OpEd: Executive Coaching in Higher Education
Posted June 2, 2022

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By Sacha E. Kopp, Ph.D., Senior Vice Chancellor, University of Nebraska Omaha and Timothy J. Ressmeyer, Ph.D., Founder, Ressmeyer Partners Executive Coaching

Leadership Coaching Higher EducationExecutive coaching has become ubiquitous within America’s biggest corporations. It’s not seen as a sign of failure for Fortune 500 executives to have a coach on the proverbial speed dial. We in academia can take a lesson.

Too often, we think of the ‘content’ of academic administration, rather than the interpersonal skills that lead to true leadership. But just think of the university president who steps down after a regrettable comment uttered in frustration; or the dean who is replaced after a failed reorganization of departments; or the department chair whose term has stalled when a stalemate amongst the faculty can’t be surmounted. The complexities of leadership, and the highly relationship-driven world of higher education, warrant investment in leaders’ skills through tools such as executive coaching.

Universities already invest in a host of leadership trainings, such as Centers for Faculty Excellence, or Faculty Development Fellowships shadowing leaders, or travel to professional disciplinary conferences and networking. Executive coaching, for individuals, groups, or teams is another ‘arrow in the quiver,’ and can scale to broader arrays of the university leadership structure. Why make this investment?

Culture defines an institution. The pandemic highlighted this well. Institutions that thrived this year undoubtedly did so because everyone pulled together. How did they do so and what could they fall back on? Cultures of trust, compassion, students-first, or more. Especially in times of uncertainty or change, it is easy to focus on the task of the moment, without fully sharing – or being aware of yourself. It’s easy to throw up one’s hands over dysfunctional cultures. As a leader, you make an impact. How you treat others, aligned with your values, becomes part of the culture. A coach who is working with the leader or team can help them view crises or opportunities differently and help leaders fall back upon built trust to seize the new challenges or blaze new trails. As leader, we are always creating a culture around us, and in so doing model the old Ghandi phrase of being the change we wish to see.

In academia, many have advanced degrees, but not in management. When your unit is called on to develop a new strategic plan, how do you bring everyone together? How often is a dean or chair brought on board to forge consensus, yet frustrated by colleagues’ mistrust? When a leader inherits a team, how are roles crafted around a common goal? When another unit’s collaboration is vital to your success, how is trust built so the teams work together? Too often in academia, the answer is to either duplicate effort (“administrative bloat”) or to seek a new org chart (“rearranging the deck chairs”). Such failures of leadership cause eye-rolls and groans and build on the worst stereotypes of failed leaders. Coaches can help leaders build the skills of collaboration, avoiding the above go-to failures, thus leading change across organizations, that will more likely be successful.

We need to be our best selves. It’s easier to lead when things are going well, but stress and change make it easy to drift into a person you don’t want to be or engage in behaviors that don’t work. The outside perspective of coaching can help you see what is getting in the way of you embracing the behaviors you would like to see in yourself. Built into coaching programs are the uncovering of strengths you have, while at the same time filling in the management skills gaps that will help you succeed.

I’m doing just fine. I don’t need any help. Congrats! Being in that place is an excellent place to be. Beyond triaging challenging situations, coaching is an opportunity to build new skills for future times when the demands are high. It’s difficult when you don’t have confidants around you who you can fully trust when new situations arise. And, all leaders have blind spots that can cause them to miss looming problems or miss exciting opportunities. Ongoing coaching support is a good complement to other professional development workshops or experiences, providing ongoing support and an accountability partner to academic leaders developing their skills. Investing in coaching in advance is one more way to define one’s self as a proactive leader.

Kissinger is quoted to have said “The reason that university politics is so vicious is because the stakes are so small.” We couldn’t disagree more. Stakes are high. Students depend on us to support their journeys. Elected officials depend on us to enhance their communities. Families depend on us for the impacts on their lives. Faculty and staff depend on us to foster the workplace that empowers their authentic selves. Universities aren’t built with bricks and buildings, but with people. The relationships we foster warrant the kind of mortar supported by tools such as professional coaching.

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