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Jane Cook

Linden Learning

Head of Coaching and Leadership with Linden Learning

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Coaching goes to university – a case study


Is there a reason that coaching sessions are rare within a university environment? 

For many in the business world, coaching is a key part of life, contributing to career progression, helping with productivity, supporting teamwork and enhancing leadership.

However, in the world of higher education it’s still rare to find regular coaching as a part of academic life.

But could coaching be used to enable university staff to help students reach their potential in a way that their formal teaching alone can’t? 

Coaching at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama

We’ve been working with The Guildhall School of Music & Drama since September 2012, supporting the inspirational Helena Gaunt, Vice Principal, to build coaching skills amongst members of staff with a direct responsibility for mentoring students.

The project originally focussed on basic coaching skills training which was conducted through a highly practical course, integrating group coaching exercises and contextualised theory.

To accommodate everyone’s varied and complicated timetables, the 25 hours of the course were spread over an academic year.

The first challenge was always to build trust amongst the participants.

This had the added benefit of providing additional time for reflection and practice between sessions. An individual coaching/tutorial session with a course tutor was introduced for the Guildhall because we feel that people learn to use coaching skills best by participating as coach and as client.

We were committed to using real issues during the coaching sessions and never spent too long on theory without context.

It’s something that we’d recommend to anyone considering embarking on a similar programme.

We do not role-play. Why? Read on…

We think it’s impossible to share coaching skills if the delegates don’t know what it feels like to be coached. Foundation skills are introduced as separate elements during the first whole day skills workshop and then they are integrated into the following sessions adding useful tools and techniques as we go.

The first challenge was always to build trust amongst the participants.

At The Guildhall the sessions were held with members of staff from a variety of departments and seniorities.

It was vital to establish a safe environment from the outset and we spent time on ‘warming up’ exercises to set the tone. Having senior members of staff as enthusiastic participants, as champions of the programme and willing to throw themselves into the modelling made all the difference.  Confidentiality was key.

Another challenge for this group was the extraordinary demands on the teachers’ time and to accommodate this we had to be very flexible with scheduling, offering a variety of dates for each session and allowing people to swap dates as needed.

That takes good admin. Reminders, rescheduling, sharing material and coping with last-minute changes were part of the programme and the better we handled that the smoother then whole programme ran.

In the first year of the programme, the feedback showed that we were on the right track.

Attendance was good and there were reports of “breakthroughs” for individual students who had been wrestling with difficult issues.

Another challenge for this group was the extraordinary demands on the teachers’ time

Most encouraging of all was the enthusiasm with which participants were adopting the overall coaching approach (e.g. establishing and maintaining rapport and trust, listening, asking open questions, working respectfully adult to adult, balancing support and challenge) not just in those sessions that have been designated for coaching, but in teaching and in collaborative work with their peers.

The waiting list for the following year was growing.

Since that first year, we’ve adapted the course to accommodate the growing number of participants (60 this year) and to adapt to the feedback and requests we’ve received.  For example, we now have a course manual with materials and further reading for each seminar and an even more practical, active start to each session.

We’ve also adapted our materials to reflect the changing nature of the groups. We’re now working with members of staff with responsibility for one to one teaching (e.g. musicians and post graduates) and also group work. With ever-increasing numbers of people who want to take part we needed to make this a financially viable activity for the university.

Three years on, we are confident in the model we have in place and have applied to the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) for their official accreditation.

So how does the course work? 

New members of staff attend a full day of skills training to introduce the main elements of coaching through practical, interactive exercises and discussion. Each element is then explored during the five 3-hour seminars that follow over the next twelve months.

Participants who are returning after a year of coaching work, select up to three seminars to attend, depending on their own identified needs. The final seminars incorporate practical assessment, supported self-reflection and observed coaching practice so that we can give each participant detailed feedback on their coaching strengths and areas for development.

Reg Revans’ Action Learning concept inspires the sessions with group coaching exercises that take between 30 and 60 minutes.

A real, current problem is presented and the course tutor supports a group of 6-8 trainee coaches to use coaching skills (listening and questioning in particular) to encourage reflection and prompt action. This process is observed by other members of the group who offer feedback to all the participants at the end of the session.

Seminars are attended by both new and developing coaches which raises the quality of the interaction and offers deeper levels of understanding about the coaching process.

Creating a new manual

In 2015, for the first time, a manual was developed from the original course handouts, with additional reference material and guidance on keeping reflective notes for both learning and practice coaching sessions.

One-to-one sessions continue for each participant to allow them to experience high quality coaching for themselves, and also discuss any supervision issues that might have arisen during their own use of coaching as a teacher or mentor.

Up until now, the course at The Guildhall has been internal but it is our intention to open the course to other performing arts professionals once EMCC accreditation has been awarded to the programme.

Nine members of The Guildhall staff have been inspired by their experience of the internal coaching course to take an ILM Post-Graduate Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring.

The Guildhall/Barbican HR team will be able to embed an interesting mix of fully-qualified internal and external coaches within the Guildhall faculty as a resource for both students and staff.

It’s cost effective for the university who benefit from the expertise, objectivity and experience of professional coaches along with the insight and commitment of their own enthusiastic staff.

The coaching activity has had a very real impact on the staff involved in the programme, giving them new perspectives on their own professional careers as artists, educators and leaders.

It’s changing the way they interact in their personal lives and giving them practical strategies as managers and collaborators at The Guildhall. We’ve had feedback that Guildhall staff members see the programme as an opportunity to work on something meaningful and to develop new skills collaboratively.

And it’s giving them practical strategies as managers and collaborators at Guildhall – “a very different way of communicating as a team”, “I now delegate more, ask people with skills I don’t have so easily to help me with those tasks”. 

Meaningful conversations are taking place across the school, within the sessions and as part of daily life.  A boosted morale is inevitable. 

Our next challenge, at Linden Learning and at The Guildhall, which is supported as a Strategic Initiative funded by the Higher Education Academy, is to map the full impact on student outcomes, institutional culture and the school’s bottom line. We’re doing this through a combination of detailed  case studies and wider questionnaires.

At Linden Learning we have also learned an enormous amount from the experience of coaching at The Guildhall.

Working with performing artists has given us the opportunity to experiment with more creative techniques, bringing even more colour and energy to each session. We can see parallels between our discipline and the work of musicians and actors – being in the moment and the freedom to improvise.

So, who benefits? 

We all do. As one staff member said in a recent evaluation, “This course has the potential to change your life… the more open you are to it, the more you will learn and benefit from it, and the more the people in your life will benefit from it too.”

Author Profile Picture
Jane Cook

Head of Coaching and Leadership with Linden Learning

Read more from Jane Cook

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