean Language (Tompkins, Lawley 2007) and challenge with models and methodologies coaches help their coachees gain new perspectives and identify ways to progress. Sometimes all that is needed is a Thinking Partner, but I’ve also worked with leaders to identify more effective approaches that not only benefit the broader enterprise but also align with their own values.
It has to be acknowledged however that challenge can be crucial for truly transformative coaching. My own experience in universities has taught me that senior leaders are less likely to face regular challenges and coaches can play a vital role as critical friends and an “outsourced supplier of candor” (Berglas 2002). Challenge delivered in a non-judgemental way will help leaders move beyond their own biases and form new insights.
If you’re thinking of recruiting a coach to support your professional and personal development what should be looking for? There are some hygiene factors that you may want to consider; do they have a relevant qualification, are they accredited and are they able to talk you through their approach? Have you met with them and developed a clear, written, understanding of what you are looking to achieve through coaching? Have you been given the opportunity to co-create that coaching contract and are the rules of engagement clear and understood? You might also want to check that they’ve got the relevant insurance – a small thing but it is an indication of professionalism.
Other less tangible things you may wish to consider are things like their ability to establish and hold space for you as a coachee. Coaching presence is created through a combination of rapport, trust, empathy, and active reflective listening. It occurs when a coachee is confident that the coach’s attention rests solely on them, and this creates a quiet space where they are able to put aside the distractions of the day-to-day and bring some focus and clarity to their thinking. A quiet place isn’t always a space without sounds, for some clients talking out loud is how they achieve understanding, and a ‘quiet space’ can be full of noise.
A coach’s ability to demonstrate empathy is essential for maintaining rapport and trust, and ensuring the coachee feels heard, but it needs to be appropriate empathy. Scott has written about ‘ruinous empathy’ as an approach that avoids the discomfort of challenge and while coaches think they are being kind they are in fact failing to be supportive by leaving issues unaddressed. Coaching and being coached is not always a comfortable experience and sometimes a coach’s role is to support the clients to sit with and work through discomfort to gain insights. It is the coachee, not the coach, who is the owner of the coaching experience, and a coach should align their approach to the client and adapt as necessary.
Ultimately coaching will only work if both parties are invested in both the process and outcomes and are able to work together within defined boundaries. Occasionally it can be an intense, sometimes challenging experience but a successful coaching relationship can be transformative not only for the coachee but for the coach also. For me as a coach, this is one of the most satisfying aspects of my career to date. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to share space with, and support, some amazingly talented individuals on their own development journeys and to learn from them along the way.