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Coaching for Leaders: Four Misconceptions

By John Roberts
Coaching for Leaders: Four Misconceptions

If you are a school leader, already have an executive coach, and your board understands and appreciates the value of that service, there is probably no reason to read any further. You are already in a good place. But if you are a leader who doesn’t have a coach, you may want to read on and consider these misconceptions!  

Leaders in the business arena, and even the non-profit sector, generally have a clear understanding of the role and value of coaches for themselves and their senior internal leaders. But judging from conversations among educational leaders in independent and international schools, there are persisting misconceptions about what executive coaches actually do in a school setting, and who has a coach. It’s important to identify those common misunderstandings and raise awareness about what executive coaching is actually all about.

Misconception 1: Anyone with experience in a particular area can be a coach for others in that field.

This is simply not true for professionally trained/certified executive coaches. If it were, the Chief Executive Officers of the biggest and most successful companies would not be able to find a coach! Jeff Bezos doesn’t need a coach with comparable experience leading a dynamic, globe-straddling corporation. His coach will be an intelligent, empathetic professional who is skilled in the discipline of coaching and with the integrity to act in complete confidence. That unique combination of coaching skills, empathy, integrity, and confidentiality defines coaching but has nothing to do with industry-specific experience.

Misconception 2: A coach is the same as a mentor.

Even some of the professional associations that connect us as educators continue to use the two terms interchangeably, as if the two roles are synonymous. So, what makes them different? Mentorship implies a guiding relationship based on advice or role-modeling from a person with experience in a similar field or role to someone newer to that field or role.

A mentor is someone who has “been there, done that.” I believe that anyone with experience in a similar field, who is empathetic and curious, can serve as a mentor. The role of a trained executive coach, on the other hand, is not to share experience or advice—it is to empower the client to enhance their own leadership skills, self-awareness, and behaviors using the discrete skills of coaching. The coach is a trusted confidential thinking partner.

One exception to this distinction is the coaching of School Heads new to that level of leadership role. In such relationships, the coach may often be asked to share experiences that might provide some insight or guidance as the novice Head makes sense of a situation—but that normally only happens if/as requested. Coaching new heads, therefore, is a hybrid role that can be referred to as “mentor-coaching”—but the primary emphasis is still on self-awareness and empowerment, as evoked by a trained professional.

Misconception 3: The purpose of executive coaching is to fix deficits.

This may be the most misleading and detrimental assumption because it has a stigma attached. Unfortunately, it is often an unconscious misconception, resulting in some leaders not even considering finding a coach out of fear that having a coach may lead others to think you aren’t measuring up in some way, and need an external “advisor.”  

Although coaches may occasionally be asked by their clients to help them work on a specific skill or work gap, the process will be unique to the client’s needs and goals at that time—and doesn’t define the purpose of their relationship. Executive coaches are sought by clients who are committed to their own continuous growth, who want to be the best they can be, and who understand that having a coach is just one more growth tool available to all smart leaders.

From my own anecdotal evidence, an increasing number of boards of international and independent schools already understand and appreciate the continuous growth value of executive coaching, as many trustees have coaches if they are in senior leadership positions in their work.

Misconception 4: A coach is the same as a consultant.

That is only true in the loosest sense of a consultant being someone externally contracted from outside the organization. But the conceptual difference between the roles again lies in the essence of what the “expert” brings with them. Consultants are hired to bring their specific, relevant technical skills and industry-specific experience to an organization when they don’t exist within it. Their value-added lies in their detailed knowledge of a process or system that the organization needs at a particular time. Executive coaches, on the other hand, have a skill set that values and evokes self-awareness, empowerment, and agency.

As mentioned in Misconception 2, if an executive coach has relevant experience in the client’s sector, then there may be times that experience will be a bonus for the client—especially new Heads. But a good coach will normally “change hats” (offering advice or sharing an experience, as consultants do) only at the client’s request, or with their permission.

So, a coach is not usually hired to fix the client’s deficits, though that may become one part of the work together if the client self-identifies a growth area s/he wants to work on. And a coach is neither a mentor nor a consultant, offering expertise to guide the decisions of the client. Instead, an executive coach’s role is to skillfully, empathetically, and confidentially serve as a thinking partner to the client, providing new lenses for the client to raise self-awareness and efficacy.

Here’s hoping that current and aspiring leaders continue to be curious about what they might want and expect in an executive coach for themselves!  


John Roberts, a former international school Head, is a certified executive and team coach with Doors Wide Open Coaching Systems, who also serves international schools as a governance and strategy consultant.


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