Can Coaching Help College Presidents?

It’s lonely and tough at the top of the higher education administrative ladder. College and university presidents have more on their plates, and with greater consequences, than ever before. Many presidents are now turning to leadership coaches for support.

Witt/Kieffer recently conducted an online survey of more than 60 presidents on their experience with and thoughts about leadership coaching. More than half of these had experienced coaching at some point in their administrative careers. In most cases it was their own choice, though some noted that their board chair or other party had recommended it. The overwhelming response from these individuals was that it was a positive experience and one that they would enthusiastically recommend to others. (Read the survey report here.)

Richard Metheny

Richard Metheny, head of Witt/Kieffer’s Leadership Solutions practice, published a related article for eCampusNews. He writes: “Time to reflect is critical for presidents in an era of tremendous flux in higher education, with each institution plotting its future course without confidence in what academia will look like in 10 or 20 years. For the college president, dealing with ambiguity, absorbing new skills and technologies, and adapting to change can’t be done within the space of policy meetings, planning sessions, donor lunches, or sporting events.”

As part of the research for the survey report, we spoke with Jose Bowen, PhD, president of Goucher College in Baltimore. Below please find the text of the interview with Dr. Bowen on the value of coaching for a president:

College Presidents and Coaching
A Conversation with Jose Bowen, PhD, President, Goucher College

Jose Bowen, PhD, president of Goucher College, is a respected educator and leader who is known as an innovator and risk-taker. Part of Bowen’s success has been his ability to listen to others, including career coaches. In the interview below, Bowen responds to our coaching survey data and shares thoughts on his experiences with coaching.

The presidents who took our survey and had received prior coaching were almost unanimously enthusiastic about it. Does this surprise you?

Jose Bowen, PhD

Bowen: No. I think it’s very hard to survive in our profession today if you’re an old-style ideologue. There are too many constituencies to get away with that. We all know we’re balancing lots of different things. A growth mindset is essential to the job of president and coaching supports personal growth.

Also, the greatest casualty of the job is time . . . time to think. Coaching gives you that time.

Respondents enjoyed the process of receiving coaching—why do you think this is?

Bowen: Presidents talk a lot at people and are always explaining things to people. To be able to actually talk to somebody about how you’re feeling, what you hate, what you like – you don’t get a chance to do that, even with your senior staff. You’ve got to have mentors and people to talk to. Also, I think coaching can absolutely be therapeutic. It’s lonely at the top. It’s your one chance to reflect and really talk about the metacognitive part of the job.

Is there a stigma associated with receiving coaching?

Bowen: I do think there is. When I’ve suggested coaching to people on my staff they think, “What am I doing wrong?” It’s not about that.

Is it considered “corporate”?

Bowen: Yes, by some people. We’re still in the grip that anything that’s for-profit or corporate must be bad. I learn from the corporate world every day. Our motivations are different, but people are people. In education we always talk about diversity and that includes learning from anyone.

What was the greatest benefit from your experience with coaching? Did you change the way you lead?

Bowen: One coach said to me, “Your job is connecting people on a day-to-day basis with the vision of the institution. The rest you can leave for other people to do.” And I took this to heart. When I deliver a speech, for example, my tendency is, “Make sure to cover the content.” That’s important, but the coach’s advice was to “be a person first and president second.”

Survey respondents felt the most critical time for coaching was while onboarding into the first presidency? Do you agree this is a critical window for support and coaching?

Bowen: I think it’s helpful all the time – jobs are changing faster than you can imagine – but certainly before you take a new job and the first year or two is when you can make the most of it. You need someone holding your hand the first year or two. It’s so easy to make a rookie mistake. You often won’t know what it is until it hits you in the face.

Are there risks or potential drawbacks of a college president engaging with a coach?

Bowen: I think the benefits far outweigh the risks, but you need to remember that general advice is just that: general. Other people don’t know your institution, your situation, or your personnel. So it is possible the advice would be wrong if you’re too susceptible.

What qualities make a good coach?

Bowen: There’s no universal good coach. People want to know, “Is this coach going to get me?” So a good coach is somebody who has real insight and who gets you, who understands “your tendency is going to be X when it should be Y”. It should be a person who can get inside your head a bit.

Finally, does there need to be more encouragement from institutions for top administrators to seek out coaching?

Bowen: Absolutely. We always say people are our greatest resource, but we need to establish a growth mindset or a change mindset. Adults continue to change throughout their lives. Leadership often fails because you’ve not given individuals the support they need to change. It’s not necessarily about strategy or an “implementation problem.” Did you build a culture in which people were willing to change?


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