3 Reasons for the Coming Revolution in Executive Coaching for Academics

The use of executive or leadership coaches has exploded in private corporations, non-profits, and government (here).  Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates (here) say that everyone needs a coach, and in the C-suite, almost everyone has one.  And the reasons for this explosive growth are becoming clearer.   When individuals are coached, they become more effective at work and at home with notable improvements in both their task & relationship orientation; organizations become more productive with coaching returning $5-$7 for every $1 spent.

For some time, the coaching revolution bypassed the academic world, but this, too, is changing.  More and more presidents, provosts, deans, heads, and rank-and-file faculty are hiring coaches to help them become more effective, and this “coming revolution” is well grounded by the current realities of academic life.

Coaching: It’s Not Consulting or Advice Giving

Those unfamiliar with coaching sometimes think that coaching is a form of consulting, mentoring, or advice giving, but at it’s best, coaching is a form of one-on-one inquiry and reflection in which the client is aided by the coaches listening and asking questions in ways that help the client find and overcome obstacles and then identify and realize possibilities.   See a post on 4 Lessons Learned for Coaching from “The Voice” here.

The coach works to support only the client’s agenda, starting wherever he or she is; the coach comes to the engagement without judgment or any ideal sense of what the client should or should not be doing. In this way, the client can safely explore his or her own authentic path, style, and career in a safe, supportive environment.

Compared to other kinds of organizational development interventions such as training and group facilitation, coaching is especially well suited to the highly competitive and individualistic nature of the academy. The confidentiality of the coaching relationship creates a safe haven for sharing hopes and concerns, successes and breakdowns, and possibilities and aspirations.

3 Reasons Coaching is Growing for Academics and Academic Leaders

The revolution in coaching for academics in being propelled by a number of forces:

The academy is under pressure to change. Economic, technological, regulatory change is coming to the academy like a freight train.  It used to be that changes came slowly to colleges and universities, if at all, and faculty and academic leaders alike could expect relative stability.  Today, most bets are off, and leaders and rank-and-file faculty are struggling with the need to change and adapt, but they do so in an environment with almost no formal leadership or organizational development capability in place.  How coaching helps. In this way, coaching serves individuals as a just-in-time, and one-on-one, tailored development plan.

Academic leaders are being asked to play different roles.  A distinction is often made in coaching between administration, management, and leadership as being about the past, present, and future, respectively.  In other words, administrators are asked to capably make yesterday happen tomorrow.  Managers are asked to improve today’s operations.  Leaders are asked to envision and bring about a substantially different tomorrow.  In the good ole days, academic leaders had a portfolio heavily weighted toward administration and management with leadership mainly expected in well understood and trodden areas such as research funding and charitable fundraising.  More and more, however, academic leaders are seeing a shift in their portfolios to require a more fundamental re-envisioning of the mission, operations, structure, and governance of colleges and universities.  How coaching can help.  Coaches can help academic leaders to move out of their comfort zone and into new roles in the quiet of a one-on-one ongoing conversation with a trusted listener and confidant.  Coaches can offer learning resources and sharp soft skill building in the safety of this relationship as the leader struggles to get on top of the rapidly changing demands of the changing role.

Faculty are being challenged to move from “knowing and telling” to “trusting and unleashing.”  As universities charge students more and more, increasing demands are being placed to demonstrate the effectiveness of educational methods and to ensure the employability of graduates.  Moreover, the old reliance of obedience-based education (OBL) is shifting to a kind of courage-based learning (CBL) in which students are unleashed by trusting coaches who help create a new kind of self-efficacious and courageous lifelong learner rather than an individual who has mastered some fixed and known body of knowledge.  More and more, rather than wanting students who shut up and sit down, we want students who will stand up and create amazing things for the benefit of all of us.  As returns to expertise in the classroom and laboratory diminish and faculty are asked to shift from knowing and telling to trusting and unleashing, this may require deep personal changes in many faculty who have not had any preparation for such changes in their graduate education or their current work environment.  How coaching can help.  Good coaches model exactly this kind of trusting and unleashing, and coaches can help build key noticing, listening, question, and story reframing skills (NLQ+S) to help the client be more effective in this new world of higher education.  Coaching is one cost effective way to build these skills in key faculty.

These three items are driving the academy to a revolution in coaching in much the same way private and other non-profit sectors have already experienced.

Finding Your Coach

So perhaps coaching might be helpful to you or those you know. How do you find a coach aligned with your needs? Here are some questions to consider in hiring a coach:

  1. What training and qualifications does the person bring to their coaching?
  2. To what extent does the person have academic experience and understand academic culture?
  3. To what extent is the potential coach curious about you, your obstacles, your opportunities & to what extent do they seem to have one right method or the one right answer?
  4. To what extent do you feel comfortable with the potential coach, and to what extent is it easy or hard to share private information with him or her?
  5. To what extent does the coach ask questions that engage your reflection and are both hard and interesting to answer?
  6. To what extent does the coach seem to listen to you and “get you” through that listening?

A good source of information about coaching and coaches is the International Coach Federation, and these days there is much other information online. If you’d like to learn more about coaching with ThreeJoy, write to Dave Goldberg at or schedule a complimentary coaching session with him or other ThreeJoy coaches at

David E. Goldberg is a trained leadership coach (Georgetown University) and president of ThreeJoy Associates, Inc., a coaching, training, and change leadership consulting firm in Douglas, Michigan; he is also a noted computer scientist, civil engineer, and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He resigned his tenure & a distinguished professorship in 2010 to work full time for the transformation of higher education. He can be reached at  

Goldberg published A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education in October 2014 (with co-author Mark Somerville and writer Catherine Whitney). The book is available in hardcover and all major e-book formats (here).