For the past decade or so, a small but growing group of professionals has been fighting an uphill battle to promote the use of coaching as a leadership-development tool for executive directors.
Coaching—long used by companies to support and develop high-potential executives—is a one-on-one, time-limited, customized consulting relationship between someone with leadership and coaching experience and the person being coached. (This definition of coaching, along with a great deal of other information about coaching in the nonprofit context, was developed as part of the Coaching and Philanthropy Project.)
At its best, coaching helps nonprofit leaders become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses, act more purposefully, and draw on their own intuition and experience to solve problems and develop their skills as leaders. Coaching can help address the isolation inherent in the executive-director role by providing leaders with an objective outsider with whom to discuss problems and test solutions. Recipients of coaching generally report increased self-awareness, improved self-management, and higher levels of confidence and clarity.
Lately I've been wondering whether executive coaching would also be beneficial for board chairs. Like executive directors, chairs sometimes come into the role unexpectedly and have little training or preparation for the role. And there's usually no mechanism to help board chairs know whether they're doing a good job or to coach them on how to improve.
The person with the most insight into the board chair's performance, the executive director, is in a weak position to provide constructive criticism or guidance since the board chair represents the executive's "boss"—and in many cases serves as the executive's de facto supervisor.
If promoting coaching for executive directors has been an uphill climb, encouraging coaching for board chairs would be like scaling a vertical cliff. I'm not aware of a single example of a board chair who has used a coach. (Readers, a little help here, please!)
If the barriers to using coaching among executive directors are any indication, board chairs would view coaching as remedial—an indicator of a serious performance issue or a plot to move them out of the job—and would be reluctant to accept help or even admit they could use it. Some might be reluctant to participate in something they perceive as undefined or too touchy-feely. And many would object to the cost, even though a few thousand dollars seems like a small price to pay for strong and focused board leadership.
I've never heard anyone argue that Butler University's men's basketball team should have been able to make it to the NCAA Final Four without the help of a coach. And while salaries paid to coaches of major sports teams sometimes raise eyebrows, few fans question the investment when a coach pulls off a winning season.
If coaching for board chairs could become similarly accepted as common practice, and viewed as an essential and worthwhile investment, coaching could have a huge impact on the performance of nonprofit organizations and their boards.
Recognizing the barriers that stand in the way of expanded use of coaching, and knowing that it would be a steep vertical ascent, I still think it's a climb worth making. Anyone with me? Please bring your crampons and carabiners.