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Coaching Skills for Academic Leaders: Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Others

Leadership and Management

Coaching Skills for Academic Leaders: Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Others

This article first appeared in The Best of the 2021 Leadership in Higher Education Conference (Magna Publications, 2022).

Deborah Borman glanced at her schedule for the day with a wave of anxiety. She was starting on one of the scariest tasks of her new department chair duties, a day of conducting annual reviews with her faculty with no idea how to prepare for these meetings, other than reading the professors’ self-evaluations. As a faculty member for 12 years, she had dreaded her own annual reviews with previous chairs because the conversations seemed so stilted, formal, and unhelpful. Now as a new chair herself, she kept thinking that there had to be a better way to help faculty monitor their job performance and achieve their dreams.

If you are a department chair, program director, dean, or provost, you may, like Deborah, wonder whether you are doing all you can to support and empower your colleagues, staff, and students (Mort Feldmann et al., 2013; Wright et al., 2010). Holding a leadership position in higher education in which you feel responsible for other people is challenging and often done with no training and little support. Academic leaders so often report feeling stressed with “the people part of the job”—that is, navigating difficult conversations, preventing and healing burnout, and dealing with incivilities and bullying (Boice, 2000; Cipriano, 2011, 2019)—that many joke that academic leadership might not be so bad if it were not for the people.

One way to make the people part of the job less stressful and even more effective and rewarding, is to use coaching skills to structure conversations that bring out the best in yourself and others. You probably already have many of these skills; you just haven’t been applying them in systematic and intentional ways. This article, based on my upcoming book, Coaching Skills for Academic Leaders: Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Others, will offer an easy to learn and easy to remember template, ASK, that organizes a select subset of coaching skills (Assessing motivation, Setting an agenda, and Keeping success on track) designed to help you lower your anxiety in conversations with your colleagues about performance evaluation and career trajectories.

In case you are new to the concept of coaching, here is one of my favorite definitions: “a collaborative solution-focused, result-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of life experience and goal attainment in the personal and/or professional life of normal, non-clinical clients” (Grant, 2003, p. 254). In my years of coaching faculty, awareness of coaching has gone from, “Coaching, that’s what they do in the athletic department, right?” to “All the other deans have a coach; I need one.” While professional coaches study coaching skills for several years to get credentialed through the International Coach Federation, most academic leaders can learn and apply a small subset of those skills to improve conversations throughout the academy.

Here are some ways that increasing your coaching skills will bring out the best in you and those you work with. Doing so will

  • give you a structure for coaching yourself;
  • give you a structure for coaching your faculty which will lower your anxiety about important conversations;
  • improve the atmosphere in the academy by empowering leaders to support others to be the best they can;
  • create a coaching culture in which effective interpersonal skills can raise the social-emotional intelligence of group interactions in department or committee meetings (McKee et al., 2008; DiGirolamo & Tkach, 2019; Montuori & Donnelly, 2017);
  • reduce and prevent incivility, micro-aggressions, bullying, and competitiveness across organizations and lead faculty to commit to their colleges from a place of collaborative productivity (Bolman & Gallos, 2016; Grant & Cavanagh, 2011; Silsbee, 2010); and
  • promote your own and others’ visions that lead to higher performance and job satisfaction and, by extension, the success of the unit and institution (Glaser, 2016; Kouzes & Posner, 2003; Quinlan, 2014).

Coaching faculty toward the above outcomes requires a set of conversational skills that allow the coach to be present to the client’s needs, challenges, goals, and accomplishments and for the client and coach to co-create a mutually agreed-upon vision that meets the client’s needs for positive career development (Buller, 2013; Glaser, 2014). Two such conversational skills used in slightly different ways in each stage of the ASK coaching template are powerful questioning and active listening.

Powerful questions are interview questions that prompt the client to think about aspects of their goals. An example would be, “What would happen if you knew you could not fail?” You know you have asked a good question when the client says, “Hmmm, that’s a really good question.” Active listening is a skill in which the coach summarizes what the client is telling the coach to the client’s satisfaction. An example would be, “What you are telling me is that if you knew you could not fail, you would write the grant proposal and send it in.” The dialogue is a self-correcting, iterative process. If the client doesn’t like the summary, they can express the idea a different way until the coach can summarize it to the client’s satisfaction.

Unlike the explicit contracts of executive coaching, where the client contracts the coach to provide coaching over a period of time for a stated fee, coaching interactions between academic leaders and faculty are often more flexibly arranged. The coaching could be initiated by either the coach or the client and may last for just a single session or over a more extended time period. My faculty clients and I have applied this model to more formal sessions like annual reviews, as well as informal hallway consultations and group meetings. These skills become a powerful method for increasing collegiality throughout the academy.

In the first coaching stage of the ASK template, assessing motivations, the client and the coach discover what goals the client has, why the client wants to make the desired changes, and how to deal with the normal ambivalence in defining goals. The assessing skills, drawn from Rolnick and Miller’s (2013) motivational interviewing help you and the client determine what motivations the client brings to the conversation and help both of you channel those motivations toward success. These skills are the answer to a frequent question that leaders ask about how to motivate people. Sessions might start with some interview questions such as “Why are you here?” or “What do you hope to get out of this meeting?” Even in the annual evaluations that Deborah is facing, she should engage the faculty member by asking future-oriented questions, such as “What are you hoping to get out of your scholarship and how can I help you achieve that?” (as opposed to retrospective ones, such as “How did you do on scholarship this year?”).  

In the second stage, setting an agenda, the client and coach collaborate to define what aspect of the goal or goals they will work on together. Faculty have many goals; it is good to have clients download all the goals that they want to work on and then prioritize a few specific ones to focus on. Asking about the goals that are low hanging fruit or give the biggest return on investment will lead to a useful and realistic agenda for the session or for a series of sessions.

It is also useful to ask the client what the first step to achieving the desired goal is; sometimes it is better to plan backward by asking what the last step will be, and then ask what the step before that and the step before that are. Using backward planning can result in more realistic views of a project’s scope and deadlines.

During the third stage, keeping the success going, the coach and client outline the steps for how to reach the desired goals, how to make lasting changes, and how to deal with obstacles that face anyone who struggles with necessary but difficult change. Setting goals is great fun; working on them is not. Having achieved them is the most fun. To help clients achieve their goals, ask questions about the obstacles they might encounter. Sometimes clients get so enthusiastic about their professional goals and personal goals, such as writing a book or exercising, that they fail to plan how to implement them. Helping clients see the three-part goal time frame (setting, doing, done) as a continuum of success will prevent the discouragement that results when changes are not instantaneous (Gollwitzer, 1999; Oettingen, 2014).

Accountability is a useful tool for keeping the success going. The key accountability question to ask clients is this: “How will we both know that you have completed this goal?” It is important for coaches to help clients keep track of their goals—either individually or with others. This could be with a peer accountability partner, the coach, or an accountability group, such as a faculty writing group. The accountability plan needs to be co-created by coach and client, not just dictated by the coach (Silsbee, 2010).

Although applied differently to each of those roles, the skills and structure described above will enlarge and deepen your influence by helping you do the following:

  • Create a coaching culture in which faculty and staff support each other through positive emotional contagion in contributing to their own and the institution’s productivity, commitment, and well-being (Barsade, 2002; Kounios & Beeman, 2015; Schmidt, 2017).
  • Listen to colleagues, students, and staff so that they feel heard.  
  • Ask powerful questions that challenge the colleague to define the changes needed.
  • Offer specific tools to create vision and achieve goals in common areas that vex academic clients.
  • Co-create change plans that make desired change easy, cumulative, and permanent.
  • Eliminate the dread of faculty performance reviews.

Applying the above structure and skills of coaching to the people part of your responsibilities will improve your conversations with colleagues in

  • formal performance evaluations and annual reviews (if you must);
  • regular supportive coaching sessions;
  • collaborative projects, committee work, and group work, such as strategic planning;
  • student assignment consultations;
  • student advising and career consultations;
  • mentor sessions; and
  • impromptu hallway conversations when someone asks you for help on a professional issue.

Applying the ASK model will lower your stress by structuring your faculty conversations and bring the satisfaction that you and your clients are building better collaboration toward their visions and those of their units.


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Susan Robison, PhD, is a former psychology professor and department chair who is the author of The Peak Performing Professor: A Practical Guide to Productivity and Happiness (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and Coaching Skills for Academic Leaders: Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Your Faculty (Stylus Publishing, 2022).


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