Thursday, April 26, 2012

What My Executive Coach Has Meant to Me

Last summer I attended the annual North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS) Heads Conference at Wrightsville Beach, and Tom Redmond, recently retired head of the Southern Association of Independent Schools (to which Gaston Day also belongs) spoke to us on managing the stresses and strains of being a head of school. Tom emphasized the importance of having good friends, a supportive spouse--so far so good--and then he introduced a concept totally new to me: establishing a relationship with an executive coach. Executive coaches are fairly well known in the corporate world, but for those of you unfamiliar with them like I was, an executive coach is a professional who works with clients to strengthen their executive skills. Executive coaches do not diagnose or prescribe what skills need to be improved. Instead, they let their clients tell them what needs improving, and then the coach uses strategy and tactics to help clients achieve their goals.

Tom Redmond's description of the advantages of working with an executive coach made a big impression on me as I drove home from the conference. When I pulled into the driveway back from NCAIS, I stopped to pick up the mail at our box. The only thing in the mail was the Queens University of Charlotte Alumni Magazine, which we receive because my wife Sarah Park got her M.F.A. in Creative Writing there and I was an assistant history professor and vice president for institutional advancement there before coming to Gaston Day. The magazine cover highlighted the new Masters in Executive Coaching Program in the McColl School of Business at Queens. If this wasn't a sign from above, then it was a remarkable coincidence, and I decided to take the next step and call Queens to find out more about getting an executive coach.

Being the frugal Scotch-Irishman, I figured that getting a student in the Queens program to be my executive coach would be like using barber-school or dental-school student. They might make a mistake and put a gash in my head or drill into my brain, but at the very least it would not cost very much! I called Dr. John Bennett, Director of the Masters Program in Coaching, and asked for help. His response was the same as everything else that I have experienced since: expert, efficient, reliable, and caring. He had me fill out a questionnaire and describe who I was, and then he paired me with Jerry Allen, a student in the program. Suddenly, I had an executive coach.

Jerry Allen is an executive with Novozyme in Raleigh, a company that manufactures enzymes for industrial applications, and he entered the Masters in Executive Coaching Program to improve and broaden his managerial skills. He and I are about the same age, both enjoy the outdoors, and have many things in common--we hit it off immediately. But, from the outset, I quickly discovered that Jerry knew what he was doing and was serious about our commitment. This was not fun and games. Our goals clustered around two main themes: first, trying to maintain physical, emotional and spiritual balance in my job; and, second, becoming more tech savvy and user proficient.

Why the need for either? In the case of maintaining balance, it is because my job really is demanding and, at times, all consuming. Don't get me wrong, I love my job and have a real sense of calling to be head of Gaston Day. I have come to realize if I am going to be the best head of Gaston Day School, I also have to respect my commitment to my family, my health, my community, and my God.

In the case of technology, I recognized the need to keep up with the dizzing pace of change if Gaston Day School is to remain on the cutting edge of education. So much for the grand generalizations, let's get specific: when I started with Jerry I wasn't regularly carrying a cell phone, texting, or reading a Kindle. I was out of shape, skipping church and Rotary meetings too frequently, and calling my wife far too often to cancel family plans--all because I was too busy.

All these were things that I had long since realized were problems, but I had been unable to fix. What did Jerry do? He made me write out my goals on a spread sheet after I told him that list making was an effective strategy for me. He made me establish "accountability partners" for each goal to help me succeed. For example, I recognized that attending Rotary meetings keeps me connected to what was happening in Gastonia outside Gaston Day and that I enjoyed the fellowship, but I was constantly skipping them because I was too busy at school. Jerry asked if the school receptionist would be a good accountability partner to make sure I went to Rotary meetings. The answer was a resounding "yes!" Kathy Connor, school receptionist and secretary, is one of the most determined, reliable, conscientious people I know. After I asked her to help me make it to my Monday Rotary meetings, she was on a mission. She would begin each Friday reminding me that I had a Rotary meeting on Monday. Then first thing Monday morning she would remind me again. Then probably twice more during the morning, with the last reminder having the air of a command that better be obeyed. How often do you think I miss Rotary now? Never.

Jerry made me keep a record in an Excel spreadsheet of accomplishments toward my goals. We had an hour-long coaching session on the phone about once every two weeks. He was sympathetic and encouraging when he needed to be, but he also called me out when I resisted or made excuses. I began to exercise regularly and lost fifteen pounds. People started noticing. I joined a Wednesday morning prayer group at my church and found my devotional life strengthened. I got an iPhone, and my best friends gasped in disbelief. I started texting my daughters away at college--not very often--but, nevertheless, I really was texting them occasionally. My wife got me a Kindle, and I wondered why in the world I hadn't been doing that sooner. To make a long story short, Jerry Allen helped me make important changes that really have made my life better. And, our coaching relationship revealed to me that past failures were the result of relying too much on myself. Jerry showed me that I can make significant changes if I put together the right plan, coach and team. All that stuff about collaboration and teamwork really is true.

When I first told some of my friends that I was using an executive coach, I could tell they were skeptical and viewed it as some sort of admission of weakness. But I am here to tell you that my executive coach really has made me a better head of Gaston Day School. For example, I find myself now having more energy to attend more after school sporting events, which is so important to students and parents. And I am a keener student of educational theory because I have made it one of my goals.You can be a skeptic if you want, but I am a believer. Jerry and I are continuing our relationship with a new set of goals. Many of my old goals are now so ingrained and habitual that I don't even think about them anymore. They are now part of who I am.