Coaching is essential in higher education leadership

Published On: 18 October 2022|

Coaching is an integral component of the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) leadership development approach.

The final ENGAGE session for the year – facilitated by HELM senior associate Professor Birgit Schreiber – examined the role of coaching, its impact and relevance, the difference between mentoring and advising and how it has helped accelerate change in higher education.

Professor Denise Zinn (right), Programme Leader for HELM’s Women in Leadership Programme and previously the Deputy Vice Chancellor: Learning & Teaching at Nelson Mandela University, said she believed that coaching is particularly pertinent and necessary when it comes to higher education leadership. It is the kind of support that those moving up in the system need. However, she admitted that coaching had a bad rap in the past, often with a good reason.

She began by explaining that promotions come with their own set of problems – the higher you go on the leadership ladder, the fewer people you have to talk to.

“As your new role starts to encompass more responsibility, you find you are sometimes quite alone. You have to think very carefully about who you share things with, and who is available to talk with you,” she said, referring to issues of confidentiality – cautioning against being perceived as favouring some subordinates if you confide in them.

“The challenges become more complex; you’re having to think far more broadly and far more deeply about so many more things. You’re having to use your brain in different ways. You’re having to not only cognitively think about the issues but you’re also having to think about how to fix people, people’s circumstances and your own reactions to their situations and behaviours. But, essentially, you remain a human being dealing with other human beings in order to get the work done. Often, you find that some aspects of your humanity get lost and are often overshadowed.”

Professor Zinn reiterated just what it meant “being the boss”:

  • Responsible for everything
  • Knowing how everything works
  • Not making mistakes
  • Knowing all the answers and coming up with solutions
  • Holding the purse strings
  • Not having a life outside work
  • Not showing vulnerabilities

“This leads to people feeling overwhelmed and this is where a coach can be essential,” she said, emphasising the importance of finding the correct coach.

“Coaching in the past sometimes got a bad name. Sometimes the coach you were sent to, did not have the training needed to move you from where you were to where you wanted to be. You had coaches who dealt with performance management and you were instructed to do the following things or else you would be forced out of your position or into a disciplinary process. This is not how we should regard coaching,” she reiterated.

She then listed and explained what qualities and approaches a coach should take:

  • Open, interested and curious with a listening ear
  • Honest but not brutal
  • Enlarging perspectives
  • Pushing and clarifying boundaries
  • Changing old habits
  • Finding new ways
  • Confidentiality is all important

It begins with one’s role and what one aims to achieve

Coaching has – and should be – used in higher education leadership to develop and to transform.

“All coaching is about learning and therefore I think all learning is about transforming. It is about changing how you think, changing how you are and changing how you behave.”

It all begins, she says, with examining yourself as a leader, your role and what you want to achieve.

“You need to develop a self-awareness of who you are, of how you are and how you show up and why. Then you need to look at who you want to be and what you want. It is about an understanding of self and others; self in relation to others, relationships and systems.

“Coaching provides a safe and confidential space where a person can really look at themselves and the way they behave while allowing themselves to be vulnerable and then to face up to those vulnerabilities and look at how to share them.”

She believed that it was detrimental to not prescribe coaching to people feeling overwhelmed when stepping into a new position. This often happens when individuals are promoted from an academic teaching position to a leadership /managerial position. Often their concerns are either just ignored, or they are sent on training courses that do not address the issue or help the incumbent make sense of what is happening.

“We tend to ignore the people issues that come with being a leader. You just have to fly by the seat of your pants, make mistakes, make enemies, often make faux pas and then pick yourself up and just carry on.” She said staff should be able to seek support and the services of a coach. Available staff development budgets should allow individuals ascending the leadership ladder to develop themselves and their resilience, in partnership with a coach, Professor Zinn said in closing.

Added Dr Birgit Schreiber (left): “What was so striking during this coaching engagement is how it highlighted that we literally fail to notice what we don’t notice, how limited we are in our visual field and how we often only see things from our own vantage point and how narrow this lens can be. When I consider another person’s version and vision of me, I grant that they have a voice, a right and a validity to their perception of me. It is not only me in a situation and I have to acknowledge that and my limitations. It allows others to have a version that is equally as valid as mine is. All this makes me a better and more present person.”

She thanked all those who have participated in the ENGAGE sessions during the year and those who helped organise them. This series of intellectual engagements and conversations about trending topics in higher education will start again in the first quarter of 2023.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.