Meeting the Leadership Challenge

Why the Most Effective Presidents and Chairs Seek Coaches

By AGB    //    Volume 23,  Number 2   //    March/April 2015
AGB Trusteeship Magazine: March/April 2015, with cover article "Meeting the Leadership Challenge"

The idea of professional coaching has real currency in corporate America and is gaining a foothold in higher education, too. Far from being seen as a sign of weakness, it is now included in the “onboarding” process for many new college and university presidents, and not just first-time presidents, either. As a means of orienting oneself to the culture of an unfamiliar institution and board, it can be enormously helpful. Board chairs are getting in on the act, too, to foster their relationship with the president and as a tool of good governance. Trusteeship asked five experts about their experiences of coaching, and of being coached.

What is a coach, exactly?

Carol Christ: Executive coaching has become common in business, not just as an aid for an executive in trouble, but as a resource for anyone assuming a leadership position. Higher education has been slower to see the value of coaching as such a resource. Using a coach is not a symptom of weakness or insecurity, but rather a tool for the development of your own leadership.

The presidency is a time of significant personal growth for all of us fortunate to have this opportunity. The breadth and complexity of the job lead you to discover and develop capacities within yourself that you may not have known you had. A coach can help you in this process and be a sounding board, a source of perspective, and a guide to developing your strategy—as distinct from your institution’s strategy—for leadership.

In my experience, this process shifts over the course of your presidency, as your institution evolves, and as you become aware of what it needs from you at each particular juncture. You should not expect a coach to tell you what to do; you can expect good listening and searching questions that will help you discover strategies and solutions.

Patricia Mathews: What I believe and what we’ve found is the importance of having a knowledgeable, independent “thinking partner.” Coaches in the purest sense of coaching aren’t there to tell you what to do. They’re there to help spur your own thinking about what will work in your situation, unlike a consultant and unlike a mentor. A mentor implies that that person has walked in your shoes or done your job, or has been in your position and can give you advice. Consultants are hired to give you advice.

Coaches, in contrast, might give you advice but are more likely to think through with you what will work for you. It’s that discipline of thinking with a person so they come up with the best solution for themselves.

Who should consider being coached, and when?

Terrence MacTaggart: When it comes to presidents, it’s important to think about the stage in their career or tenure. There are four typical periods in which coaching can help an able person become better, or someone who’s not ideally suited to at least become adequate:

  • when the president gets the job and before starting;
  • the first 100 days of the presidency;
  • the broad middle period, which could extend for years, where the major dynamics are periodic problems or challenges that come up with the board, faculty, staff, enrollment, or team building;
  • and the exit phase, when the president is thinking of departure, or others are thinking of it for him or her.

The first two periods are the most important, because mistakes made early on can be caught. You don’t want to be in damage control; you want to be in high performance mode.

Carol Cartwright: I have developed strong feelings about who needs coaching. I think every new president should have a coach for the first six to nine months, at least. And I don’t mean people who are new to a presidential role; I mean every new president. Even if you’re an experienced new president, when you go into a new setting, you need some coaching on the culture, what to expect, and the levers for change.

A coach, as I have learned, is your confidential thought partner, and if you accept that, then a board has a strong rationale to say: “This is part of our support package for you. We shared our expectations during the selection process, but as you transition in, this is part of the support package we want to provide for you. We want you to have someone with whom to reflect and bounce ideas off of in a safe, secure environment.”

Christ: Unless we have held a presidency before, we do not come into the job with experience of all its aspects and dimensions. Often, working with a board of trustees is the most unfamiliar aspect of the position and one crucial to our success. Expert, confidential coaching can help us to grow in this relationship and to learn to use it to achieve our goals.

Many of the problems with which a president deals are confidential in nature and involve relationships with people—a senior staff member not performing at an optimal level, a difficult trustee. By their very nature, they are problems on which the president cannot seek wide advice. They also frequently involve issues of governance—finding the best division of responsibilities with the board of trustees or striking the right balance in shared governance with the faculty. In all of these situations, it is valuable to have a source of advice, someone knowledgeable about college presidencies and about higher education, but sufficiently removed to provide perspective, and committed exclusively to your success. Hence the value of a coach.

A college presidency is an intensely social position. It involves communicating with many different individuals and communities— students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, trustees—all connected through their affiliation with the institution that you both lead and represent. This relationship leads to a paradox: Although a president never lacks for advice— everyone with an ownership stake feels free to offer it, early and often—he or she can find it difficult to obtain disinterested advice, advice uninflected by the adviser’s position within the institution.

How do you get started?

Mary Graham Davis: Determining communication style. That’s where I think the coaching attributes are going to be really important, because style of discussion, style of advising, style of problem solving are probably crucial in terms of making the dialogues between the president and chair successful. You have to be a really good listener, you have to assess the personality and style of the president and how you get through to them. How do they listen as well as how does the chair listen? What works in terms of exchanges of information? Who leads decision making, who influences it, what’s the process?

What works for one president might not work for another, or for the chair. Getting those dynamics worked out early in the relationship is of vital importance.

Cartwright: The relationship starts with a pretty deep dive into getting acquainted with the individual and the institution. A lot of people do coaching on the phone, but I think it’s absolutely essential in the getacquainted phase to do it face to face. The body language, the eye movements, the subtleties of how people are interacting all become critically important.

Also, goal setting. The goals must primarily come from the person being coached, or the board chair and the president together. I worked once with a system president in which the goals came from the system head and the president, but ultimately the goals need to be owned by the person being coached. He or she needs to commit to the goals being pursued.

Those might be personal goals as well as institutional goals. Some examples of personal goals are: learning to be less defensive when criticized, polishing the skill of working the room and becoming adept at informal conversation, becoming comfortable in unscripted communications, and being “presidential.” The idea of being presidential is one that many people struggle with in the sense that they have to learn to give up their comfort zone, such as being a provost, and really let their provost alone and move beyond those responsibilities to being in charge and being the president.

As far as institutional goals, new presidents often want to spend some time learning about the culture of their new institution. They often want to explore how to organize a listening tour or a series of get-acquainted events. It is helpful to have someone (the coach) to talk with about the specifics. Who should I talk to? How long should I take? Do I give everyone feedback or organize some summary report? Will I look less decisive if I spend time getting to know the institution? The coach should not be giving answers, but he or she should be challenging the thinking and supporting ideas.

Other institutional goals might be about fundraising, developing a strategic planning process, and building the executive team. Regarding the team, I think presidents appreciate the opportunity to explore their early assessments of those executives already in place with an independent third party. The president is figuring out whom to trust, and those conversations are best done with a confidential thought partner.

MacTaggart: You need to discern if the president has a genuine commitment to the idea of coaching—to adjusting the relationship. Someone doing their first presidency has a lot to learn, and they’re either open to learning now or they’re going to learn it the hard way later.

The coach needs to make a commitment to the “player”—the president or whomever he or she is coaching—that he or she will be honest, even if it’s uncomfortable: “It will be confidential. I won’t be reporting on it. I will be personally supportive.” It’s a very personal relationship. The coach needs to make it clear that he or she has the success of the person being coached as his or her top priority.

As a coach myself, I also have a couple of exercises that I use early in the relationship. One of them is to attempt to enable the subject to develop an awareness of his or her blind spots. Most of the time when people get into trouble it’s because of communications problems or flawed relationships. I use a couple of recognized social-science techniques that enable people to recognize the blind spots, what the dimensions are, and how to act on them.

Two common blind spots, especially in first presidencies, are: a) assuming you know all you need to know, and b) assuming you don’t know enough to act. In the first instance, an inexperienced president, especially one who may have learned the wrong lessons from a “how to be a president” institute or who may feel he or she has a rigid charge from the board, may lose the trust and confidence of the campus by blundering forward too quickly without getting the lay of the land, establishing relationships, and listening. The second case is the unnecessarily timid president who, lacking a guide or coach, spends years listening to conflicting advice and fails to initiate the change that, to one degree or another, every institution requires.

How do you know if the coaching is succeeding?

Cartwright: I recall a relationship where there was clearly a tipping point. The conversation shifted, and I could tell that the person being coached got it and was diligently working on trying to understand an idea, testing it out, keeping a journal to document the working through of it.

And there came a time, four or so months into it, that the nature of the conversation shifted to more confidence about what the person had decided and less questioning, less playing through all the options, more of a sense of, “I knew this is what I needed to do.” You could see that arc of growth, and suddenly we both knew that one of the major goals we were working on had been achieved.

This individual was trying to learn what it meant to “be presidential.” You can see that’s a concept that is loaded with a lot of subtlety. Decisiveness is a component of being presidential. This person recognized that there were times a decision should have been made more quickly, which would have signaled to the community that the president was in charge—not in a command-and-control kind of way, but in an appropriate way. At the end of the day, people want their president to be making decisions. That was a tipping-point experience for this person.

How long should coaching continue?

Mathews: There’s no rule of thumb for how long the relationship should last. I generally recommend a minimum of three months, because change can’t happen more quickly than that. But there is “laser” coaching, where someone is working on one particular issue and wants to do so quickly. Or, say, someone is developing a résumé and needs to think of qualities they want to promote—that might take just a session or two.

But if you’re working on strategy or onboarding, it probably takes six months, sometimes more. Your goal as a coach is that you don’t want someone to be coach-dependent. You want to help someone be the best they can be in a situation and then you’re out of the equation. But sometimes people will call later and want to discuss something through.

Cartwright: How the goals change depends on how long the relationship persists. With an experienced president transitioning to a new institution, it could be a short relationship. A system president I worked with was a first-time president, and it was a fairly big promotion. That was the reason for the system head thinking a coach was essential. There was great potential, but the president needed a sounding board.

After nine months, it was clear to both of us and the system head that the kind of growth that everyone agreed was a goal had been achieved and the our coaching relationship could shift to a more periodic, let’s-stay-in-touch relationship. The regular set of conversations we’d been having were probably not necessary anymore, and we came to a mutual understanding that it was time to change the relationship.

We’ve been talking primarily about presidents. What about board chairs? Can they benefit from coaching?

Christ: Coaching can be a similarly valuable resource for board chairs seeking to make the most effective use of their leadership position. It can offer insight on issues like the board-president relationship, building community on the board, and keeping a strategic focus. Coaching is often particularly appropriate at the beginning of a new position, but it can also be useful at times of institutional crisis or transition.

Is it different working with a board chair?

Davis: I’ve counseled chairs about two things. One is how to get a highly participative board. In other words, where boards are not as active as they should be, how do you get them more active, and how do you engage your board members more in the life of the board? Sometimes that has to do with redoing your committees to give them accountability, so there is a sense of governance that comes up through the committee structure. Some of it is having individual discussions, asking what committees they’re interested in serving on. Are we using each person’s expertise? Can we use it better?

Sometimes the chair will coach quieter board members to use their voices more, as in, “I know you have things to say, but I’m really not hearing your voice.” It’s working with a continuum of personalities on a board.

I have coached a couple of chairs with factions on their boards, and those usually arise around a strategic issue. Whether it’s a financial issue, academic issue, the social life on campus, you name it. Just about any issue can polarize a board. How do you get over that, and what can a board chair do to talk to people who feel disenfranchised? That’s a tough spot.

Also, as a chair myself, I know that there’s a way to think about, “Who are my critical committee heads? What relationship do I want to have with them so they get a sense of what is important for them to be doing on the board that year—and, vice versa, so they will give me a heads up and talk to me when they’re putting together their agendas?” They’re my eyes and ears. The chair can’t be communicating with every person on campus.

Mathews: One of the distinctions between board chair and president coaching, in my experience, is that board chairs are volunteers and the incentives are different. The way you work with volunteers is different than the way you work with others. The president is being paid for his or her work, so the objectives may be different. The coaching approach is the same, but the goals will be different, and the way you think about those goals will be different.

Keeping that in mind for a coach is useful. Often when two individuals are being coached—for example, the president and board chair—and their goals need to be aligned, coaches organize a three-way meeting to make sure those goals and outcomes are, in fact, aligned.

Some people might compare it to couples counseling. Coaches aren’t counselors, but it is often helpful to work with both people involved. Any time I’m coaching a president, the board chair is the primary person he or she must be aligned with. For a vice president, the president is the person with whom they have to be aligned. In the course of coaching, however, you don’t have to be coaching both. In fact, I don’t necessarily recommend it.

What about the president-board chair relationship?

Davis: There’s an important role here for strategy. When you have a new chair and a president who’s trying to execute a strategy or put a new one together, those dialogues between the president and chair are important. They’re not around problem solving, per se; they’re around vision, dreams, legacy.

Coaching chairs to have that conversation with their president at the front end of the chair’s term is a vital conversation and one that’s often forgotten. Because presidents actually have, in my experience, a pretty good idea of what it is they want to accomplish for the institution and probably for their own brand as a president, as well.

What is that president trying to accomplish? The chair needs to appreciate that. If the chair thinks or acts counter to that vision, you’re going to have significant tension.

One of the things that doesn’t happen in the process of nominating the chair is the conversation about where the president is trying to take the institution, and can the chair match that vision? If not, you’ll have tension from the get-go. I think chairs have to be careful. The board has to lead strategy, but the president has to execute it. And if the board chooses a strategy the president can’t or won’t execute, you’re going to have a problem.

You often have a first-time chair with a more experienced president. There will be more chairs in a president’s life than a chair has presidents. So the president has to do a little bit of adapting to the style of the chair, but I do think the president can influence that process.

He or she should start a conversation about what his or her expectations are in the relationship with the chair—and that should be on the chair’s agenda. The chair should have an intentional relationship-building process with the president so that the two of them can be in a working relationship to forward the goals of the institution.

How important is confidentiality in the coaching process?

Cartwright: Developing a clear understanding about confidentiality at the beginning of the engagement is essential. The parameters should be established in advance so people aren’t expecting details that aren’t forthcoming. Everyone should agree upfront that the specifics will always be confidential, and that they will decide together how they want to describe the general progress that they’re making.

Mathews: Coaching is a confidential process. The coach should not be reporting to the president what progress the board chair is making. You might want to bring them together at the beginning, middle, and end, though. If there’s an area where they’re in conflict, you might organize a session with them both together.

The goals should be transparent, agreed upon at the beginning. That’s one of the core competencies. Each time you meet, there’s an agreement setting. The goals are explicit: “These are the things we’re working on.” You can say, “We’re making progress,” but you wouldn’t say explicitly what you’re talking about.

Did you ever have a coach?

MacTaggart: I’ve benefited a lot from coaching and have never been afraid to ask for help or advice from mentors. My time in this business goes back a while— before coaching formally developed. It was essentially a weekly lunch, regular phone calls, particularly when things were hot. Things that are not that hot for an old pro are for a new president, who hasn’t experienced those things before. My attitude is very much pro-mentoring. It was my good fortune to also receive support in a non-official way, from someone who had been a system head. He was a coach and mentor for a number of new system heads. Even today, I feel a debt of gratitude to him. He taught me quite a lot.

As a result, I set up a development program for myself that included media relations, public speaking (taking a tutorial from an actor), and a two-year set of seminars on professional development. It was like sending myself back to school to develop a broader sense of what is needed in the job as well as the practical skills for dealing with the press and public speaking.

Cartwright: No, I never had a formal coach. But had it been an established practice where every new president gets coaching as part of the onboarding process, I would have welcomed it. I think you develop a sense of whom you can trust, and you figure out with whom in your senior administration you can have a confidential conversation. That would certainly have been helpful early on.

Tales From the Field

That Encouraging Voice

When I was a young faculty member at Penn State, a very senior colleague member took me aside one day after a faculty meeting and provided some very interesting perspectives. It was probably my third or fourth year at Penn State, and he was a highly respected member of the faculty. He told me that he had been observing me at faculty meetings and wanted me to know that he thought I had leadership potential. He said, “You have an uncanny ability to listen carefully and then, when you speak, you go right to the center—the core—of an issue in a way that your colleagues find very helpful.” In his mind, that translated into leadership potential. He went on to give advice that I should be aware of this ability and recognize how powerful it could be in leading a group to a productive outcome. We were not close in the sense of a coaching relationship, but his comment was constantly in the back of my mind. Those were the days when women were not encouraged to think about leadership roles and his comment was very motivating. He was the voice in my head—the coach—who encouraged me to take on leadership challenges.

Carol Cartwright

Coaches often make the best coaches

Less than six months into my first job as a campus chancellor, I was challenged by the football coach over a budget issue. Mid-season, he threatened to pull the team and cancel the remaining games if his budget demands weren’t met. I sought the advice of a former coach and very savvy administrator at the campus. My mentor suggested a way around the budget impasse. He also recommended patience when it came to dealing with the rebellious coach, saying “what goes around comes around.” Indeed, a few months later, the football coach’s contract was up for renewal. After three years of losing seasons, the decision was easy. The coach accused me of being unfair during our exit interview. “What goes around comes around,” I replied. My mentor’s good advice has proven useful in a variety of conflicts since that time.

—Terrence MacTaggart

Practice makes… better

One of the things that I share with my clients is the idea that “we’re always practicing something.” And, we get better at what we practice (even when it isn’t working particularly well or getting the results we want). So when I have a client that has a particular practice that is getting in the way of the results he or she wants to achieve, one of the things I do is work with him or her to develop a different practice.

Let’s take JS, a college president who has worked in that position for five years. When interviewing his cabinet, I heard feedback that he dominates discussions and doesn’t allow for divergent points of view. Before even sharing the feedback, I asked JS to do some self-observation. We designed a way for him to notice how often his cabinet offered opinions during a meeting. In our next session, he shared that in the two meetings he had conducted since, he discovered that he talked approximately 90 percent of the time, and he was actually surprised at that finding.

Next, we worked together to develop a new “practice.” JS agreed that he would ask a question most of the time instead of leading with his own ideas. In a short while, he had a new practice that allowed the smart, capable members of his cabinet to be the leaders he desired.

Patricia Mathews

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