Executive coaching can transform principals into system-level leaders

As the school year winds down, this is a time of transition not only for students, but for some school leaders who are moving into system-level positions.

Leaving the principalship a few years ago was bittersweet for me. I loved my job. I was invigorated by my learning community’s focus on entrepreneurial leadership and personalized learning. I adored the students, parents, and colleagues with whom I worked. And I felt successful in every sense of the word. But too many kids in this country attend failing and uninspired schools, and I wanted to learn how to change that. I was leaving the principalship to pursue a doctoral degree at Harvard and begin the work of system level leadership.

One of the most beneficial components of my doctoral program was receiving one-on-one executive coaching. According to The Executive Coaching Forum, executive coaching is “an experiential and individualized leader development process that builds a leader’s capability to achieve short- and long-term organizational goals. It is conducted through one-on-one and/or group interactions, driven by data from multiple perspectives, and based on mutual trust and respect. “ The Harvard doctoral faculty knew that system leadership is inherently different from building level leadership, and that I would need to develop and use new skills to effectively navigate broader contexts. Executive coaching would help me integrate my new learning and elevate my leadership.

With my executive coach, I revisited the values that marked my career in education and explored the shape those values could take in a school system or nonprofit. For example, I placed great value on creativity in the classroom and in how I led my school. My coach and I thought through how to nurture and leverage that as a system level leader. Now, in my position at the NYC Leadership Academy, I find great joy in designing professional learning experiences for clients and facilitating retreats for leadership teams that encourage them to approach their work in new and different ways.

With my executive coach, I also identified safe ways to test new ideas and leadership strategies as I applied them to the challenges I faced in a consultant role supporting school districts. It’s one thing to take a leadership risk in a school, where course corrections come easier because of daily contact with teachers and students and where you might have strong relationships built over years. It’s entirely different as a consultant or district supervisor who cannot be in every school each day. Given the higher stakes, my coach helped me refine my approach, and now I create an explicit theory of action beforehand, I analyze the intended and unintended consequences of planned actions, and I take special care to consider what needs to be communicated, how it needs to be communicated, and who needs to be involved.

Lastly, my executive coach helped me learn about myself. She helped me see where I was getting in my own way, and helped me challenge some big assumptions that were limiting me. It feels silly to write this now, but I used to view networking and giving speeches as an opportunity to be judged. They required great practice, and were something to endure - a necessary evil that I had learned to do well, but never enjoyed. I’ve flipped my thinking on that because of my coaching, and now I see public speaking and making new connections as an opportunity to share my talents, my vision, and add value. I’m not sure others can perceive this difference, but it’s an important internal distinction that allows me to use my energy more effectively.

Without question, executive coaching enabled me to become a better coach, facilitator, and leader, and I now strive to provide a comparable experience for others. A year ago, I designed and launched the Leadership Academy’s executive coaching service and today our team coaches more than 40 senior administrators. Together we have seen the impact executive coaching is having on district leaders across the nation. It helps leaders develop the essential skills of system leadership, including communication, mobilizing others, and change management. It helps successful leaders stay true to their vision of good leadership in an era of “do more with less,” allowing them to maximize their limited time with the many constituents they serve. And it helps leaders think boldly and broadly.

The challenges facing American educators today are big and sticky, and shifting people’s hearts and minds to dismantle inequitable practices in our school systems is perhaps the toughest job of all. Having a thought partner to consider the decisions and actions you need to take to advance equity and excellence in schools can be invaluable.

When I left the classroom to become a school principal, my mentor and first principal supervisor Sadia White told me that my job was to “grow adults to grow kids.” I am privileged to say that that is what I still do on a daily basis. While I am no longer directly supporting teachers to improve their craft, I am growing system leaders to be their best selves. And thanks to my doctoral studies and executive coach, I have the confidence and the skillset to do that well.

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About the Author — Francis Yasharian

Francis Yasharian is the Senior Director for Executive Coaching at the NYC Leadership Academy. He's been an educator since 2000, serving in a variety of roles, including ESOL administrator and principal.

The challenges facing American educators today are big and sticky, and shifting people’s hearts and minds to dismantle inequitable practices in our school systems is perhaps the toughest job of all. Having a thought partner to consider the decisions and actions you need to take to advance equity and excellence in schools can be invaluable.

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