Bringing in Mac

How an executive coach supported the socialization and training of a new principal by AUTUMN K. TOOMS
Our superintendent began the weekly administrative council meeting by announcing, “It is once again time to focus on our annual retreat for the leadership team.” As he watched the meeting room buzz with the sound of palm pilots cranking up and date books flying open, he couldn’t help but notice his proclamation being met with the usual half-hearted exhales from all the principals, who weren’t anxious to leave their buildings for a few days.

The personnel directors quickly wondered aloud how a retreat could possibly be held in the middle of the district’s contract negotiations with the teachers’ union. It was obvious no one was thrilled with this agenda item; simply too many other things were going on. The new transportation director leaned over to the most-tenured principal to ask what the retreat was all about.

The principal replied with a smirk, “Oh we bond with each other at all these things” and then another slipped a note over that said, “Retreats are like big in-services, except there is no way you can get out of them.” The superintendent saw the note, read it out loud to those in attendance and then said, “That’s right. Retreats are non-negotiable—you will attend. If you are sick, then bring your hospital bed if necessary. However, this time, I think you will all enjoy our adventure in reflective leadership. I am bringing in Mac.”

“Ahhhhh, Mac,” the elder leader said with a big smile. “When was Mac here last? Was it five years ago or six?”

I had no idea because I was a new principal in just my second year. I could only see that suddenly the jaded administrators in the group were taking notice. What was a Mac? Was this a good thing? Being a little intimidated by my more-experienced peers, I decided to wait and see.

It turns out that Mac was a who as well as a what. Mac was short for Holly Laverne Macintyre. She stood 5-foot-2 and was part spin doctor, part psychic and part corporate soothsayer. In other words, she was an executive coach. And this is the story of how my superintendent used Mac to help make a difference for me, my leadership team and our school.

Not Bobby Knight
When you hear the title “executive coach,” do you immediately conjure up an image of Tony Robbins at a seminar telling you that greatness is always possible with a little planning and elbow grease? Or maybe you see James Carville waxing nostalgic over dinner about the importance of spin.

My superintendent deftly described his view of an executive coach as someone like Robert Duvall’s portrayal of Tom Hagan in the movie “The Godfather.” Vito Corleone introduced Tom to visitors as his consigliari, or adviser. While Hagan was a lawyer by trade, his services were more complex than reviewing contracts. In a similar vein, executive coaches can boast professional training that may include credentials in business, public relations, law or communication. The type of support they provide is limited only by the coach’s talent and the creative mindset of the administrators who use them.

The first step in considering the benefits of an executive coach is to invest some time in understanding what makes his or her support different than other resources. Coaches are hired guns and as such have an objectivity that a trusted colleague may not. The luxury of working with a coach is that you know whatever the coach tells you is going to be free of any political agendas or historical filters that a coworker, friend or subordinate may have.

Not a Mentor
Managers and leaders typically look for outside support when there is a mess to clean up.

Often support is sought in the form of a mentor. The word “mentor” originated in Homer’s The Odyssey. Mentor was a friend of Odysseus and cared for his son, Telemachus, when Odysseus traveled.

Mentor, as the goddess Athena in disguise, embodied both male and female personas. This androgyny has carried over to the contemporary role of a mentor as someone who integrates male and female characteristics. Mentors are nurturing and supportive as well as aggressive risk takers. Mentors are also defined as people who are usually wiser, more powerful and more experienced than their protégé.

While coaches are indeed wise and have experience, power is not an issue in a relationship with a coach. The lack of power and politics in the relationship frees up the administrator to be completely honest in disclosing the depth and breadth of the challenges in a particular organization.

My superintendent was facing the challenge of working with a split governing board of education, implementing two controversial curriculum programs and raising the funds to build a new school. In addition, he now had three new principals to train. An executive coach was a keen investment because it allowed him to give equal efforts toward nurturing new school leaders and moving several agendas forward with the community.

The challenge with mentoring for the mentor is that the exercise takes time. A true mentoring relationship requires both mentor and protégé to focus on building a nurturing and nonthreatening relationship with each other. When this kind of trust is achieved, the protégé is comfortable to reveal his or her insecurities and allow for the scrutiny and wisdom of the mentor. This sort of bonding can be difficult to achieve when both participants are busy trying to slay dragons and ensure that no child is left behind.

The beauty of executive coaches is that they focus their entire attention on the person with whom they are working. My experiences with Mac were akin to booster shots. Yes, my superintendent made efforts to have lunch with me. Yes, we talked regularly at our district meetings and staff development retreats. And yes, I routinely got good evaluations concerning my performance. But Mac somehow had a way of helping me rethink my agendas and sharpen my skills.

Honest Perceptions
The first time I met Mac was at a lunch with my superintendent. Our conversation was informal and after about 20 minutes Mac commented that it appeared to her that I was intimidated by my superintendent. My superintendent shared his surprise at this by saying that he did not view me as the sort to be intimidated by anyone.

I was surprised that Mac picked up my insecurities at being the youngest and newest administrator on the staff. Right there Mac taught both of us some interesting things about how we communicated with each other. My boss started to make efforts to boost my confidence and I worked harder to feel comfortable in sharing my thoughts and views.

After that lunch, I invited Mac to spend three days with me on my campus. She followed me everywhere I went and watched me conduct meetings with parents, staff, my administrative team and community. The first thing she did was validate that I was at a school mired in deep political waters. Her validation of the challenges I faced made me feel more secure about how I read situations.

During her first visit to our administrative team meeting, Mac was a silent observer. However, during the second team meeting, she would regularly interject observations about how everyone on the team saw their role and responsibilities. For example, she would say to my assistant principals, “It is OK to disagree with your boss; she wants you to. I can see that you want to say something so say it!” Or Mac would comment on how she saw the faculty’s view of us as a team versus how we viewed each other. And all of her comments were delivered with a little sarcasm and a lot of blunt honesty.

We also spent time together talking about my goals for both the school as well as for myself. The difference between the goal discussions with Mac and discussions with the superintendent centered on time and perspective. Mac and I were able to wander through extended conversations that enveloped the smallest details. By processing my thoughts first with Mac, I was able to hone and organize my ideas in a way that helped me to present more cogent ideas and views to the superintendent when called on.

After our three days together, Mac debriefed me with a write-up of my strengths and areas of focus. I was surprised and pleased to find she identified more strengths than I realized. The lesson I took closest to heart was her take on how I walked the campus.

I had budgeted in my daily schedule 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon to manage by walking around. I would stroll through the campus and chit-chat with folks about their day or share a lesson with a student. These half-hour blocks were strictly for the purpose of being seen. I did not allow myself to perform small tasks during this self-imposed public relations time.

There were lots of other times during the day when I walked around campus. On those occasions, I walked with purpose. I had to because I was either rushing to an individualized education plan meeting, a teacher observation or a fight in progress among students. Mac told me the teachers had assumed that when I walked with purpose I was angry. Had I told anyone that I was angry? No.

Mac showed me that even though I routinely walked the hallways and common areas for an hour each day, I was doing so looking like Dirty Harry. She advised me to be more conscious of how I looked. She told me to start strolling every time I left the office. She told me to think in my head no matter what dragon I had to slay, “ Stroll … Stroll … Stroll.”

When Mac returned for a day visit a few months later she reported to me that the teachers said I had seemed more relaxed and comfortable in my job. The only thing that had changed, of course, was that now I was conscious of strolling. Huge problems remained that required immediate attention, but my efforts to stroll changed how my faculty viewed the campus climate.

The “strolling” example is perhaps the most visible way Mac helped me in a manner my superintendent could not. If my superintendent or any other administrator were to quiz teachers in the lounge about school climate, the teachers would frame their responses around their personal agendas. Mac, on the other hand, was able to elicit perceptions and get feedback free of political biases and maybe even fear.

Quality Collaboration
I began to really trust Mac because I knew that my superintendent trusted her. I found sometimes I could say things to Mac that I could not necessarily say to my boss. And I think that is part of why the superintendent is the leader he is. He understood that Mac could help me develop in ways he could not.

I began to understand why my colleagues had such big smiles at the superintendent’s mention of her name. Working with Mac, or any other executive coach, is not a professional development exercise. Rather it is more of an opportunity to learn about yourself as a leader from the inside.

Autumn Tooms, who spent eight years as a principal in Phoenix, Ariz., is an assistant professor of educational administration at Kent State University, 404 White Hall, Kent, OH 44242. E-mail: atooms@kent.edu