Guest Blog: Coaching in a University – who benefits?

 Guest blog by Jane Cook, Managing Director of Linden Learning

Coaching in business has an established track record, we know about its potential to transform culture, leadership, productivity. There is also evidence that providing individual coaching for members of staff in university can be a highly effective HR intervention. But what about using coaching as a larger strategic intervention in a university – building capacity amongst teaching staff to coach students, each other and possibly transform culture?

In September 2012 I was invited by the inspirational Helena Gaunt, Vice Principal at Guildhall School of Music & Drama to work with them, initially to develop coaching skills in 12 members of staff with a direct responsibility for mentoring students.

The project therefore began very much as a piece of work around basic coach skills training. We provided a highly practical course integrating skill development with group coaching exercises and input on relevant theory explained in context. As everyone had different and complicated timetables, the 25 hours of the course were spread over an academic year, providing time for reflection and practice between sessions. One of the new elements we introduced into the course for Guildhall was an individual coaching/tutorial session with a course tutor as we believe that people learn to use coaching skills best by both trying them out as coach, and experiencing them as client.

At the end of the first year Helena and I were both delighted with the outcomes. Feedback from all the members of staff who had been on the course was that students were definitely finding the experience more worthwhile. Attendance was up and there were several good news stories about “break throughs” for individual students wrestling with difficult issues. What surprised us though, was the enthusiasm with which everyone on the course was embracing 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) and using it not just in designated mentoring sessions, but in their teaching and in collaborative work with each other. And we had a waiting list of people wanting to experience the training the following year.

The course that has evolved has much in common with that first year, but adapted to meet the needs of growing numbers (60 this year) and to respond to feedback from an increasingly resourceful and articulate group of developing coaches. With larger numbers it has also been even more essential that we plan a course that is financially viable for the university. Three years on, we are confident that we have a model that works and have just completed an application to the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) to have the course accredited with them.

For members of staff new to the course, we provide an initial full day of coaching skills training that introduces all the main elements through practical, interactive exercises and discussion. Each element is then revisited in more depth in one of 5 further 3 hours seminars. New members of the course attend all five (offered on three different dates). Members of staff who have already been involved in a whole year of the coaching work, are invited to choose up to three seminars to attend, depending on their own identified need. The final seminars each year bring together the learning in a practical assessment exercise involving supported self-reflection and observed coaching practice.

A particular feature of the seminars is a group coaching exercise that takes between 30 and 60 minutes, inspired by Reg Revans’ Action Learning.[1] One member of staff presents a problem/issue that is real, current and usually complex. The course tutor then supports a group of 6-8 trainee coaches to use a range of coaching skills (particularly listening and questioning) to promote reflection, develop new insights and prompt to action. Further members of the seminar sit outside this coaching group observing the interaction and offering feedback to both coaches and coachee at the end of the process. Because the seminars include both new and developing coaches, the quality of work is very high, bringing new depth to an understanding about how to use a coaching approach.

This year for the first time we have brought all the original handouts together in a manual. The manual also provides additional reference material and guidance on keeping reflective notes for both learning and practice coaching sessions. Each person on the course continues to get a one to one session with the course tutor, experiencing high quality coaching for themselves, and also discussing any supervision issues that might have arisen around their own use of coaching as a teacher or mentor.

Until this year, the course at Guildhall has been internal. The intention is that once the accreditation is approved from EMCC we open up the course to other professionals interested in exploring coaching in and through the performing arts.

At the same time, 9 members of staff inspired by the internal coaching course have begun an ILM Post-Graduate Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring. Working closely with the Guildhall/Barbican HR team, the school is now able to begin to plan to embed a cadre of fully qualified coaches at Guildhall to become a rich resource for both students and staff. Already they are able to provide new members of the coaching course with additional one to one sessions, and have a supporting facilitation role in the initial one day training days and seminars. The coaching offer at Guildhall is therefore an interesting mix of internal and external coaches, and we are all finding this an energising and creative experience. It’s also cost effective for the university who have the benefit of the expertise, objectivity and wide experience of professional coaches plus the insight and commitment of their own enthusiastic staff.

Already the impact the work has had on the staff doing the coaching and mentoring, as well as the students is more marked. It’s giving them new perspectives on their own professional careers as artists, educators and leaders. It’s changing the way they think and interact in their personal lives. 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”.  Fundamentally it’s building resourcefulness, self-awareness and self-regulation, independence, creativity and resilience, yes for students experiencing coaching approaches from their mentors and teachers, but equally for the staff learning the skills.

What’s more, our feedback from Guildhall is that the staff members see the programme as bringing them together to work on something meaningful, and to develop new skills collaboratively. Out of this they have become aware of a powerful community of practice emerging across all their disciplines and departments. A more collaborative and learning community seems to be developing that also offers support, reduces isolation. Meaningful conversations take place not just in the course or in formal coaching/mentoring sessions, but at the coffee machines, the corridors and in the staff room. No wonder people have noticed that morale is boosted. The next challenge for Guildhall and Linden Learning now, addressed this year through the support of a Strategic Initiative funded by the Higher Education Academy, is to map the full impact on student outcomes, institutional culture and the Guildhall’s bottom line.

At Linden Learning we have also learned much about our own practice from the experience of coaching together at Guildhall. Working with performing artists has given us the opportunity to experiment with more creative techniques, bringing even more colour and pace to our sessions. As professional coaches we’ve also learned to see parallels between our discipline and that of musicians and actors, particularly around being in the moment and the power of improvisation.

So, the answer to the question “who benefits” is quite simply everyone involved in the programme. 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.”

And that includes us at Linden Learning too.


[1] Professor Reg Revans (1907 – 2003) pioneered action learning, considered to be one of the most important ideas in the field of organisational development.

Author: Editorial Team

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