Greetings. About 100 people have been added to the Coaching Letter since school let out. It’s pretty amazing to me that several hundred people are now on the distribution list, given that I started sending it out at the beginning of last school year to the small number of principals in Hartford whom I was coaching. Knowing that this Letter will be the first one for a lot of people, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m trying to accomplish by sending this out every week or so. I decided to tell a story.
I was a young first year principal, younger than almost everyone on the staff. I’m not sure how aware I was of this at the time, but I’m sure I was desperate to convince them that I was up to the job. At some point in the spring, the district sent a survey to all parents and staff, and I got the results a few weeks later. I was devastated. Some of the comments from the staff were scathing. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even notice that most of the scores were actually very good—it took my husband to point that out to me—because all I could think see were the disparaging comments. The bravest thing I have done in my life was to show up to work the next morning. I didn’t sleep for a week. I don’t think I have ever felt anything like it. It was years before I could even talk about it.
I would say that the last 20 years have been about not being that person any more. I set out to be a different person, starting the next day. I took the feedback seriously, and I began to study people, and organizations: what matters to them and what makes them work. I worked on myself.
It was another serious blow, a few years after that first survey, when I realized that the big mistake was not my performance as a first year principal. It was going almost all year without knowing that there were people who didn’t like aspects of my performance.
At one level, this is a story about feedback, and indeed, I am frequently in conversations about some or all of these ideas:
- Treat every interaction as an opportunity to garner feedback. Successful professionals recognize that feedback is crucial, and are so good at pulling data out of thin air that sometimes you don’t even notice that they are collecting it in the first place.
- Normalize the giving and receiving of feedback. Make small but frequent requests for feedback. Find ways to make it just a part of the way business is done.
- Remember that the only appropriate response to feedback is “thank you”. If you are giddy in response to compliments then you incentive people to tell you only things that will make you happy. If you launch into an explanation in response to a critical comment, you run the risk of people thinking that you are thin-skinned or defensive, and they won’t tell you things for fear of offending you. Bear in mind that how you really feel has no bearing on how people perceive your reaction.
- This is a big one: start thinking of yourself as a feedback-receiver rather than a feedback-giver. This is a shift in the mental model that many people hold of leadership.
But my story is about other things as well. It’s about failure as a learning opportunity, not a setback. It’s about resilience. It’s about willingness to take responsibility for anything inside your sphere of influence, it’s about working on yourself. And it’s about applying the skills that are inherent to coaching to leadership, because I have learned that my first year would have gone a lot better if I’d been better at listening, asking questions, and giving, asking for, and receiving feedback. So that’s what the Coaching Letter is about.
Thanks for reading, thanks for giving feedback, thanks for sharing your stories, and thanks for your commitment to improving your own leadership and coaching skills. Please let me know if there is ever anything I can do for you. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106