Can coaching help college presidents to cope?

Some presidents are turning to coaching as a space to breathe, think, and reflect; here's what you need to know

The college presidency, Mark Twain once said, is the “greatest of all callings” for its potential to shape young minds. It is certainly not the easiest calling today. The responsibilities and challenges beyond the ”day job” of running the institution are immense. Nearly half of presidents say they lack time to think and reflect, according to the American Council on Education’s most recent American College Presidents Study.

Yet time to reflect is critical for presidents in an era of tremendous flux in higher education, with each institution plotting its future course without confidence in what academia will look like in 10 or 20 years. For the college president, dealing with ambiguity, absorbing new skills and technologies, and adapting to change can’t be done within the space of policy meetings, planning sessions, donor lunches, or sporting events.

A new source of help

For this reason, some presidents are turning to coaching as a space to breathe, think, and reflect. Coaches can also help a president to learn the ropes of a new position, obtain skills, think through issues, shape strategy, or just to have an objective, sympathetic ear. Executive coaching has been a tried-and-true means of professional support in the corporate sector. It makes sense in an academic setting in which contemplation and reasoned decision-making are valued.

Are presidents receptive to coaching? Most are, according to a survey of sitting presidents recently conducted by my firm. In it, we polled more than 60 sitting presidents on their experience with, and thoughts about, leadership coaching. More than half of these had experienced coaching at some point in their administrative careers. In most cases it was their own choice, though some noted that their board chair or other party had recommended it. The overwhelming response from these individuals was that it was a positive experience and one that they would enthusiastically recommend to others.

(Next page: More insights about finding and using a coach)

“The greatest casualty of the job is time,” says Jose Bowen, Ph.D., president of Baltimore’s Goucher College and one of the presidents we spoke with in conjunction with the survey. “Coaching gives you that time.” Coaching is also essential to a growth mindset, he adds. It is a signal that the president is committed to learning on the job.

“It’s like adding a staff member,” says Thomas Minar, Ph.D., president of Franklin College in Indiana. “You’re literally increasing your capacity with someone who’s outside your organization. We often have situations that don’t seem very normal or circumstances that we think people in other kinds of organizations or settings aren’t seeing. A coach is someone who can validate what you’re going through.”

A few other findings that came out in the survey include:

Timing matters. Respondents felt the most critical time for coaching was during the onboarding period of the new role.

Trying it means liking it. Of those who experienced coaching, most said they were more enthusiastic about it after than before they had participated.

Institutional support is not a given. Fewer than half of those presidents surveyed suggested that their institution offered coaching for administrators.

Coaching still carries a stigma. Both Bowen and Minar note that there can be a stigma around the idea of coaching; staff or trustees may question why it’s needed.

What qualities does a good coach need?

Coaches need knowledge of leadership, business strategy, and operations, and should possess relevant coaching experience and qualifications (such as through the International Coach Federation). A background in higher education can help but, in some cases, could impede a coach’s impartiality. A coach brings real value by providing a neutral lens as well as an objective platform for sustainable behavior change, which can happen with or without significant higher-ed experience.

A coach will not put herself or himself in the president’s shoes. After all, being a college president is something only a few select individuals understand. “There’s not a president who doesn’t feel a certain loneliness,” says Minar. “Talking to yourself gets old, so having the opportunity to expand your internal audience is a great thing.”

How to find a coach

It is hard to find college-president coaches through a Google search. Here are some suggestions to get started:

Look to organizations like executive search and management consulting firms that specialize in university and college leadership; they often have consultants with ample experience.

Explore coach-accrediting organizations such as the International Coaching Federation or the Association for Coaching. These will be comprised of mostly corporate coaches but there will be some overlap with the education sector.

Peer referrals are a great source of finding a coach, so talk to presidents or administrators you know. It just takes one good name.

eSchool Media Contributors