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How can I nurture leadership with more of a coaching style?

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Most of the education leaders I work with are passionate about empowering their teams to do great work, and they really want to nurture leadership in their schools. They know that distributed leadership motivates people and helps them to feel ownership of developments. It makes school improvement sustainable and eases the burden on the head/principal as the load is shared more broadly.

Some of the common ways we nurture leadership in schools include:

· Encouraging people to undertake leadership courses. The new suite of NPQs covers a range of areas and is being well received. Recently, I’ve been working as a coach on NPQH and an assessor on NPQLBC and have been impressed by the quality and breadth of the training.

· Giving people the opportunity to try new things – lead new areas, experience things they wouldn’t normally get the chance to e.g. sitting in on a finance meeting, or taking the lead on an HR issue.

· Having team meetings that are effective. Leadership team meetings can be useful and effective when they are chaired well and give members of the team the chance to share their ideas, support each other effectively, and drive forward improvement and change.

· Releasing leaders to network externally, e.g. within a family of schools or the local authority, and to visit other schools and see good practice.

But the one that I think is the most effective is this:

· Having regular 1:1 meetings with the leaders we line manage. I felt I had the most impact as a head when I was supporting other leaders in this way, really unpicking difficult problems together and helping them manage their workload.

It’s pretty basic really, just sitting down together and talking things through, but there is quite a skill to getting these meetings right. A few things that I found really helped included:

1. Having a clear agenda. You don’t want to be springing any nasty surprises on the leader you are working with. If you want their full participation in the meeting then make sure they know what the meeting is for, and how it will be run, and let them feel that they can add to the agenda if they have something important they want to raise.

Some agenda items you might want to consider (in no particular order):

What are you working on this week?

The main things I’m working on at the moment are . . .

Things I’d like some support with

What do you need support with right now?

Progress on things we said we would do last time

What’s going well at the moment?

Where are we at with our top 3 priorities?

2. Meeting regularly. If you only meet infrequently, you won’t get a sense of momentum. You might miss key moments on their leadership journey that would have benefited from a debrief. Also, if your meeting together is the first thing to get cancelled when something difficult happens or an emergency crops us, there will be a sense that you don’t really value this person.

3. Being prepared to talk about difficult things. If you aren’t prepared for it to get uncomfortable at times, then maybe nurturing leadership isn’t for you! It goes with the territory. If there’s feedback to be given, it’s better to do it as close to the event as possible, and with kindness and compassion. I love the expression, ‘clear is kind’. Skirting round an issue tends not to work. If you’ve been having open and honest meetings for a while, you’ll have built up a good working relationship, where it’s much easier to discuss accountability. If you’d like to explore managing difficult conversations in greater depth, I’ve created a workbook, which you can access for free by following this link.

4. Keeping the thread running through. You don’t need to make detailed notes, but make sure there is something written down that indicates the actions you are both going to take as a result of your conversation. Make sure you start the next meeting by checking back on whether things have happened. If it was you that didn’t manage to get something done, hold your hands up and accept it. Model the honesty. Be prepared to apologise. Making mistakes as a leader and accepting them is where growth happens for you and how you build trusting relationships with others.

5. Listening to understand, not to reply. Don’t feel like you need to have the answers, give the person space to talk things through. Sometimes in doing that, solutions will emerge that will really work for them.

6. Asking good questions. Be curious and don’t make assumptions. Try to ask open questions that don’t lead the person in a particular direction or steer them on a path you want them to go. A great resource for leaders is ‘The Coaching Habit’ by Michael Bungay Stanier, which describes 7 really effective questions that can be great in 1:1 meetings like this.

If you don’t currently have 1:1 meetings with your leaders, maybe think about how you could introduce it gently, and in a non-threatening way. If you already do it, that’s great, but maybe there are some strategies here that could make them more effective. There’s enormous potential in these meetings for you to grow as a ‘coaching leader’ and for other leaders to learn and develop, bringing greater success to your organisation.

‘Nurturing leadership opportunities’ is one of the 5 behaviours I cover in my online course and membership - ‘Being a Coaching Leader’. It's designed to help you to bring a coaching ethos into the leadership in your school/organisation. Find out more and sign up here.

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