You are a senior manager in a college with ambition to become a principal and want to develop your leadership skills. Who should you turn to? Should you seek the advice of a college principal, perhaps acting as your mentor, or you should consider hiring a professional executive coach. Or you could ask one of your junior middle management colleagues for their help and advice.
That last suggestion may seem daft, but coaching from the bottom up is beginning to happen in the most progressive companies in the private sector. What they have in mind is leadership development. Shell, the oil giant, is one company that has started coaching junior managers in leadership skills. They in turn pass those skills on to senior managers.
And Merrill Lynch earlier this year retitled its human resources department "leadership and talent management".
Central to the success of this new trend is developing a "solutions focused" philosophy in institutions, one that rejects the concept that detailed analysis and understanding of a problem is essential to its solution. Instead it revolves around finding out how people in the organisation want things to be, by asking them to describe their preferred future, and helping them identify the steps towards it. This alleviates the need to search for someone to blame for the problem and the defensiveness which that engenders.
For this to work, the culture of an institution has to be changed. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that newer training methods are rising in popularity. The advantage of coaching and mentoring is that training can generally be carried out in your workplace, either individually or with teams. Mentoring is often done voluntarily, which makes it very cheap. Coaching can be expensive, but it becomes cheaper when people are working with colleagues. The other advantage is its flexibility: it can be tailored around specific issues occurring at any one time.
Shaun Lincoln, head of coaching and mentoring at the Centre of Excellence in Leadership, admits it requires a tremendous leap of faith for an organisation to adopt such methods. But he says the new upside-down approach is something he would love to try out in FE. He believes it would help promote a coaching culture by operating in an open, unusual, and attention-grabbing way. It would also send out a very strong message that everyone is expected to improve their skills, no matter what level they have reached.
"This is a new and exciting trend in coaching," he says. "If you are talking about creating a coaching culture, it shouldn't be hierarchical.
Colleges often say that they want to go from being satisfactory to outstanding, but to get there they are going to have to do something different. You must have faith in your middle managers because they are your future. If you don't trust staff, how are you going to develop them?"
He explains one way that the system operates. When senior managers have a presentation for a conference or a meeting, they ask junior managers to assess their performance. Senior staff brief juniors on their expectations for the presentation; afterwards, the junior staff give feedback on what was effective.
Lincoln believes that coaching and mentoring is the most effective way forward. But he draws a distinction between the two. Mentoring, he says, is "learning from practice, learning from each other". Coaching, on the other hand, is "reflecting on action, and acting on reflection". A mentor is likely to have experience of the role and responsibilities of the person being mentored, whereas a coach may not have any experience of the job.
"I could coach a college principal without ever having been a principal myself," he says. "It involves a non-directive approach, by encouraging managers to reach their own solution, by asking what they think is the right thing to do in a situation."
Mentoring, he explains, generally involves a "directive approach" where a more experienced person will use his knowledge to support a less experienced individual. It is effective, he says, but it has its limitations. "If all you do is pass on your knowledge to someone else, then the best you can hope to achieve is a clone of yourself."
He cites an experiment carried out in Germany where a group of young tennis players received coaching from top professional coaches. Then they brought in professional ski coaches, who got better results.
"The ski coaches asked different questions," he says. "If you fall into the rut of doing things in the same old way, you are never going to see any improvement. It is often the case that the right thing for you in a situation may not be the right thing for someone else to do. No two situations are exactly the same. It may be better for the person to work out a solution for themselves.
"We train mentors to keep listening more than they would normally, and to keep asking questions to help the mentee work out what they need to do."
Lincoln says it is vital for the progress of an organisation that middle managers have additional skills to senior managers. "Senior staff should not be threatened by that," he adds. "They should welcome it.
"When time is tight it is easy to do what you are familiar with. There can be a tendency for senior managers to think that training and development is for other people, not for them. There isn't the time to sit back and reflect, but reflection is key."
For more information on the Centre for Excellence in Leadership's coaching programmes visit www.celextra.orgcelcoaching