In the early fall, I will complete my 11th year at Jobs for the Future and my 46th year working in the youth-serving field. It’s fair to say I’ve played a lot of roles and worn many hats.
I’ve directed projects, written grants, managed complex partnerships, worked with foundation partners, facilitated professional development for teachers and youth program staff, and mediated conflict-ridden meetings. I’ve received some coaching — perhaps more of which might have benefitted me — and have coached and supported many colleagues and partners.
Nearing the end of my career, I enjoy coaching above all. Currently, I coach West Coast sites that are creating education-to-career pathways for opportunity youth (including those who are or have been in the foster care or juvenile justice systems) through receipt of Social Innovation Fund grants. I work primarily with intermediary organization leaders who are responsible for system work — bringing together multiple institutional partners (K-12, postsecondary, community-based agencies, local state agency offices and employers) to build richer and more connected pathways and address policies that pose barriers.
I also work with community-based agency leads who are designing new programs. They often want help with provision of on-the-ground technical assistance (program design, instructional support, advice on recruitment and so on). At Jobs for the Future, our team of coaches works closely to support and learn from each other, and ensure we deliver just-in-time assistance and resources to our communities, whether they are changing systems or launching programs.
An old article from the Harvard Business Review always comes to mind when thinking about the value of coaching. The article, “A Survival Guide for Leaders” by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, talks about the tumult involved in managing complex change efforts.
In our field, so many leaders at the system or program level are involved in this difficult work. Partners must adopt different attitudes and beliefs, be willing to work together in new ways, change outdated practices and challenge long-standing policies. The leaders I see are often ensnarled in hostile, resistant or seemingly immovable environments in which change happens slowly, and many setbacks are encountered along the way.
At the heart of “A Survival Guide for Leaders” is the notion that effective leaders need to operate both “in and above the fray,” keeping their heads as they move between action and objective reflection. The metaphor from the article that most strikes home is one in which leaders need a kitchen table (a safe haven to plan and adjust tasks) and a balcony (a perch to dispassionately view the action) in order to stay grounded and effective.
That is where the value of a coach comes in. In a nutshell, a good coach helps leaders carve out dedicated time and space for both kitchen table conversations (learning, action planning and task priorities) and balcony discussions (reflection and strategic planning). What I hear most from Jobs for the Future’s clients is that without coaching, this kind of reflection time is lost in the midst of pressing day-to-day action. Too often leaders get lost in the fray.
What makes a good coach?
Of course, for coaching to be valuable, the coach must be skilled. In my experience, a coach must have expertise and knowledge in the field, yet be willing to take the time necessary to understand local conditions. Without this, advice lacks context and nuance. Above all, a coach must be good at establishing trust and should have unconditional positive regard for the client(s).
The coach needs to have good communication and facilitation skills, along with the ability to deeply listen without judgment. Good coaches are usually skilled strategic thinkers, and know when to provide support as well as when to push and challenge. Coaches with a sense of humor delight me.
Personally, I love coaches who tell stories, as they help me see situations differently. I also love metaphors that help me constructively (re)frame or normalize difficult situations. Further, I always feel blessed when an interaction with a coach helps me validate that the work is truly hard, that I’m not alone and that despite my limitations, I am capable and up to the task at hand.
Effective use of the coach
As a coach, I notice the difference between leaders who use coaches well and those who don’t. Those who do are willing to be vulnerable and are eager to learn. They are confident in their abilities but grounded enough to know that they can and want to grow and learn. Leaders who use coaches well are curious, honest and transparent. They are always looking for ways to use the coach as an ally to whom they can admit that they don’t have all the answers — or, alternatively, announce that everything is going swimmingly.
Leaders who benefit from coaching use the coach’s on-site time effectively by bringing the expertise and knowledge of the coach to partners who need to come into the fold in terms of influencing, technical knowledge or in ramping up their commitments to the project. Leaders who value coaching make good decisions about when they need the kitchen table or the balcony, and use the coach to keep focused and refreshed. And, of course, when the relationship really hums, both local leaders and coaches grow professionally from their interactions.
Lifelong learning/Lifelong coaching
Perhaps by now I’ve sold you on the value of coaching (or confirmed what you already knew). The problem is that coaches come and go. They usually show up at your doorstep when you receive a grant, supporting you in achieving the aims of that specific project.
Once the project is finished, so is the coach. He or she moves on and you do too. If you have been in this field long, however, you know that championing change is lifelong work. The work doesn’t stop because a grant ends. You will still be doing the work even if you change jobs, just from a different vantage point. Wherever you find yourself, you will encounter issues and still have need for that kitchen table … and a balcony.
Good coaches are out there and ready to be summoned. The key is not to let coaching languish in the press of day-to-day tasks or troubles. Once a leader has experienced the value of coaching, he or she must decide if it’s worth the effort to ensure that this function is a continued priority. If it is, the leader might seek a single coach who plays the roles of both confidant and strategic thinker.
Or one might try to identify multiple coaches who address differing needs across time — champion, strategic thinker, constructive critic or knowledgeable, good-humored jester. A leader may gravitate toward trusted friends, work colleagues, senior or retired professionals, or even wise acquaintances in unrelated fields. If asked, they are likely to be glad to contribute, give back or share in this way. It’s important to be clear about the assistance, time commitment and specific goals you want help to achieve.
In the youth-serving field — dynamic and complex, yet fragmented and underfunded — we all need reminders that our work is both vital and difficult, and that change can feel like a long and lonely road. We need to know and feel connected to a national community with history and movement; one that has been, and continues to be, committed to the health and wellbeing of some of our most vulnerable, yet promising young people.
We need to celebrate our successes and not allow them to be obscured by all that is broken and needs to be fixed. To make a difference as leaders, it is important to stay healthy, awake and grounded. And while our commitments and our assets buoy us, good coaching can really help.
Terry Grobe is the director of youth pathways at Jobs for the Future’s Oakland, California, office. The focus of her long career has been devoted to improving education and career outcomes for low-income youth and youth of color. She has worked on or led many state and national initiatives. Currently, she coaches West Coast sites that have received Social Innovation Fund grants through Jobs for the Future/Aspen Forum for Community Solutions and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.