Leveraging Coaching and Mentoring for the Development of Senior Leaders in Higher Education

aOxford Brookes University, UK
bBonneywell Development, UK
cBournemouth University, UK
dSheffield Hallam University, UK

International Perspectives on Leadership in Higher Education

ISBN: 978-1-80262-306-2, eISBN: 978-1-80262-305-5

ISSN: 1479-3628

Publication date: 21 November 2022


This chapter aims to examine the ways coaching and mentoring are currently leveraged to deliver leadership development in higher education institutions. By exploring the variety of coaching and mentoring approaches and their deployment at different levels and across different institutions we are able to indicate opportunities for further enhancing leadership development in the sector through coaching and mentoring. The chapter examines peer-reviewed articles, sector reports and insights from key informants crafted into mini case studies. Mentoring emerges as a default approach to leadership development, in particular at early career stages and where inclusivity and diversity feature as part of leadership development programmes. Coaching is evident at the senior levels and offers a wider range of individual leader, senior team and organisational leadership development opportunities. Our cases highlight the range of responses and sophistication of coaching approaches and practices, from the highly embedded to other more piecemeal examples. The findings emphasise the importance of empirical research in this area to better understand and inform the sector of the wider benefits and opportunities of coaching and mentoring in supporting leadership development. Opportunities to support greater inclusivity and diversity in leadership should consider coaching approaches and practices too. This exploration of coaching and mentoring identifies why shifts towards coaching may be evident. It challenges those in the sector – researchers, people management and organisational developers, as well as senior leaders – to adopt more integrated and embedded coaching and mentoring initiatives to support the sector in addressing its current challenges.



Gannon, J., Bonneywell, S., Harding, C. and Jackson, S. (2022), "Leveraging Coaching and Mentoring for the Development of Senior Leaders in Higher Education", Blair, A., Evans, D., Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (Ed.) International Perspectives on Leadership in Higher Education (International Perspectives on Higher Education Research, Vol. 15), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 139-159. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1479-362820220000015008



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023 Judie Gannon, Sally Bonneywell, Colleen Harding and Sally Jackson. Published under exclusive licence by Emerald Publishing Limited


Several commentators (Boynton, 2020; Grant, 2021; Heffernan, 2022; Vlachopoulos, 2021) have reflected upon the higher education sector as facing an unprecedented set of complexities, which are proving deeply unsettling to all levels of staff, students and other stakeholders. In recent decades, the global higher education sector has become increasingly competitive where mobility and technological advances, even during a global pandemic, have resulted in fierce contests for students, high-performing academics, research and infrastructure funding and cutting-edge delivery systems. Higher education institutions have been challenged to tackle their elitist status, provide value for money and real connections with their communities (Butler, 2020; Callaghan, 2022; Grant, 2021), from a variety of political and commercial perspectives. These pressures have often resulted in institutions adopting approaches and practices from the private sector, fuelling claims of the invidious and inappropriate creep of managerialism (Heffernan, 2022; Vlachopoulos, 2021). However, this is not a homogenous sector and there are significant differences and strategies towards localised provision, international collaboration and global standing. These challenges place particular pressures on existing leaders and aspirants to such leadership roles (Anthony & Antony, 2017; Butler, 2020; Dopson et al., 2019). Accordingly, understanding what is available as developmental support appears critical to not only individuals and higher education institutions, but the wider higher education sector and society.

In this chapter, we offer evidence and commentary on the ways coaching and mentoring can support current leaders and the next generation of pro-vice-chancellors, deans and senior leaders. The disconcerting higher education environment and other wider social and political factors mean that no developmental interventions offer a panacea for leaders, their woes or their development. However, we suggest coaching and mentoring may offer ways of helping leaders understand their own leadership strengths and styles, the needs of their institutions and the variety of stakeholders, to enable them to steer suitable routes with their values and commitments intact.

Defining Coaching and Mentoring for Leaders

Coaching and mentoring are generally understood as relational conversation-based interventions, which can support people through significant transitions, improve performance, realise goal achievement and develop personal and inter-relational understanding and skills (Cox et al., 2014; Gray et al., 2016). Much deliberation has taken place about their distinctions and similarities in efforts to provide relevant appreciation for those seeking improvements and development, and those commissioning support for others in organisations.

Traditional definitions of mentoring suggest it is ‘off-line help by one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work or thinking’ (Megginson, 2006, p. 4), while original definitions of coaching formulate it as ‘A process that enables learning and development to occur and thus performance to improve’ (Parsloe, 1999, p. 8). Such descriptions highlight the role of the coach where they ‘need not be an expert in the coachees' area of learning. The coach need only have experience in facilitating learning and performance enhancement’ (Harding et al., 2018, p. 20). These definitions suggest that the specific experience and expertise of coaches and mentors offer one way in which these dialogue-based learning and development relationships can be differentiated.

More recently, Stokes et al. (2021) argue that, as both coaching and mentoring involve practitioners using indistinguishable process skills, determining conceptual and practical exclusivity may be a redundant endeavour. Rather, they suggest that it is the ‘agentic’ nature of context that determines ‘which aspects of these two helping orientations are most useful to practitioners’ (10). Identifying context as ‘the broader system and environment in which the helping relationship is situated’, they build a framework of coaching and mentoring discourses around four dimensions. They use this framework to highlight how the context is not neutral in determining whether coaching or mentoring are deployed. The four dimensions in this framework are: the learning orientation of the organisation, the economic factors (internal and external) which are shaping the context, the temporal dimension concerning how time is treated and viewed within the context, and the socio-cultural dimension. These dimensions help in our analysis and evaluation of the ways coaching and mentoring have been adopted in support of higher education leaders, and how they may be deployed successfully in the future.

Challenges and Factors Shaping Leadership and Leader Development in Higher Education Institutions

There is widespread acknowledgement of the paucity of understanding of, and research on, higher education leadership and leader development (Bryman, 2007; Dopson et al., 2019). This recognition comes not only from academic research communities but from national sector bodies (for example, UK Research and Innovation and the Office for Students, formerly the Higher Education Council for England). This area of scholarship and practice appears stuck between clichéd depictions of academic leadership dilemmas, challenges over familiarisation, and intractable issues of evaluation and resourcing (Bertrand, 2019; Bryman & Lilley, 2009; Dopson et al., 2019; Harding et al., 2018). Understanding these leadership challenges and factors allows us to deliberate the coaching and mentoring framework presented. We will compare prevailing deployment of coaching and mentoring in higher education leadership development against anticipated changes delineated in the sector.

Leadership expectations within higher education institutions are often fractured between academic and professional services; however, at the most senior level there is also the intersection of academic and professional services (Anthony & Antony, 2017; Whitchurch, 2008). These leadership territories place slightly different emphases on strategic and operational policies and practices. While an underlying spirit of academic work reinforces the characteristics of academic autonomy, collegiality, networking and individuality (Dopson et al., 2019; Whitchurch, 2008), newer leadership pressures gainsay such factors. This means that academics who become leaders on the basis of their credibility as academics, through prowess in teaching, researching and publishing, typically experience dissonance in their new roles. As Vlachopoulos (2021, p. 8) suggests, leaders are often promoted to senior leadership due to their ‘stellar performance in research or knowledge transfer, but that does not mean that they have the necessary skills to lead teams or the process of institutional change’.

Studies point to the isolation experienced in higher education leadership (Butler, 2020; Kiel, 2017; Vlachopoulos, 2021) that can compound pre-existing departmental or subject silos, and the professional and support services split, fortifying leaders' sense of disconnection from their colleagues' priorities (Gigliotti & Ruben, 2017; Guccione & Hutchinson, 2021). This ‘has led to colliding pressures and tensions for academic leaders who are caught in between opposing expectations, values and worldviews’ (Gjerde & Alvesson, 2020, p. 127). Indeed, it is argued that the very skills that make some leaders excellent academics – e.g. curiosity, search for understanding at a minute detail level, challenging beliefs and needing an evidence base to work from – can actively get in the way of leadership requirements where the ability to hold ambiguity, to cope with emergence and intersectionality of disciplines, as well as time-pressured decision-making capabilities are required (Gigliotti & Ruben, 2017; Gjerde & Alvesson, 2020).

Mid-level leaders also find themselves in the invidious position of having to account for the ‘unreasonable and reasonable’ pressures arising from political and social demands (Gjerde & Alvesson, 2020; Thornton, 2020; Thornton et al., 2018), which further amplify burdens on faculty and professional services staff. For example, in England and Wales the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), Research Excellence Framework (REF), Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) have all appeared in recent years as a way for the UK Government to justify higher education spending, offer transparency and drive achievement in the sector. Leaders at various levels become responsible for delivering results in line with these frameworks, simultaneously protecting academic conventions and contracts, which nurture appropriate results, and embedding strategies and protocols which drive achievement targets. These changes mean leaders are often charged with being disconnected from the experiences and pressures junior ranks face, further damaging trust and collegiality.

Traditional models of leadership approaches in higher education suggest variations of transformational rather than transactional leadership are appropriate, specifically around distributive, participative or even ‘neo charismatic leadership’ styles (Angawi, 2012; Bolden et al., 2014; Bryman, 2007; Dopson et al., 2019). Such approaches are based upon the need to articulate and garner support and buy-in to a vision, an appreciation of the diverse needs of disciplines and their scholars, scepticism towards hierarchy and authority, a lack of conventional thinking and the mutual nature of collegiality. However, changes in recent years have caused a divergence in leadership approaches where political, economic and social pressures have meant some institutions have adopted ‘a broader, bottom-up and societally-engaged model of academic leadership where the academic profession as a whole has a role in self-governance and outreach’ (Bolden et al., 2014; Dopson et al., 2019; Flinn & Mowles, 2014; Grant, 2021). Others have opted for more transactional oriented approaches based primarily on metrics and compliance-driven standpoints without taking into account aspects of cultural transformation.

Recent research suggests that higher education leaders at specific levels become ‘toxicity handlers’ where these dissonant issues of performance management and measures and trust and collegiality coincide (Dopson et al., 2019). Using the ‘umbrella metaphor’, Gjerde and Alvesson (2020) capture the complexities of mid-level leaders where they need to retain affinity with subordinates (whose performance is managed more closely than before, though not necessarily in helpful ways given the nature of academic work) and reify the trust and reciprocal scholastic characteristics most faculty adhere to. Gjerde and Alvesson show that higher education leaders survive by engaging in continuous discussions, and performances of persuasion and negotiation, to navigate their leadership roles. The public way much academic work is conducted through committees and meetings also means that leaders perform leadership in a ‘glass cage’, allowing further scrutiny of their actions and wider approaches. These findings and analyses from other studies all highlight, as Dopson and colleagues (2019; Flinn & Mowles, 2014) suggest, that leadership development in higher education should prioritise supporting leaders' interpersonal and relational behaviours, and more broadly their ability to interact positively and effectively with their immediate followers and wider stakeholders.

In many ways the challenges outlined make the low prioritisation and lack of robust leadership development in academia (Bertrand, 2019; Dopson et al., 2019) difficult to understand. Other studies have been more specific in their criticism of leadership development in the sector, identifying that the professional development of leaders in universities is often absent from strategic plans (Vlachopoulos, 2021, p. 4), and that there is a lack of coverage of creative approaches to leadership and risk taking. In the generic leadership development literature similar tensions have played out and again emphasised the importance of context in any appreciation of leadership development strategies and practices.

In particular, a distinction is made where leader development is orientated towards enhancement of organisations' human capital (skills, knowledge and abilities), while leadership development is orientated towards the relational and social capital of organisations (Ciuk & Schedlitzki, 2021; Day, 2000). For example, through leadership development there are opportunities to boost the ability of leaders to relate to and support others, and build coalitions and networks across diverse groups, which are seen to be vital in increasing organisational effectiveness (Dopson et al., 2019). A balance between these ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ orientations is needed but rarely articulated in the literature or in practice. Indeed, without recognition of the way development interventions may be oriented there are challenges for measuring and assessing such interventions (Bolden et al., 2008) and appreciating the impact of context on preferences and proclivities. This means that habitual practices are adopted despite changing needs and demands of the sector being taken into account (Dopson et al., 2019).

These arguments also have an impact on programme design for leadership development, where commentators (Dopson et al., 2019; Morris & Laipple, 2015; Scott et al., 2010) highlight there is a mandate for individualised learning opportunities delivered through a range of approaches: formal training, shared experiences and activities, and individualised learning through mentoring or shadowing (Tolar, 2012). Other studies have highlighted that many academic leaders struggle to integrate dimensions of their roles (learning, change, systems working) and that development should prioritise augmenting self-awareness (Vilkinas & Ladyshewsky, 2012). In Spendlove's (2007) formative study of leadership competencies she argues that academic credibility and experience of university life play a crucial role in success as a university leader. However, she also argues for a balance between clear organisational responses to leadership development in conjunction with bespoke individual leadership development plans at the most senior levels, to acknowledge the distinct challenges each leader faces.

Since Spendlove's (2007) study, other authors (Butler, 2020; Kiel, 2017) have also recognised that competency models for higher education leadership have grown in popularity. However, caution is also offered where the embedded nature of some disciplines means there is difficulty in engaging all in leadership opportunities and, subsequently, identifying competencies to be further developed (Inman, 2009; Iordanou et al., 2015, pp. 145–158). Gigliotti and Ruben (2017) have recommended a portfolio of collaborative leadership programmes that cut across conceptual, operational and strategic dimensions of leadership development. Butler (2020), who found coaching and mentoring often featured in the professional development training programmes for leaders in Australian universities, determined that a focus on competency offered limited potential for effective leadership support and development.

Amidst the changing dynamics of the higher education sector there has been a growing recognition of the equality, diversity and inclusivity issues surrounding leadership in recent years. While pressure has been applied to widen participation and access to higher education for students from all parts of society, some markers suggest that the sector may perform well in this area in relation to leadership representation. For example, in the UK social mobility studies suggest senior higher education leadership is not just the preserve of those who have been privately educated (Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission, 2019). However, other indicators highlight very poor or even little evidence of marginalized groups securing higher education leadership positions (Arday, 2018; Jarboe, 2016a, 2016b, 2018). Studies show significant under-representation of those with an ethnic heritage background and women in senior roles. These examples are not just evident in the UK but also across most countries (Acker, 2014; Harris & Leberman, 2012; Wroblewski, 2019).

Studies continue to highlight these diversity crises and some initiatives have emerged at both sectoral and organisational levels to address concerns. De Frank-Cole and colleagues (2014) studied the Women's Leadership Initiative based upon an internal coaching initiative and remarked upon the value of internal network building and personal development at the local level. Harris and Leberman (2012) studied the impact for senior women participating in a leadership programme in New Zealand, while Gallant (2014) used symbolic interactionism to examine perceptions and behaviours following a leadership development initiative. Both studies recognise there may be value in formal leadership and skill-based programmes but that, unless programmes attend to the social nature of leadership practice and are personalised, they may fail to tackle unconscious gendered views. Specific development initiatives for women higher education leaders in the UK include the Aurora programme developed by the Leadership for Higher Education (see mini case study 3). The evidence from these studies and initiatives is that coaching and mentoring often play a role in supporting leadership development for women, with some differentiation based on leadership level. Coaching is more likely to feature in programmes targeted at senior women leaders and mentoring predominates in junior level leadership programmes, where institutions in the UK commit to initiatives such as the Athena Swan charter (https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan-charter) pioneered by AdvanceHE.

The case for those of an ethnic heritage, already in or aspiring to higher education leadership, is less well advanced. Johns et al. (2019) offer a contemporary evaluation of initiatives in the UK higher education sector, specifically in relation to efforts to develop a deeper understanding of representation levels by race and ethnicity, and also the initiatives to tackle the shortfall in ethnic heritage leaders. They highlight the Cracking the Concrete Ceiling Report (Fook et al., 2019), the summits organised on Black and Minority Ethnic leaders and the Diversifying Leadership programme (Johns et al., 2019). The Diversifying Leadership programme mimicked the Aurora programme, again including a mentoring dimension alongside the modules. However, subsequent changes pointed to the value of a specific sponsorship approach to mentoring, with an emphasis on being able to pinpoint mentoring needs, developing mentoring skills and the potential of reverse mentoring to tackle the lack of awareness in the sector (Fook et al., 2019). Johns et al. (2019) also highlight that it was imperative to develop resources for institutions to support organisational stakeholders' ability to talk about race and ethnicity issues in order for participants to truly benefit from the programme. The Race Equality Charter Mark which is similar to Athena Swan offers a framework for institutions engaging in addressing racial and ethnic equality challenges.

Those with other protected characteristics also face challenges in achieving higher education leadership and access to leadership development opportunities. Lee (2021) recently explored a LGBTQ + leadership initiative for senior school leaders and identified how such a programme could be used to enhance LGBTQ + leadership prospects. Stonewall offers workplace accreditation of this aspect of inclusivity and specifically mentions the importance of addressing leadership development in its recognition framework. This evidence points to the importance of understanding the lived experiences of aspiring leaders and how their development can be facilitated and supported to reflect the diversity and inclusion aims of higher education institutions.

Reflecting on this overview of the challenges and factors facing higher education leadership development in relation to the four dimensions (learning orientation, temporal, economic and social) identified in Stokes and colleagues' (2021) framework, it appears that mentoring has been the touchstone intervention. In relation to the learning context dimension there is a suggestion of mentoring being the default approach over coaching due to the strong collegial culture of the sector. However, shifts in emphasis and growing ‘managerialism’ now mean that coaching for specific goals and behaviours may be more appropriate for senior leadership development. With respect to the economic dimension, informality appears to strongly favour mentoring, particularly for early stage leadership, coupled with an expectation that academics will reciprocate their mentoring experiences with new entrants. This proclivity for mentoring has then been institutionalised into standalone formal mentoring initiatives or mentoring opportunities within leadership development programmes. However, the calls for personalised support for leadership development amongst those at mid and senior leadership level suggest coaching is becoming more pertinent and popular. In addition, there is some evidence of a move to developing internal coaching capacity within higher education institutions, where the value of coaching is recognised but the expense of external coaches is difficult to evaluate and justify (Harding et al., 2018; Howlett et al., 2009).

The shifting time pressures evident in the sector also suggest that, while the mentoring discourse has been almost a default form of relational support, new time-focused demands suggest coaching is becoming a more appropriate form of development and support for senior leaders. Finally, the sociocultural dimension again favours the mentoring discourse initially. For example, the attempts to tackle sociocultural issues in the form of representation of marginalised groups in higher education leadership suggests working with someone who has experience and a similar background, typified through mentoring, may be more important. At the most senior levels of leadership the isolation of leadership roles may mean coaching support offers a tailored way to enhance leadership learning and capabilities.

Coaching for Higher Education Leaders

Coaching has been used in universities for several decades; however, arguably like many public service organisations the ‘sector does not appear to have fully explored the value of coaching, or the tools available to evaluate it’ (Harding et al., 2018, p. 8). A ream of studies (Cruz & Rosemond, 2017; Jackson, 2019; Kiel, 2017; Vlachopoulos, 2021) from higher education organisational development and human resource development practitioners as well as academics, and often those with dual backgrounds, point to the value of coaching but also the challenges of deploying coaching to support leaders and their institutions' wider development.

The individual benefits of coaching for university leaders highlight not only how personal skills are developed but also how the same leaders can go on to undertake peer and group coaching to support others and more broadly, the organisational development of higher education institutions. Cruz and Rosemond (2017) argue that leaders learning to coach others can foster more supportive work cultures and help achieve organisational change in the increasingly high pressure, competitive environment of higher education. Jackson's (2019) study of women leaders and their coaches highlighted how coaching can support authenticity in highly politicised and oppressive environments. In Bertrand's (2019) study of executive coaching amongst academic deans in the US, empathy, self-awareness and self-care (especially amongst female participants) were identified as outcomes. Bertrand (2019) argued that the impact of coaching demonstrates at the personal level individual changes are achieved, but that these changes can go on to support the realisation of organisational, or at least departmental, change. Participants themselves determined that their executive coaching proffered more accountability, continuity and personalisation resulting in their personal and professional growth.

Similar to Bertrand's (2019) findings that coaching helps higher education leaders to maintain open lines of communication, upstream and downstream, Gigliotti and Ruben (2017) identified coaching as enhancing communication skills and the capacity to build and realise a vision. Coaching was also seen to assist universities' most senior leaders to plan, implement and deliver strategic projects. Vlachopoulos (2021) studied external executive coaches working with senior higher education leaders in England and Wales, with the aim of understanding where coaching helps leaders develop and achieve institutional goals amidst significant sectoral changes. Broadly, the executive coach participants positioned themselves as critical and strategic partners, and like Bertrand's (2019) evidence, supportively maintained the focus and accountability of higher education leaders. The coaches in Vlachopoulos' (2021) study suggested that coaching played a key role in developing the soft skills of senior leaders, specifically honesty, responsibility, resiliency, creativity, proactivity and empathy. Vlachopoulos (2021) uses Taylor and colleagues’ (2019) insights to argue that ‘Executive coaches have been shown to be effective when collaborating to develop the so-called ‘psychological needs’ of the leader (competence, autonomy, and relatedness) through facilitating the leader’s ‘self-discovery and purposeful action’.’

In the North American context, Kiel (2017) argued for four basic strategies on how coaching could be used to overcome leadership barriers in higher education. First, he suggested leveraging existing coaching assets on campus, adding coaching to existing leadership programmes, building new internal coaching capacity and setting aside or raising funds to pay for professional coaching assistance. Indeed, such investments are seen to be appropriate where significant returns and contributions from coaching support for leaders is evident. One study in an English university found that returns on investment were reported from interviews with leaders who had been coached, where they were able to identify achievement of key indicators as well as broader benefits to their personal leadership and performance (Howlett et al., 2009). However, the evaluation of coaching is a contentious area. Dopson and colleagues (2019, p. 13) use the work of Ely and associates (2010) to identify that as coaching has very ‘diverse outcome measures, each different for individual clients’, there are challenges in being able to calculate, discern and analyse the overall impact of programmes.

Harding et al. (2018) undertook a multi-stage, mixed methods investigation of how coaching is deployed, organised and evaluated in UK higher education institutions. Their study reveals that while coaching is seen to offer benefits there is limited consistency on what it is and how outcomes might be anticipated. They also determined there was a disconnection between what is valued and what is measured in coaching. They called for clearer justification for, and targeting of, recipients of coaching; better signposting to best practice as well as recognition that some institutions were not yet ready for coaching. The team also develop a set of provocations to stimulate thinking and practice with the intention of supporting debate around an accepted set of professional standards for coaching and coaching evaluation in higher education institutions and beyond.

Another dimension of Harding and colleagues' (2018) study, which relates to both Kiel's (2017) and Vlachopolou's (2021) work, is the dilemma around how institutions might develop the skills, knowledge and capacity to deliver coaching for their leaders. Guccione and Hutchinson (2021) recognise this challenge and advocate that academics and administrators in universities will benefit from not only engaging in coaching (and mentoring) but from developing their own ability to coach and mentor. Several studies (Bertrand, 2019; Butler, 2020; Guccione & Hutchinson, 2021) advocate that the key capabilities of active listening, reflecting and questioning serve to enhance the skills set of any professional in the higher education environment. Callaghan (2022, p. 91) also argues that coaching skills amongst the higher education community have ‘the potential to lessen the pressure on academic managers to constantly give advice and solve other people's problems’. However, while developing coaching (and mentoring) skills sets may be a long-term ambition, broadly beneficial personally, and apposite to the harried nature of contemporary university work, some reliance on external coaches is likely to remain.

Vlachopoulos (2021), and other scholars have highlighted the value of external support in developing coaching capacity and in particular, for the coaching of the most senior leaders (Nadeem & Garvey, 2020). While examples exist of internal coaches supporting senior leaders' development in higher education institutions (Mathew & Hakro, 2022), other research suggests that being able to work with leaders at the most senior levels in universities requires significant skills and expertise and depth of experience (Nadeem & Garvey, 2020; Nadeem et al., 2021; Vlachopoulos, 2021). In their case study of a coaching programme for leaders in an Omani institution, Mathew and Hakro (2022; Hakro & Mathew, 2020) identify the initial employment of external coaches and the subsequent development of an internal coaching capability. Such an intervention, and how it supported the institution's leaders and the development of a collegial culture, was widely seen as beneficial. However, challenges of trust and understanding were evident where external coaches worked with leaders across a diverse range of cultural backgrounds and trust building took time.

These findings reinforce the diversity of coaching capabilities within higher education institutions, where some are at a much earlier stage of their understanding about the ways coaching can support leadership development and performance as part of organisational change and development. Mini case study one outlines one example from an UK institution, demonstrating an embedded approach to using coaching as a relational dialogue to address contemporary leadership, organisational and sectoral challenges. Significant, long-term and committed investment in coaching and organisational development practice sits at the very heart of such examples.

Mini Case Study 1: Systemic Leadership Coaching in an UK University

One UK post-1992 university adopts a ‘post-conventional’ approach to leadership coaching, seeing the world as inherently complex; with technological, environmental, and societal change moving at pace in a world that is both more connected and more disconnected. The Covid-19 pandemic brought this into sharper focus and resulted in a reorientation of leadership to shift and evolve ‘future fit’ leaders for a ‘future fit’ organisation. Based on the work of Stacey (2010) around leadership and complexity, and Flinn and Mowles' (2014) Stimulus Paper for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, the university sought to build organisational development programmes that support leaders to develop their practice and to pay attention to what they are doing and the conversations that they are having.

This approach was rooted in the idea around ‘coaching the spaces’ with individuals and senior teams and offering ‘the organisational consciousness’. In this way there was an intention to work with conscious awareness, the desires and dynamics of a complex system and in partnership to encourage a new way of being to build capacity for leaders, leadership and the organisation to be ‘fit for the future’. This meant the organisational development team worked with their leaders collectively when they are together as a leadership team, individually when they are apart.

In this ‘post-conventional coaching’ approach coaching, leadership supervision and leadership team coaching are integrated in the service of both individuals and the wider system of stakeholders of which they are a part. This includes the features of coaching: invitation, inquiry, listening into the system, noticing, reflecting, critical thinking and challenge, and harnesses them to create a socially dynamic dialogue. As part of this approach the organisational development team also evolved a ‘social operating model’, which is ultimately designed to be a ‘way of being’ within leadership teams that translates into the wider culture of the organisation and how leadership is experienced.

Using a psychometric tool that locates current strengths and limitations in a leader's decision-making process alongside supportive feedback, a deeper level of inquiry and the possibility for change is facilitated. This level of work enables illumination of individual leader and collective leadership blind spots. Leaders become more aware of how they experience leadership and how others experience their leadership, bringing to conscious awareness their leadership operating system and their growth edge, and whether they are realising their full potential. By building on the work of Stelter (2019) the team found leaders became more open to a different kind of dialogue - of shared reflection and meaning making - through understanding their relationships, their interactions and dialogues with others who are also part of their system.

The team also drew on Hawkins' (2015, 2020) and Hawkins and Turner (2020) leadership team coaching and systemic approaches to build high performing leadership teams that develop collective transformational leadership that creates value for their stakeholders. They were also informed by business systemic coaching that focuses on creating value for the individual client and their teams, the organisation that they work for, as well as the organisation's stakeholders and the wider communities and the ecology that the organisation is part of.

Our own experiences of coaching for senior leadership in higher education institutions identified team coaching as a prevalent contemporary intervention, and this is apparent in the wider coaching literature where team coaching has risen to prominence in recent years (Clutterbuck et al., 2019; Hawkins, 2015, 2020; Widdowson et al., 2020). Team coaching is generally seen as an intervention focused on team learning and development based around enhancing team performance in relation to a shared goal or vision (Jones et al., 2019; Widdowson et al., 2020). However, within team coaching there may be elements of team building, team facilitation and even one to one coaching too. Our experience of the contemporary challenges facing higher education suggests that senior teams will benefit from team coaching and that it has an important role to play alongside individual leadership coaching (Vlachopoulos, 2021). Our professional experiences, however, also recognise that there is a deficit in empirical studies and shared practice on team coaching, specifically in relation to higher education institutions. Remedying this deficit will help leaders within teams navigate their personal effectiveness in leadership teams and their institution's ability to meet current dilemmas. Mini case study two identifies another example of one university's response through an approach based upon both individual executive coaching and team coaching at vice-chancellor level. This approach delivered by external coaches ensured and enabled the university's values and goals to be exemplified by senior leaders and serve as role-modelled behaviours across the rest of the institution.

Mini Case Study 2 – Coaching the Senior Leadership of a UK University

The vice-chancellor of a UK university (mid-sized, mid-range) recognised that the speed and extent of the changes required in the institution would not happen unless the senior leaders were given developmental support. An external organisation was brought in to work with the vice-chancellor, their direct reports and some key positions reporting into them. Coaching was selected as the most appropriate intervention mechanism – both individual and team. Individual coaching commenced with 360 feedback collected on each person, the results of which were fed back to the individual coachee during one-to-one coaching sessions. Tripartite meetings with the coachee and their direct manager were conducted by the coach to ensure alignment on the development areas to be focused on in the coaching. The individual coaching enabled each person to increase their self-awareness and to begin to develop in their own specific areas of need.

After the initial individual coaching cycle of four sessions, the leadership team underwent a series of four, one day, team coaching sessions, the purpose of which was to support a more cohesive, interdependent and effective team. The sessions were highly experiential and comprised opportunities for making visible the dynamics that permeated the team, and to have subsequent conversations about how the team operated itself, not just about the subject matter. These sessions were only possible because of the safe space that the team coaching afforded and went much deeper than the usual transactional agendas allowed. As a consequence, some significant shifts occurred within the team – trust was increased enabling ‘real’ conversations to be had, reportedly for the first time. Practical solutions were negotiated and found; two people left – one for promotion, one took retirement. The team were able to role model behaviours that embodied the university's values, and they demonstrated the leadership they expected from the rest of the institution.

Mentoring for Higher Education Leaders

Mentoring, in particular the informal variation, has been seen as an intrinsic approach to supporting the development of academic staff throughout the evolution of higher education (Alkhatanai, 2021; Carmel & Paul, 2015; Carr et al., 2015; Collins et al., 2014; Okurame, 2008). However, there was traditionally less focus on mentoring as supporting leadership development in the university sector (Woodd, 1997). The literature points to the value accrued from mentoring for personal and leadership development and career attainment (Hill & Wheat, 2017; Reis & Grady, 2020; Searby et al., 2015), but sources also identify access to informal mentoring may be denied to certain groups (for example, marginalised groups). Concerns for increasing accessibility and enhancing diversity and inclusivity have encouraged many higher education institutions to adopt formal mentoring initiatives as remedies so that issues of bias and patronage are tackled (Tolar, 2012; Tran, 2014). It is also important to recognise that not all academic disciplines expect senior academics to consistently demonstrate the skill sets and aptitudes to develop others. As Butler (2020, p. 433) identifies, there is value in leadership development programmes explicitly including training on ‘relationship building, mentoring, networking and shadowing of colleagues to support academic leadership’.

Meschitti and Lawton Smith (2017, p. 166) framed mentoring as ‘an exclusive relationship in which a more experienced person provides strategic advice to facilitate the professional and personal development of another, less experienced one’ in their study of mentoring for women academics. However, they recognised that mentoring can be confused with other academic activities (such as supervision) and was often not consistently conceptualised. The conceptualisation of mentoring is tricky where forms of mentoring have evolved, not only from the informal to formal but due to the emergence of different types of mentoring, such as reverse, reciprocal, sponsorship, group, peer and self-mentoring, both generically and within the higher education context (Carr et al., 2015; Collins et al., 2014; Searby et al., 2015).

Deploying different forms of mentoring in support of leadership development appears worthwhile and can even be seen to ferment departmental and institutional change (Mendez et al., 2017; Tran, 2014). However, the literature also suggests multiple relationships across one's career (Murphy & Kram, 2014) are crucial, in particular for leaders, or aspiring leaders with protected characteristics (Alkhatanai, 2021; Carr et al., 2015; Chang et al., 2014; Hill & Wheat, 2017; Mendez et al., 2017; Reis & Grady, 2020; Tran, 2014). Mentoring relationships which were initially formal often become informal when mentees complete specific programmes. While this may be a positive dimension and offer long term support it also has significant implications where senior leaders are expected to maintain significant mentoring responsibilities, formally and informally, but without recognition of these investments.

Mentoring has been used to support sector wide leadership development initiatives by AdvanceHE, such as the Aurora programme (see mini case study 3) and the Diversifying Leadership programme. These initiatives are purposefully aimed at the early stages of leadership development. However, as researchers have found some institutions offered limited support at the local level to mentors and mentees (Barnard et al., 2021), and particular forms of mentoring, such as sponsorship and advocacy variations, where mentors are able to nominate mentees for assignments, promotions and other career opportunities (Mendez et al., 2017; Searby et al., 2015).

Mini Case Study 3. Mentoring Within the AdvanceHE Aurora Programme

AdvanceHE is a sector focused charity based in the UK which supports higher education and research across the world. As part of their aim to ‘enhance confidence and trust in HE, address systemic inequalities and advance education’ (AdvanceHE website) they run a series of development initiatives for different levels of higher education human resources and specific groups.

Aurora is AdvanceHE's leadership development initiative for women, which has included more than 8,300 women across 200 different institutions in the UK and Ireland since its inception. While the programme itself incorporates sessions focused on Identity, Impact & Voice, Core Leadership, Politics and Influence and Adaptive leadership skills, all Aurora participants also have a mentor from their home institution to support them during the programme.

More recently, AdvanceHE has offered institutions further guidance on identifying, supporting and developing mentees and mentors. This guidance was updated in AdvanceHE's Aurora enhancement project based upon recognition of the very different levels of engagement and capacity for mentoring support across the sector.

Source: www.advance-he.ac.uk/programmes-events/aurora.

The Aurora programme example highlights not only the value of different stakeholders within the sector working together to address inequalities and enhance leadership development opportunities but also the challenges of ensuring consistency of experience where institutions may have different priorities and levels of maturity in their human resource and organisational development strategies and practices.

Conclusions and Recommendations

It is evident that coaching and mentoring can contribute to leadership development in the harried world of higher education institutions. However, there is no straightforward recipe for their use. By deploying Stokes et al.'s (2021) framework we can recognise shifts towards coaching approaches because of increased time pressures (temporal context), greater performance orientation (learning context) and further focus on formal activities (economic context). However, these suggested shifts exist amidst a well-established orientation towards informal mentoring in the universities sector in the earlier stages of university careers. There is also seen to be prevalent use of mentoring in early-stage leadership development initiatives, particularly in initiatives targeting those with protected characteristics. This evidence strongly aligns with the socio-cultural context of the framework.

Acknowledging that mentoring and coaching are both still evolving approaches and practices is important in our evaluation of their contribution to higher education leadership development. The multiple forms, developing skills-sets and capabilities, and evidence of impact for coaching and mentoring mean, as commentators (Harding et al., 2018; Meschitti & Lawton Smith, 2017) reflect, that it is a challenge to identify their effective delivery, design and implementation in institutions. The heterogeneous nature of the sector further complicates how coaching and mentoring will be understood, accepted and engaged by the variety of stakeholders. Our final mini case study four highlights the uncertainty that can be evident, where parties are resistant or feel excluded from initiatives for change and development (Callaghan, 2022; Okurame, 2008).

More research to assist practitioners address change agendas through participative developmental relationships is needed. Some institutions reliance on informal practices, and concerns over effective evaluation and return on investment for formal interventions, mean there is a paralysis on the most fitting coaching and mentoring initiatives for their different levels of leaders now and in the future. Contrarily, other institutions commit to investments and develop the capacity to achieve embedded systemic initiatives. We recognise the significance of institutions being able to rally organisational development, people management and senior leadership as well as key academic and professional service staff to determine what is meaningful in relation to coaching and mentoring investments in support of leadership development.

Mini Case Study 4. Uncertainty Around Coaching and Mentoring Within UK Higher Education Institutions

Whilst coaching and mentoring have both seen exponential recognition in the last two decades, mentoring is still the most common feature of staff support within higher education. Coaching is treated more cautiously, largely seen as being more beneficial if external resources are brought in and perceived as an expense, not an investment. Excerpts from two coaching discussions highlight these perceptions:

I'm not sure that coaching always adds value to the organisation though there can be times when it might be useful for focusing on aspects, like a new Board placement. It depends how considered it is and crucially who makes that decision. The right coach will help unquestionably.


The skill is in getting the right coach and institutions don't think about the amount of work behind the scenes. The sponsor should have detailed knowledge at many levels as to what is required and what's right for the institution, the individual, the line manager. Expensive doesn't equate as excellent. The right coach can help but the cost and exposure of getting the wrong coach is an issue that must be considered carefully.

This quotation is taken from a real encounter in a coaching relationship within a university in England. The specific discussion focus was how to navigate the current milieu against the unprecedented change within higher education. Against this backdrop, coaching was regarded as helpful where the external experience of the coach was deemed invaluable:

It's helpful to have someone to talk to who doesn't know the particulars and I can talk to confidentially. Higher education has changed and there are so many changes coming. Talking to someone who knows about strategy really helps.

Trust and psychological safety in the work environment are fundamental for coaching to be successful (Kets de Vries & Balazs, 2010) and the excerpts highlight the issues of establishing coaching within an institution.

A critical aspect of supporting organisational change and survival in the sector involves senior leaders' engagement with the wider organisation, where the rest of the academic community feel marginalised by senior leadership decision-making (Heffernan, 2022; Vlachopoulos, 2021). Only by building upon existing mentoring practices, then offering differentiated mentoring approaches fitting for the specific institution and constructing selective coaching support for different levels of senior leaders, individually and as teams, might higher education institutions develop the leaders they need. However, no one blend of coaching and mentoring is likely to be appropriate. There is a need for more in-depth research and sectoral sharing of practices, as well as recognition of the evaluation and impact issues of coaching and mentoring to be articulated. The success of such tailored approaches at the institutional and individual leadership level may only gain traction where change is embraced in cultures of transparency, trust and safety. Current pressures on senior leaders make such cultures more difficult to achieve; however, there is hope. Often where coaching and mentoring do gain a footing, the agency and support offered to leaders, and their heightened ability to engage in active listening, accountability and person-centred focus can as a minimum resolve existing tensions, and leverage space for honest conversations around common challenges.

This positive note can be further built upon so that practitioners, leaders and scholars are at least well placed to work collegially to identify relevant contemporary ways coaching and mentoring can be deployed and actively engaged with, to develop leaders in the sector. More people and organisational development specialists understand the pressures facing the academic community as well as the wider strategic issues facing higher education. We advocate wider participation in research and the sharing of good practice on coaching and mentoring, especially the newer variations of team coaching, reciprocal mentoring to address specific issues related to diversity in leadership and effective collaborative leadership in senior teams. Our final word goes to those who are leaders or aspiring leaders in the sector. Our experiences, research and review of the literature highlight the value of engaging with relational development opportunities; whether as formal or informal mentoring, or coaching, to be able to understand your own leadership abilities and support those around you in service to the wider demands of the sector and society.


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