4 Strategies for Closing the Coaching Gap for Mid-Level Academic Leaders

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While executive and administrative leaders have had a longer history of working with coaches, there is growing awareness of the benefit to middle managers in higher education, as well.

Mid-level academic leaders are often promoted to leadership positions with limited management experience and without the benefit of training and professional leadership development. Yet mid-level leaders face significant barriers to the use of coaching.

To build leadership capacity at the mid level, it's critical that senior leaders take action to address this coaching gap.

To learn more, we turned to David Kiel, who worked for 15 years as a faculty leadership developer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now a consultant to leadership development programs in higher education. Dr. Kiel has conducted extensive research on coaching in higher education, and the article that follows adapts and reworks material from an article the author published in the Journal of Excellence in College Teaching's special issue “Coaching and Leadership in Academia,” James Sibley and Susan Robison, Editors, that came out in February 2018. The title of the original article is "In Search of Good Coaching for Mid-Level Faculty Leaders" (The full citation can be found in the reference section at the end of this article).

This revised and adapted version of Dr. Kiel's article addresses the needs of all academic leaders: faculty and non-faculty alike.

Why Mid-Level Academic Leaders Need Coaching

Mid-level academic leaders (e.g., department chairs, center directors, program heads, associate deans, mid-level non-faculty administrators, or even associate vice presidents) are key to implementing needed changes in institutions of higher education, but they face the challenges of multiple competing demands and complex job responsibilities. Academic administrators need to set expectations, mediate demands from senior leaders, manage conflicts between staff, students, and faculty, and handle issues of non-performance. They need to make decisions, delegate authority, create a positive work environment, and enrich staff opportunities for growth and development. They may have to deal with alcoholism, sexual harassment, mental illness, or illegal behavior.

Chairs and other academic leaders also need to recruit and retain qualified faculty and staff, and foster productivity and career development. They and other academic leaders need to manage the money, raise more money, be innovative and entrepreneurial, and think long term. Ideally they are also good change managers and coaches to their own staff and can reach out to other groups within and outside the institution to create partnerships and collaborations.

That is a long “to-do list,” and many items on that list will be difficult for someone who has spent his or her days studying medieval art, polymer chemistry, exercise and sports medicine, or romance languages -- i.e., the typical academic paths by which faculty members rise to positions of leadership. These new responsibilities are also challenging for leaders who have risen to hold administrative positions in finance, facilities, development, IT, HR , legal and other administrative specialties but who have not had the benefit of basic leadership training and mentoring, or who have not had management experience. These mid-level leaders may also need to develop the skills to create new partnerships and coalitions that emerging strategies may require.

These professionals typically lack formal training in leadership and are thrust into situations for which they have little or no preparation. Even when training and leadership education is provided, the participant may face challenges in applying what they have learned on the job.

On-going coaching support can make the difference between just learning and actually doing. Sanaghan and Woodstock (2015) report that coaches can help new academic leaders in several important areas: managing boundaries, dealing with loneliness, and transitioning to a new identity as a leader. They observe that new leaders may feel unreasonable pressure for quick results, lack self-confidence and be overly self-critical. New leaders may not fully understand their role or be trained in its particulars when they take office. New leaders cannot take too many problems to their deans who are likely to be over-stretched themselves. New leaders also don’t want to seem too “needy.” An effective coach--whether from HR, an outside professional, a mentor, or a peer leader--is a safer outlet.

However, mid-level leaders are less likely than senior level leaders to have the resources to hire in executive coaches to meet their needs. This creates a "coaching gap" at the mid level that needs to be addressed.

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