The Power of A Coaching Mindset and Its Impact on Leadership in Higher Ed

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Dr. Jianping Wang
President, Mercer County Community College, Princeton Junction, New Jersey

 


 

Coaching and leadership have not always been discussed together. For many leaders, coaching is somewhat of a mystery. I would like to share my journey of discovering coaching as a powerful leadership development tool that has transformed the way I lead, and how I was motivated to become a leadership coach. I will try to demystify coaching by explaining and illustrating its process.

Receiving coaching is a way to unleash your leadership potential and become an inspirational leader for your college or university. Adopting the leadership coaching mindset has positively impacted my college’s organizational performance.

 

Moving away from ‘fixing the problem’ mindset”

Leadership is important. Leadership development is even more important today, because as organizations we lead face tremendous challenges. Many leaders, including myself, are likely to admit that the formal education we received does not adequately prepare us for the challenges awaiting us. More and more of us crave “on the job help” to do our jobs well. Over the years, I have been helped and have helped others. However, I feel that our leadership mindset is still on “fixing problems.” Such an approach makes organizations highly dependent on their leaders to do the “fixing.” Consequently, leaders are weighed down by great pressure, while the rest of the organization watches to see how the leader-- “savior”— delivers miracles. To me, it is difficult to watch talent within an organization under-utilized or even wasted, while leaders struggle to deliver expected miracles. Very few leaders can deliver the miracles expected of them. In the end, we often witness leadership and organizational failures. Unfortunately, those failures are costly to both individual leaders as well as to the organizations they lead.

How do we move away from the “fixing problems” mindset of leadership? What should the new leadership mindset be? With these questions in mind, I began my quest. I was in search for the kind of leadership development that builds my capacity as a leader, not just a quick fix to a particular problem. In other words, I was interested in finding a way of leading that was not directing or managing, but inspiring and empowering. I wanted to be a leader who would help unleash the best in myself and in others.

With that goal in mind, I began reading about leadership coaching for organizational performance a few years ago in the early years of my presidency. I was hooked. It fascinated me so much that I signed up for a 132-hour training program that strictly follows the curriculum of the International Federation of Coaches. During the practice coaching sessions, I began to witness the power of leadership coaching for myself. I also started to apply the principles of leadership coaching in my daily practice. Amazing things started to happen. I saw more people stepping forward instead of looking away, suggesting solutions instead of complaining, trying to solve problems instead of blaming others, willing to do more instead of asking for more, trying different things instead of holding onto the old ways of doing things, taking risks instead of playing safe, and asking questions instead of judging. My college started to function more like a family rather than different and siloed departments.

It also changed my relationships with my direct reports. We are no longer just supervisors and supervisees. We are partners. We share the same stake in the well-being of our college. I see unlimited potential within the college where many people share the vision and passion; they are willing to roll up their sleeves and do whatever it takes to move the college forward because we share the belief that the rising river carries all boats. Most important in this discovery process, we, the leaders, as well as those we lead are on the journey of discovering and growing our untapped individual potential. Consequently, the college is finding new energy and talent that have allowed us to reach new heights.

Of course, I am not so naïve to believe that there are no problems within our college. However, with a different leadership paradigm, we are better prepared for challenges. We have an increased capacity to lead in a way that makes our organization more functional and effective by unleashing our collective and under-utilized potential.

 

Coaching can help quiet interference

Through a deliberate discovery process of becoming more and more mindful of your own potential and the “interference,” or “noise” that holds you back, coaching gradually builds your intellectual muscles to use your talents to the fullest. In this process, the Coach serves as a facilitator and you are encouraged by your Coach to discover, recognize, and develop your potential. Your Coach helps you to set goals, strategies, and action steps to build your intellectual muscles. Your intellectual muscles in this instance refers to your intellectual abilities to learn, adapt, and adopt new leadership approaches. The stronger your intellectual muscles, the better they can help you utilize your potential to transform your organization to be the best it can be.

In this sense, coaching is NOT remedial. Those who believe that only people who are “in trouble” need coaching completely miss the essence of coaching, which is about your leadership development and your organizational performance. As higher education leaders, we face challenges every day. In spite of our best intention and rich experience, we sometimes fail to make the best decisions or choices, because we do not know how to effectively deal with “interference” or “tuning down noise” that distract us from doing the best in accordance with our abilities. Consequently, our organizational performance suffers. I have been there and have experienced this. For example, when I have to make a tough decision, I often have a sense of fear, fear of things going wrong or fear of missing something important. I have to intentionally ask myself: “What would I do if nothing was holding me back?” Recently, I had to speak up and made an announcement that might be perceived as politically risky, but I decided to move forward because I was able to “tune down” the noise of being politically correct and did what I considered was the right thing to do.

In the past, like many of you, I have turned to more experienced higher education leaders for advice. While this mentoring is very helpful, it is very different from coaching. Mentoring is focused on getting help to solve a specific problem. Coaching centers on developing leaders’ inner potential, thus strengthening organizational performance for the long haul. Coaching achieves that effect by building up your intellectual muscles of performance through development and by making you aware of “interference” or “noises” that distract you from being and doing the best according to your potential. Best of all, through coaching, you will develop confidence in fighting back against those “interferences.” As a leader, I felt a deep sense of strength when I was able to detect “noise” as I was making tough decisions. By recognizing it, I was able to stay focused without being distracted. Prior to using the coaching mindset of leadership, I would be disturbed and influenced by those “interferences” in some of my decision-making. The coaching leadership mindset gives me a sense of freedom in providing the best leadership my ability and experience allow. That sense of freedom is incredibly uplifting, empowering, and fulfilling.

 


 

Best of all, through coaching, you will develop confidence in fighting back against those “interferences.” As a leader, I felt a deep sense of strength when I was able to detect “noise” as I was making tough decisions. By recognizing it, I was able to stay focused without being distracted.

 


 

Soon, I began to receive requests to coach people who were willing, eager, and ready to embark on a journey of becoming more impactful leaders. I was inspired and excited about the changes I witnessed in the people I coached. There are no words to describe my feelings when I see a transformation in those leaders. Such transformative impact led me to decide that I want to be a champion for this leadership paradigm shift. I am a leadership coach, facilitating this transformative process. If you want to explore what kind of leader you can become, and if you want to discover what kind of potential your organization has, I recommend you begin this exciting journey. The rationale behind it is very simple: Only when leaders can tap into their best potential, and the best potential of those around them, can leaders and their organizations reach their peak performance.

 

How I coach

Every coach has their own unique approach to coaching that is informed by their training, and their professional and personal experiences. It is perfectly acceptable for you to test out a few coaches and even set-up a consultation conversation to see if your personalities resonate with one another. With this said, below I share with you my general process to help demystify how I, as a leadership coach, operate.

At the beginning of each coaching session, I encourage and help you identify an area of focus for the session—an area you are interested in and committed to working on. I usually ask a few questions to help you identify that focus:

  • What is motivating you right now?
  • What are you most passionate about?
  • What are you eager to leave behind?
  • What is the top challenge or opportunity facing you right now?
  • What is the one change you really want to make right now?
  • What dream do you have for yourself and/or your organization?

After identifying a coaching focus, I then ask questions with a great deal of curiosity to invite you to explore new possibilities. This step is extremely important. The coaching mindset of leadership is about thinking differently, in a forward-looking manner, and out of the box. You cannot begin a new thinking process without being mindful of your old thinking habit. Your old way of thinking is often limited by those “interferences” that restrict your options. You need to first be aware of those “interferences” and then find ways to overcome them by exploring possibilities. For example, I may begin the exploration process with you by asking: “If you could do what you would like to do without restrictions(?), what would that be?” “What other potential actions can you think of?” After one possibility is identified, I continue the exploratory process with a simple but powerful question: “What else?” If multiple possibilities are identified, I always help prioritize them by asking: “Which one is most appealing to you?”

For each possibility identified, I encourage you to develop concrete strategies and actions that enable you to turn that possibility into reality. I frequently ask questions such as:

  • What would you like to do next?
  • What is holding you back?
  • What help do you need?
  • How can you get the help you need?
  • What could help you take the first step?
  • What is your next step?

In order to facilitate the implementation of those strategies and to help you maximize the chance of achieving your desired outcome, I usually ask:

  • What can get you started on this?
  • What resources do you need?
  • How can you get those resources?

For you to increase your awareness of potential “interferences” and to spot “interferences” as they occurs, I typically ask:

  • What are potential barriers?
  • What can you do to remove those barriers?
  • What support would you need to remove those barriers?
  • What do you need to do to get the support you need?
  • What else can you do to be better prepared?

This step often has to be repeated until you develop the ability to recognize “interferences” or “noise” on your own. You should not feel discouraged if you do not develop this intellectual muscle of identifying “interferences” right away or if you regress from time-to-time. Your old way of thinking and leading was not formed overnight. You should not expect yourself to get rid of it in a few weeks or even in a few months. As long as you are committed to identifying “interferences” and continuing the practice of tuning down those “noises,” you will get there with your coach’s help.

At the end of each session, I tend to conduct a quick review of the strategies and actions identified and remind you of your commitment to this process by following up with the agreed upon actions. More recently, I have added a quick debrief before closing the session. The intent is to seek immediate feedback to discover if the process is helpful and identify areas for improvement for me as a Coach. At the beginning of the next session, I always like to review with you the progress so far before we begin the new session.

This repetitive process of coaching is essentially how I work. This is how coaching enhances your performance by unleashing potential through development and reduction and eventually elimination of “interferences.” Through this development process, your coach listens to you, supports you, encourages you, and challenges you. Hopefully, your coach and you become valuable and trustworthy thought partners in your journey of leadership development.

The most exciting moments in this process are those “aha moments” when my clients scream with joy: “Oh, I just realized…” Equally and perhaps a more exciting moment is to hear clients report amazing results of their new approaches towards an old challenge. These are the moments when you have accurately identified “noise” or “interference” and effectively tuned it down. Consequently, you are able perform to the best of your ability and experience. Indeed, coaching is a transformational process with ongoing development and growth from within that can benefit leaders for the rest of their lives. As leaders of higher education, this means a life-long positive impact on the organizations we lead.

 

When is the best time to partner with a coach?

Coaching is a highly transformative and powerful form of leadership development. It is an investment in yourself as a leader. If you want to grow as a leader, make the most of your leadership talents, maximize your potential, realize your ambition and actualize your dream, be an impactful leader, make your organization resilient, forward thinking, innovative and sustainable; if you want the people you work with to trust and respect you, if you want those people around you to be excited about what you do together with them day in and day out, then it is time for you to consider getting a coach. Through this process, you will get to know “a new you” and develop new ways of thinking, doing, leading, and being. You will adopt a new leadership paradigm that is centered on maximizing sustainable impact. The best time to get coached is now, because effective and impactful leadership is more necessary, important and needed than ever before.

Currently, organizations are facing unprecedented challenges. More than ever, people are turning to forward-thinking, conscientious, courageous, and empowering leadership that brings people together and engenders hope and confidence towards a better and fairer future for our organizations, our communities, and most important of all, for the people we lead. In order to be the best leader for other, you have to be at your best self—I believe coaching can help you get there.

Indeed, I have adopted the coaching mindset as a new way of leading. I frequently ask my colleagues: “What are your thoughts?” “If you could, what would you do?” “What are other options?” The results are amazing. For example, many colleges and universities are going through some tough budgetary decisions including furloughs, layoffs, program reductions, etc. At our institution, we have not done any of the above by empowering employees to unleash their potential. I keep asking our faculty and staff: “What can we do to keep our commitment to our mission, to one another, and to our communities during this very difficult time?” Some amazing things have happened. For example, some full-time faculty members voluntarily gave up the contractually guaranteed opportunity to teach additional classes for pay, because they want to provide earning opportunities for adjunct faculty, whose earning opportunity diminishes as enrollments decline. It is a great demonstration of our mutual commitment to one another as a college family. In early April 2020, faculty, employees, and employees’ family members joined together to voluntarily make face masks and face shields to be distributed to our local hospitals and long-term care facilities. An entire union membership made donations to the Student Emergency Fund to help students complete their studies during last Spring Semester. For almost a year now, all five unions’ leaders and more than 20 faculty and staff members join the college leaders twice a week on Zoom calls to share important information and to discuss our challenges and solutions. Departmental silos are being broken and cross-board collaboration is being fostered. Thus, coaching has not only unleashed my leadership potential, but has also allowed more and more employees to be empowered to become leaders in their own way. As a result, the college as an organization performs optimally.

When we unleash our leadership potential, it can make us more understanding, communicative, compassionate, inspiring, and innovative leaders. Consequently, the organization can perform better and be ready for the future in this increasingly competitive world. Best of all, you will enjoy your leadership journey much more, because you will feel and embrace your authentic self with much less hesitance, anguish, fear, or “interference” even when you are making difficult decisions. Such leadership is much less lonely and much more enjoyable. Most important of all, it is more impactful.


 

Dr. Jianping Wang served as Special Assistant to the President, Director of Institutional Research, Dean of Arts & Humanities, and Vice President of Academic Affairs. Since 2015, she has been serving as President of Mercer County Community College in Princeton Junction, New Jersey. For questions and comments, please contact wangj@mccc.edu.

Questions About Coaching? Contact our Director of Coaching, Moira Killoran.

Portrait of Moira Killoran

Moira Killoran
Director of Coaching, Academic Impressions