Leadership: Why I bit the bullet and hired a coach

For a long time, this school leader was unconvinced by the benefits of professional coaching - then Covid hit...

Chris Seal

International school leadership: How professional coaching has helped me

The all-conquering Australian cricket team of the 1990s and 2000s are said to have had a complex relationship with their coach, John Buchanan.

World Cups, Ashes wins and a famous victory in India were the tangible outcomes of an era that brought an innovative thinker together with a collection of world-class players.

Ricky Ponting, captain for much of that time, thought Buchanan key to their success. Legendary spin bowler Shane Warne less so.

In education, transformative change that delivers similar success is something that many seek: it is the silver bullet, the golden nugget – the game-changer. In recent years coaching has been in this category.

Yet so often evangelists of coaching do no favours for the concept by presenting it as the solution to all ills – as if the divine is about to descend upon the senior management meeting when we all "get it".

The value of coaching for school leaders

As with many schools, this topic has been a source of much heat and rather less light at senior management level at Shrewsbury.

Indeed, it occurred to me some months ago that coaching might have a place in my school, but on listening to the arguments at our termly SMT strategy day, and with some scepticism, I went away none the wiser.

Then Covid appeared.

With no chance of attending HMC Conference in 2020, I decided to reroute the funding for that trip into engaging a professional coach.

There was a sense of "try before you buy" on behalf of the school, and so I looked carefully at who this would be, and began with a contact I’d made through FOBISIA (the Federation of British International Schools in Asia) and the British Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok – Nicholas McKie, a professional certified coach (with the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and an experienced leader and with an MBA in international education.

Making a connection

The next step was key as we started to communicate via email about how things would go, and also how Nicholas would start a conversation on the back of a strengths test completed in advance.

My Strengthscope results were a positive place to start.  With registered status from the British Psychological Society, Strengthscope focuses on "what gives you energy" and quickly it formed an affirming conversation about my "significant seven"; with critical thinking, developing others, leading and strategic mindedness all high on the list.

Looking back, this work and the first meeting were hugely important in cementing the foundational trust that I already had in my choice of coach. With the rules of engagement set, the sessions had clear ownership on both sides of the 6,000-mile distance gap.

Listening and learning 

Early sessions have proved to be revelatory. Listening, provoking and questioning has come strongly and wisely from Nicholas.

Openness and commitment have come from me, with Nicholas’ affirmation a key aspect of an ongoing relationship that is ever-more challenging and productive.

There has been situational coaching in dealing with difficult matters. The introduction of a tool called Polaris (an imagery method), as we headed into our second Covid lockdown, offered more positivity and ownership of the situation through exploitation of areas I could control rather than worrying about those I could not. Nothing new, but timely and well delivered.

Instructional coaching in the development of my own questioning skills and a strong enough relationship to drop out of the sessions for a while when we dealt with a significant bereavement in our community was also important.

A growing process

As we move forward, I’ll be asking more questions, pushing my coach harder and working more to get even more from this situation.

I’m not having this "done to me": I’m part of the process – it is an affirming and positive experience. A friend of mine always says "you pay extra for good" and he is right. This type of coaching isn’t cheap, but the value is immense.

I’m now convinced that this would be the most valuable method of developing senior leaders and we are working hard here at Shrewsbury to understand the applications across the teaching and non-teaching community.

The right coach, with the right levels of trust, experience and training, is something we should seek.

It might not have worked for Shane Warne 20 years ago, and yet he himself is now all over the internet producing coaching and instructional videos. He is passing on his wisdom, and providing environments for others to succeed in.

Which is pretty much what coaching should be – and something that might benefit all of us in SLT after all.

Chris Seal is principal of Shrewsbury International School Bangkok, Riverside Campus and a Tes Global Advisory Board Member (@lessonflipper)

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