Leadership Interview

Earlier this year POD Director Ujima Donalson obtained her professional coaching certification. In the following interview, Ujima talks about her experiences with being coached, becoming certified as a coach, the coach's role as a partner, and the key to good coaching.

Have you ever received leadership coaching?

Yes. In fact, I'm still in touch with my first leadership coach and mentor to this day. Prior to my time here at the University, I received coaching at Bank of America as part of a mentoring program. Although it was a less formalized type of coaching, our mentors were very skilled at getting to know you and helping you understand how you are your own best answer. And that, honestly, is the key to a good coach.

More recently, I was coached as part of the certification program I attended. Not all programs have the same methodology, but with the Fowler-Wainwright model you're actively being coached as you're learning their approach. It's an experiential learning concept but at an especially intense and powerful level, where the practice and application are almost immediate. In that way, it was similar to real-life situations at work. As leaders, we often get thrown into the middle of things before we even know how to swim. We learn by doing.

What can leaders achieve through coaching that they can't accomplish on their own?

I think you could endeavor to do it yourself; however, there's such power in partnership, especially with a partner who's not a stakeholder. As your leadership coach, I'm not tied to your productivity. I don't have a vested interest in what you produce or what kind of results your team can achieve. My primary interest is you and your success.

Coaching is a process in which you have someone who becomes your partner. A leadership coach can come alongside you and partner with you, introduce you to new strategies and tools, and provide a fresh and objective perspective. This can often lead to an "aha" moment that, for whatever reason, with your trusted colleagues and with your boss you may not be able to get to as readily.

Also, culturally, thinking of professional and organizational models, we've moved from the individual to the partnership. It takes partnership to succeed. We have to form strategic partners in our current environment, but in our current environment there can be fear in being transparent. That's where the coach as non-judgmental partner can really be powerful.

Where did you receive your professional coaching certification, and how did the model you learned differ from or reinforce what you already knew about leadership coaching?

I attended the Fowler Wainwright International Institute of Professional Coaching, which was started by Berry Fowler, the founder of Sylvan Learning, and Barbara Wainwright, former worldwide president of the Certified Coaches Federation.

The Fowler-Wainwright model is a four-step coaching model that tells you what to do at each stage of contact with the leader you're coaching, so in that way the model provides a uniform approach. Before learning this model, my leadership coaching tended to be more ad hoc or situational, but I can see the value of following a specific set of steps regardless of the situation.

That said, the model isn't constraining and it's not a cookie-cutter approach. I can still do as a practitioner what I feel called to do at any particular moment during a coaching session. The model simply gives me a great roadmap.

The Fowler-Wainwright program also teaches basic methods of neuro-linguistic programming and Socratic questioning, among other things. The interesting thing is that both of those approaches reinforced what I already knew was the hallmark of a good coaching—which is being able to frame and illuminate things in such a way that you're helping someone find their own answers. Now, though, I have new tools and a systematic approach for helping to unlock those answers.

How do you see being able to apply the Fowler-Wainwright model to leadership coaching at the UW?

In some ways, the coaching model is for the coach. A model provides the coach with a methodological approach, and different models may appeal more to some coaches than others. The premise of the Fowler-Wainwright approach is that it allows us to expose the mental models that get in the way and shows us how to use power language to get unstuck. That appealed to me because it aligns with my personal philosophy, but others in POD may use different approaches. Our consultants have been exposed to a variety of credible models, including Triple Impact and Extraordinary Leader. We've got so much in our toolbox, we could be using a variety of techniques at any time.

I've already started applying what I learned through my coaching certification, informally in conversations with others and in my consultation and facilitation work. I believe we have dynamic leaders here at the UW. What the Fowler-Wainwright model—and other coaching models—affords them is the opportunity to be in the right space to have the time to think and to be strategic.

What can coaching do for leaders at the UW right now?

We're in an unprecedented time here at the University. We could easily get stuck in a rut because there's so much around us that's negative—tightening budgets, less staffing, no raises in sight, drained resources. In fact, many of us are stuck in patterns we don't even recognize, whether that's negative self-talk, problem denial, or conflict avoidance. We learn many behaviors early on and those follow us into adulthood, into work, and into our roles as leaders. The environment we've been working in for the past three to four years only compounds the sense of limitation and, for some, can further entrench those negative patterns or reinforce our tendency toward defeatism.

Working with a coach can help you see these patterns clearly. And once you see the patterns that bind and limit you, you have the power to get unstuck. It's not a coach's job to direct you towards a certain course of action or to solve your problems but to help you unlock the answers for yourself. What we do is ask the right questions in the right way and at the right time to get you to use the right key.

Coaching can also be a great retention tool. One way to help retain people is to give them the strategic support that they need, and a healthy dose of coaching can do just that.

Autumn 2011 | Return to issue home