Enhancing Leadership Capacity: The Impact of a Coaching Program
20 August 2023

Amrita Ahuja | Head of Senior School

BCom (Hons), MCom, BEd, MEd (Leadership)

Are great leaders born or can people be trained and coached to develop and enhance their leadership skills?

These fascinating questions were at the forefront of the thinking of our Head of Senior School Amrita Ahuja, when she completed her research dissertation for a Master of Education degree at Deakin University. Her findings are both thought-provoking and insightful.

Enhancing Leadership Capacity: The Impact of a Coaching Program

The proliferation of leadership development programs in recent years has prompted organisations, many of which have been in the education sector, to invest heavily in developing their human capital. However, with so many options available, there is considerable value to be derived from evaluating the effectiveness and potential return on investment of these programs. This article delves into a comprehensive case study that explores the impact of a coaching program, shedding light on its profound implications for leadership development.

In aiming to investigate the impact of a leadership development program, my in-depth inquiry took the form of a case-study approach and involved an investigation of the impact of the Growth (an acronym for Goals, Reality, Options, Will, Tactics, Habits) coaching program and the outcomes achieved for the participants involved. Specifically, the study formed the basis of the research paper submitted to Deakin university in partial fulfilment of a Master of Education degree.

The Growth coaching seeks to increase participants self-awareness and their ability to grow themselves and others through active listening. It also aims to develop high emotional intelligence and effective questioning. Expanding on the solutions-based theory, the program helps the participants to concentrate on finding potential solutions, thus locating their focus to the present and future.

As the research site, Westbourne partnered with Growth Coaching International, who managed a program developed around the concept that those in leadership positions should support others in cultivating their own leadership abilities. Participants were drawn from both academic and professional staff and data was collected using material collected from a combination of semi-structured interviews and an online survey.

At the outset, nearly forty-three percent of participants reported that they were unaware of the Growth coaching program. However once completed, the response was a positive one, with participants indicating that they intended using the skills acquired in developing their own leadership style, while also supporting their colleagues. Moreover, most believed that Growth coaching will enhance student learning and wellbeing; improve communication throughout the school and with stakeholders; and enhance the effectiveness of their professional practice. Interestingly, a number of participants identified ‘active listening’ and avoiding the impulse to always provide the ‘right answer’ as their key learning. Others acknowledged the value of empowering staff to find their own solutions. Some participants realised the importance of ‘effective questioning’ and a solution-focused approach in resolving issues. Other benefits derived have included, increased ability to manage difficult situations, using bridging phrases to facilitate effective conversations and understanding the distinction between coaching and mentoring.

Much positive feedback indicated that the majority of participants were satisfied with the Growth program, reporting that they would recommend it to others. One theme that emerged from the responses of participants was that of empowering others. For example, one observed that, ‘I think as teachers, we like to solve problems. You know someone comes with the problem and I think what I can do to help?’ The Growth coaching program helped participants shift their perspective on leadership by drawing their attention towards the importance of empowering others to solve their own problems, rather than always providing solutions for them. This shift in mindset allowed participants to better understand the value of fostering autonomy and personal growth in their team members. The data collected from semi-structured interviews revealed that the participants spend sixty to eighty percent of their time interacting with people. The responses from interviewees highlighted that the coaching program enhanced their interactions not only with colleagues, but also with students, parents and other stakeholders, allowing them to adopt a more empowering and coaching-oriented approach.

As the research findings unveiled, participation in the Growth coaching program enabled the participants to further develop their leadership skills. A number of participants reported that they had come to understand the importance of active listening and the program gave them the tools to become better listeners with one observing that the program reinforced the importance of ‘spending more time listening than speaking’ and the benefit of nodding, smiling, ‘feeling comfortable with silence… and abstaining from interrupting’. Many acknowledged that they now possess a repertoire of effective questioning techniques, contributing to a more dynamic and engaging exchange of ideas. This newfound skillset was complemented by the enrichment of their vocabulary, fostering a receptive and open-minded approach to communication. Overall, the interview data revealed a shift in the participants’ approach to managing conversations with their colleagues. They gained a better understanding of the distinction between coaching, mentoring, and direct instruction, and felt more confident in applying these techniques in various contexts. The participants realised the importance of trust and staying non-judgemental during coaching conversations and learnt numerous techniques to develop a solutions-focussed mindset.

The findings of this study support the skills theory of leadership, which postulates that effective leadership involves the possession of human, technical, and conceptual skills that can be developed and refined over time. Communication is widely recognised as a key leadership skill, and this study found that after participating in the Growth coaching program, participants experienced an improvement in their ability to have better conversations with their colleagues. They valued the opportunity to learn bridging phrases, practise active listening, and effective questioning during the sessions. The use of role plays was found to be a particularly effective method for enhancing participants’ confidence in managing challenging conversations. At the same time, it is important to recognise that while leadership development is generally viewed as a beneficial and valuable experience for employees, as it can contribute to the success of an organisation; if the leadership development programs are not tailored to the needs and expectations of the participants, they can create negative experiences.

The use of various tools such as personality assessments, self-reflection and peer feedback equipped the participants to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their leadership style. This included identifying their strengths, areas for improvement, and the impact of their actions on others, leading to increased self-awareness. As many studies indicate, self-awareness is a crucial component of effective leadership, allowing leaders to make more informed decisions, communicate more effectively, and build stronger relationships with their stakeholders. By providing participants with the opportunity to gain this self-awareness, the program helped them to become more effective in their role as leaders.

In challenging the trait theory, which posits that leaders are born with inherent qualities, my study instead supports the notion that leadership abilities can be nurtured and developed through training and practice. Indeed, participants demonstrated significant advancement in their leadership abilities after completing the Growth coaching program and key areas of improvement highlighted by their effective questioning, active listening, coaching, communication, self-awareness, and empathy. The participants of the Growth coaching program fully embraced the coaching style of leadership and found it to be an effective tool in developing their communication and leadership skills. The program provided them with a structured framework, which included learning and practising active listening, empowering others to find their own solutions, and effective questioning.

Finally, it seems clear that further research is needed in order to fully understand the long-term impact of the Growth coaching program on both participants and the organisation. A longitudinal study could provide some very worthwhile insights into the effectiveness of the program over time, and how it contributes to the development of leadership skills and competencies. Such an inquiry could involve following a group of participants over a period of several months or even years, to assess the effect of the program on their leadership skills and overall job performance. Such information may well prove invaluable in the context of future decisions about the implementation of leadership development programs within organisations such as schools.

Amrita Ahuja | Head of Senior School