I recently picked up a secondhand copy of Padraig O’Sullivan’s book on coaching for expat leaders – ‘Foreigner in Charge’ – and although he wasn’t writing specifically about international school leaders, he might as well have been; his insights into the process that leaders go through when they move to new roles in new countries were deeply insightful. For a school leader who chooses to move overseas for the first time, or who moves from one international role to another, there are multiple transitions to navigate, and O’Sullivan’s very practical book lays these bare in a very user-friendly fashion.
A key factor into successful transition into a new role, however, as I have learned over the course of my career first as a school leader, and now as a consultant, is really good coaching. It often surprises me that while boards are happy to invest in the recruitment process for a new role, recognising the value of the expertise that executive search processes bring to ensuring the right ‘fit’, they are far less aware of the value of coaching for the new incumbent in the role. Sometimes this is because they think that they as a board are best able to help the leader settle into role, forgetting that they cannot provide the confidential space for leaders to explore and develop their leadership; sometimes they just assume that once the right appointment has been made, everything will just fall into place.
In actual fact, from the moment the appointment is made to the moment the leader takes up her or his new role – which in the case of international school leaders can often be several months – both the leader and the organisation will be shifting and changing, and without careful reflection and direction, this can lead to an unnoticed divergence of paths and perspectives. Add into the equation the fact that the leader will be faced with the need to learn and understand cultural norms and assumptions on top of all the interpersonal and structural norms and assumptions in the organisation, failure in any one of which could easily result in stormy waters, or even failure, with the significant financial costs and organisational disruption that this entails, then the engagement of a coach for the leader suddenly seems like a very good investment indeed.
I have been absolutely won over by the power of coaching to make a difference in the transitions that people make in their careers. I have experienced the huge positives myself as a coachee, and I can see exactly where I would have benefited in moving into other roles. I also see every week, with the leaders I coach personally, how transformative it can be for both the leader and the organisation to challenge, ask the right questions and set goals (and hold people to account for the actions needed to meet these).
Of course, when coaching works, ie when leaders are in happier places, and organisations work more harmoniously, everyone assumes it was always going to be this way … Little do they know!
Dr Helen Wright