Executive Coaching: An Educational Leadership Perspective

by Paul Butler

“… organisations – including schools – are seeking to use coaching as a means to enhance productivity results”

The role of the School Principal is generally viewed by the public as being one of education. However, the reality is that the duties of the Principal are more akin to a Managing Director than a teacher. Paul Butler, Director of Mayo Education Centre, discusses the case for Executive Coaching in Educational Leadership.

There has been a considerable amount of interest in the field of coaching in recent years particularly around executive coaching (Page et al., 2014). But does it really have any impact and if so how does it impact?

Executive Coaching is big business. The Harvard Business Review report that coaching is a US$1 billion industry in the US, with US$2 billion being generated world-wide (Sherman & Freas, 2004). Closer to home, in 2004 the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) reported that 64% of organisations surveyed use external coaches in the UK, with 92% judging it to be ‘effective’ while 96% reporting coaching as an effective means of learning (Page et al., 2014, 582). Since then executive coaching as a leadership process has been gaining momentum.

So what is executive coaching? According to Page et al., (2014) executive coaching can be defined as a form of ‘organisational learning through one to one conversations that facilitates development for a leader.’ It is an ‘empowering process’ that aims to draw out solutions through effective listening, asking powerful questions and using feedback so that people take ownership (Canfield et al., 2013). While in the past it may have been deemed as a ‘remedial activity,’ it is now embraced by business leaders and corporations as a means to develop the potential of employees.

In 2003, Smither et al., conducted one of the largest studies on executive coaching at the time, with the inclusion and research of 1202 senior managers over a two-year period. The results demonstrated that feedback from clients, supervisors, peers and subordinates, was found to me more positive for those managers who worked with a coach. In addition, there was improvement around goal-setting, soliciting ideas for improvement and ratings from supervisors (Page et al., 2014).

Grant et al., (2009) also found that executive coaching ‘significantly enhanced goal attainment, resilience and workplace wellbeing’ and reduced stress in certain areas of leadership. This success was also replicated when assessing coaching with high school teachers. (Page et al., 2014).

“Coaching in education is leading the way in other countries”

Other authors in the field have supported the view that executive coaching can be very effective and these include, Theeboom et al., (2014), Aguilar, (2013) and Jones et al., (2014).

According to Aguilar (2013), coaching is an essential part of an effective professional development programme where skills can be built, knowledge can be enhanced and capacity can be built, where no other professional development has gone before. These include intellect, behaviours, values and feelings of an educator.

So what about coaching in educational leadership?

In 2004 the Annenberg Foundation for Educational Reform carried out an extensive study on coaching. It discovered some powerful validations for coaching. They concluded that effective coaching encourages ‘collaborative reflective practice,’ allowed teachers to apply learning at a deep level and supported teachers to apply their learning with students. It also informed practice, ‘promoted reciprocal accountability’ and supported ‘collective leadership’ (Aguilar, 2013).

While outcome research is still developing and can suffer from self reporting bias and possible objectivity measures, overall the research provides some indication that executive coaching is an ‘effective intervention’ (Page et al., 2014).

It is therefore not surprising that such an ‘effective intervention’ is finding it’s way into educational leadership. The emergence of the neoliberal agenda from the business and corporate world, means that accountability and autonomy are now ‘critical issues in school management’ (Hung, 2017, 27). School leaders constantly feel the pull between efficiency and effectiveness (Murphy, 2013, 48) and the opportunity to offer coaching to school leaders has been a key development in educational leadership support in Ireland in recent years.

Effective leaders have a big role to play in demonstrating a vision and leading by example. They are people who tend to have high expectations and a strong sense of community, with an eye on getting results.  They try to enhance the skills of the people that they manage and hold people accountable (Gorham et al., 2008, 1). Positive psychology has a valuable contribution to make here in educational settings (Devine et al., 2013) as has the coaching of school leaders, teachers and pupils.

“Having witnessed its benefits on both a local and national level, coaching as a leadership process appears to be here to stay, at both educational and corporate leadership levels.”

Coaching in education is leading the way in other countries and it is no surprise that the centre for school leadership (CSL) was launched in 2015 by the Department of Education and Skills in Ireland. This created a platform for both the coaching and mentoring of school principals in Irish education.

According to CSL Ireland:

CSL Coaching is a confidential, one to one personal service which is now available for all school principals. Coaching is a particularly powerful tool and one that has proven to be a highly effective way of developing individual and organisational performance by unlocking potential and capability. Coaching is well established as a leadership development service in large organisations and in industry to date. This is the first time that Irish school leaders will experience coaching for themselves.” (www.cslireland.ie)

While we cannot go into schools purporting to raise scores by 50%, we need to manage expectations and articulate what we can accomplish (Aguilar, 2013). According to CSL by engaging in coaching, school leaders will gain the following benefits:

  • Increased ability to prioritise and manage demands
  • Renewed enthusiasm for the job
  • Enable the management of change more successfully
  • Assist in creating a coaching culture in the school
  • Provide time and space for reflection. CSL Ireland 

While this initiative is a nationwide one to one service reserved for school principals, Mayo Education Centre offered a coaching programme for educational leaders locally in 2015-16. The Advanced Diploma in Personal, Executive and Leadership Coaching was offered in association with Kingstown College. This pilot programme, the first of its kind in educational leadership witnessed 14 educational leaders graduate in 2016 with another 19 taking on the Advanced Diploma in Mental Health and Wellbeing Coaching in 2017. The feedback from these programmes has been very positive, with both the personal development aspects of the course being highlighted and the ability to deal in a more professional and progressive manner with school issues.  In addition, Mayo Education Centre offers an online Summer course programme on coaching for teachers and principals and this will continue to be offered in future years. It is also envisaged that the partnership with Kingstown College will continue to provide leaders in education with a recognised and valuable qualification in leadership coaching. See www.kingstowncollege.ie

While some participants of coaching have witnessed the development of themselves as practitioners, organisations – including schools – are seeking to use coaching as a means to enhance productivity results (Davies, 2015) and it appears that executive coaching can offer both.

In conclusion there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that executive coaching can have a big impact in leadership roles. While some evidence has been collected to support it, there will be plenty of further research in the area as coaching as a concept continues to grow. Having witnessed its benefits on both a local and national level, coaching as a leadership process appears to be here to stay, at both educational and corporate leadership levels.


Paul Butler is the Director of Mayo Education Centre, a teacher training centre based in Castlebar Co. Mayo. The aim of the centre is to provide support, resources, training and opportunities for personal & professional development for the teaching community. Paul is a qualified life coach having completed the Advanced Diploma in Personal & Executive Coaching from Kingstown college. He has also trained in psychometric assessment and is a NLP practitioner. Paul holds a BA and MBA and is currently a Ph.D researcher in the University of Lincoln studying Educational Leadership. Paul has worked as a primary school principal and teacher and spent some years working in financial services. He has been instrumental in bringing educational leadership coaching to leaders in the West of Ireland through a partnership with Kingstown College. Paul has an interest in the impact of coaching for educational leadership and has coached educational leaders and teachers around areas of self development, interview preparation and career guidance.