On Wednesday and Thursday of last week I was at Coaching for Equity training by the New York City Leadership Academy. Personally, it was a very strange experience. My close colleague Kerry and I run Coaching for Equity training, so it was very hard to sit there and participate in someone else’s workshop, and not be the person making the presentation, modeling the coaching, answering the questions. I completely get that a really mature person would be able to appreciate the situation as a gift—a learning opportunity, a time for reflection, and so on. Clearly, the depth of my humility is not what it should be.
Oh, and the training was held in the downstairs presentation room at the Connecticut Association of Schools, where I have spent countless hours facilitating coaching training and communities of practice, and where the people were always wonderful and took good care of me, so it was doubly difficult. Some of my best professional experiences happened in that room, especially regarding coaching; it was like someone had walked in to my house, kicked off their shoes and put their feet on the coffee table and changed the channel to ESPN.
I don’t mean to suggest that the experience wasn’t worthwhile, and I am grateful that we were included. There were lots of people there whom I’m really fond of, I got to meet some terrific new people, and I did do a lot of thinking. One of the most valuable aspects of the two days was video of exemplar coaching that they showed us. In particular, the coach, Sonia, was very direct, and I would argue very directive in her questioning. There was nothing soft or touchy-feely in her approach, and she didn’t bat an eye when the principal she was coaching was in tears.
Watching her in action took me back to another extremely valuable coaching experience I had a few years ago. There were three of us demonstrating three different approaches to coaching—there’s a whole backstory to this and I would do it differently now, but anyway… One approach was very task-oriented: the coach asked the client 6 or 7 questions, just enough to understand the situation sufficiently to start giving advice. The second was a reflective listener: the coach made affirmations, paraphrased, asked clarifying questions and responded to the last thing the client said; he was lovely and supportive, but the lack of direction meant that the conversation went nowhere. Then I was the coach who followed our coaching model (which I don’t think I’ve written about much, but looking at A Basic Scaffold for Coaching is a good place to start).
When I finished, before I had the chance to say anything, someone started singing—I think it was Foreigner, Cold As Ice, and there was a discussion about how they—the participants in the workshop, who were all principals—could not get away with an approach like that, the union would object, the culture wouldn’t allow it, and so on.
I was kind of stunned. I know that I tend to be all business as a coach, but it had not really occurred to me that I would be perceived as frosty—plus the other two coaches in the other two scenarios were men, so it felt very sexist—by which I mean, I had violated the social norm for women of being friendly and warm.
And, and this is really the point, the workshop participants observing these three coaching demonstrations seemed to have completely missed that I never gave a direction, a suggestion, or a piece of advice; that I was the only coach who was committed to getting the client to generate his own options and plan for moving forward; that the first coach had done nothing except give advice; that the touchy-feely coach had been worthless.
We tried to salvage the exercise during the debrief, but there was no rescuing it really. The participants were too fixated on my “style”, and couldn’t see the practice that I was employing. It bothered me a lot.
I became very cynical about the whole idea of “style”. What do people mean by it, exactly? We use the term a lot—learning styles (which the research does not bear out—see this blog post by Daniel Willingham); teaching style (which seems to favor the value of autonomy and devalue research-based practice, like it’s OK for a teacher to do nothing but lecture?); and leadership style (which seems to privilege the surface traits of the individual leader over the skills and functions of leadership. Indeed, I have to be careful not to jump down the throat of someone who brings up style. I have definitely become more away of how I present myself. I am careful to smile more, and it has probably made me a better coach, although I don’t like to admit it.
The experience of being seen as cold also reinforced for me the importance of giving coaching clients some training in what coaching means, so that they understand what really matters in promoting the thinking that happens during coaching, rather than being distracted by surface appearances. Kerry and I did this for a school faculty recently, and I am confident that we will soon have data to indicate that it makes the work of the coaches easier, as well as helping the clients get more out of being coached. Certainly, the feedback we got at the end of the session was overwhelmingly positive—and no one seemed to think I was cold.
I know there is a lot more to unpack here. For example, this is not just about coaching—it is also about the role of leadership in ensuring that a major investment such as coaching is supported in such a way to maximize its return, which is a conversation I wish I got to have more often. Obviously, if you have questions or want more information, I would love to hear from you. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Coaching Letter: StevensonCoachingLetter.org