Sara stares at her computer screen, hesitating to read the most recent email from Melissa, her enraged senior colleague. As chair of the English department at a Southwestern university, Sara has handled her share of nettlesome interdepartmental conflicts -- some well, some not so well. This one is proving to be one of the latter.
Instead of bowing to Melissa’s sense of entitlement, Sara had dared to insist on a more equitable distribution of duties among junior and senior faculty members. No longer would Melissa be able to avoid teaching introductory courses, teach only at times of her choosing, have certain courses permanently reserved for her and receive the lion’s share of research support money. Instead, she would have to join the team and play ball like the others. But as Sara could now see, Melissa wouldn’t be doing this without a fight. Indeed, she was waging a vigorous campaign to bring other senior professors over to her side.
What to do?
Given the delicacy of the situation, Sara hesitates to consult too closely with her friends in the department. Would they keep the conversation confidential? And even if they did, department peers are usually too personally invested in the outcome to view a situation like this without bias.
In a vicarious way, the same is true of close family members and friends. Robert, her husband, shares her frustration, but while Sara appreciates his support, she realizes he’s somewhat biased. Her friend Nancy is not as emotionally involved but won’t directly challenge her when she floats ideas about how to deal with Melissa.
How about academics or administrators outside the department? Or even outside the college? Their detachment from the unfolding drama gives them perspective. But is it appropriate to discuss her case with them, right down to the ugly details? What if they talk? And do they have the time or inclination to consult with her on a regular basis? Given their busy schedules, that is unlikely.
Whom can Sara turn to in the coming weeks or months -- someone who can act as a neutral sounding board for ideas, help her develop a strategy and keep her accountable in the face of pressure to abandon her new policy of fairness?
An executive coach.
Few higher education professionals use executive coaches. The situation differs markedly from that of the corporate world, where executive coaching has reached the saturation point among Fortune 500 companies. By contrast, most academics or university administrators have probably never heard of an executive coach, much less used one. That is unfortunate, as coaches can offer the neutrality, perspective, discretion and feedback that colleagues, friends and family are often unable to provide. In a crisis like Sara’s, this type of assistance is invaluable.
An important strategy for a chair, and especially a new one in Sara’s position, is to form alliances with other members of the faculty and key administrators -- the dean most of all. While alliance building is crucial in any organization, it is particularly important in a university department, given the lateral power relations among tenured faculty. A coach could help Sara think through the best ways to identify and enlist supporters, negotiate with (or sidestep) opponents, and persuade neutrals.
Coaching could help Sara develop an effective communication style -- one that is consistent and firm but not unnecessarily provocative. Here, a coach could act as a good sounding board, perhaps role-playing some of the difficult conversations that Sara might need to have with Melissa
The stress of interdepartmental conflict could easily distract Sara from other responsibilities, such as research. Alternatively, Sara might deal with this stress by losing herself in research. With the assistance of a coach, Sara could become more aware of her coping mechanisms and find healthy ways of handling the stress of engaging with -- and occasionally confronting -- Melissa and her allies.
Meeting Different Professional Challenges
Of course, department chairs are not the only people in higher education who can benefit from coaching. Junior professors, adjunct professors and administrators can all use a coach sometimes, and in different ways.
For example, Karl, a junior faculty member at a Midwestern liberal arts college, is dealing with a serious problem: he isn’t writing enough to meet his department’s publication requirements for tenure. Part of his problem is simply motivational. After explosive bursts of activity, he loses momentum and becomes unproductive for months. His situation isn’t helped by the extra committee work that senior faculty members keep dumping on him.
Then there’s Ellen, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at a Northeastern university, who struggles to meet an array of different challenges. First and foremost, she fears alienating faculty and staff members by pushing through difficult budgetary cuts. She is also having trouble crafting a compelling vision of the liberal arts at a time when students are increasingly (and understandably) concerned about job placement, a fact reflected in the dwindling number of humanities majors.
A coach can lend a hand to both Karl and Ellen. Coaching can enable Karl to increase the output of his writing by helping him clarify his research agenda, explore the sources of his writing blocks and stay accountable to a program of regular writing. Coaching can also help him learn how to say no to overly burdensome committee work by getting him to examine the likely outcome of strategic choices, distinguishing them from imaginary outcomes determined by irrational fear.
In Ellen’s case, a coach could help her figure out how to minimize (though perhaps not eliminate) political fallout from necessary budget cuts. That might involve developing a more transparent communication style, conducting a comprehensive review of all her resources and aggressively looking for alternative sources of revenue. In the end, Ellen will be the one to determine which solution is best -- it may be none of the above -- but a good coach will challenge her to consider all available options and to stick to her chosen course of action. Similarly, coaching can help Ellen explore what the liberal arts really mean to her, acknowledge the legitimate hopes and fears of today’s students, and then articulate a vision of liberal education that brings its higher purpose into contact with the realities of the job market.
In the past, colleges and universities have set aside scant money for faculty development in general, so little has been available for coaching. Because academics may minimize the value of developing skills that are unrelated to teaching and research, many may be disinclined to use their own money to develop them. It is unsurprising, therefore, that there has not been a strong financial will, at either the institutional or individual level, to hire coaches. But given the uptick in the number of faculty support programs nationwide, the situation may be ripe for change.
Hiring a coach may not always be the best way to tackle every problem, and of course not all coaches are of equal caliber. What’s more, consulting about professional matters with family, friends and colleagues is often worthwhile -- and frequently unavoidable. Yet the examples I’ve cited show how coaching can be helpful when other resources have reached their limits.
Coaches may not be for everyone. They help their clients examine assumptions, set goals and develop strategies to reach them -- all in terms that reflect the client’s agenda, not the coach’s. That requires the client’s active involvement. A coach is not an adviser who tells the client what to do or an expert who simply answers the client’s questions. Instead, the coach asks the questions -- questions that prompt the client to seek answers or to decide on a course of action.
Of course, various situations call for the assistance of specialized advisers and experts. But when a higher education professional wants to examine their priorities, work-related perceptions, habits and typical problem-solving approach, a coach might be the best person to help. More individuals and institutions should recognize that.