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"Calling, calling… all independent schools"

OvationXL's 2016/17 results of our annual survey of one-on-one leadership coaching and mentoring themes raised by Heads plus other members of SMT/SLT

This year has been our busiest on record - by some margin.

We have worked with schools from the West Country to North Yorkshire and from the East to the West. We have worked with Heads, Deputy Heads, Bursars plus HoFs/HoDs. We have also worked in Belgium, Qatar and Malaysia.


The total list of coaching themes raised runs into many hundreds though these are the most popular:

1st. Greater self-awareness plus self-empowerment. Personal impact – the good points plus the bad points that require more work. Eliminating ambiguity. Building consensus, gravitas and resilience. Active listening (sadly a common weakness shared by most human beings). Language filters. Body language. Ten common words that are banned for the rest of one’s life. Detailed comparative analysis of one’s natural communication style with that of 300+ leaders. (Raised 26 times)

2nd. Greater understanding amongst SMT. Fostering mutual respect and trust. Working with different types of colleague with greater empathy. Making the most of senior role. (Raised 18 times)

3rd. Prioritisation of effort. Waste of time management. Proactive and precise forward planning. Setting own KPIs. Different ways to manage ‘to do’ lists. Practical steps for starting, processing or completing initiatives (many stumble over one of these). Timely delivery/completion of tasks plus elimination of procrastination. More effective processes for crossing items off one’s lists. (Raised 16 times)

4th. Life/work balance. Setting refreshed goals. True sense of purpose going forward. Mitigating guilt. No longer feeling trapped. (Raised 14 times)

5th=. Self-development to become a Head/Deputy Head. Proven interview skills to succeed. Succession planning. Leaving behind a lasting legacy. (Raised 9 times)

5th=. Different leadership styles. Leadership toolkit. Becoming a stronger, more reliable and pivotal lead. Situational leadership. Authentic leadership. Intent-based leadership. Whole team personal development. Balanced scorecard. (Raised 9 times)

7th=. Dealing with negativity in self and others. Reframing. Addressing natural pessimism, being overwrought and tetchy. Low esteem. (Raised 8 times)

7th=. Reducing stress by 10%. Improved coping mechanisms. Moving on from difficult situations. Fear of failure. Making one's job enjoyable again. (Raised 8 times)

7th=. Less mulling over. More direct action. Bolder decision taking. Taking more risk. Change management. Opinion forming skills. No longer delayed by endless consultation by weighing up every argument and counter argument. Avoidance of being perceived as a naysayer or blocker to progress. (Raised 8 times)

10th=. Delivering bad news. Dealing with underperformance/low morale in one’s department. Having difficult conversations. New ways to speak to difficult parents or departmental colleagues who have different leadership styles to one’s own. Lobbying. Reaching acceptable compromises. Healthy and timely communications. The dinosaur theory. (Raised 7 times)

10th=. Protecting self from introversion. Less emotionally drained. Managing emotions/moodiness/stomping. Overly sensitive/emotional detachment. (Raised 7 times)

10th=. Health and wellbeing. Manage energy dips. Lose weight. Fitness. Sleep deeper/longer. Getting personal finances in order. Standing desks. Correcting posture. Healthier approach to nutrition. Addressing addictions. (Raised 7 times)

13th=. Influence and negotiation skills. Persuading teams/Trustees/Governors/Committees to one’s way of thinking quicker (useful when negotiating with parents who have expectations for their sons and daughters that are at odds with reality). Am I too candid or too reticent? (Raised 6 times)

13th=. Efficacy of meetings. Explicit outcomes and accountability. How to plan and run more effective meetings so that colleagues want to attend and actively contribute, rather than turning up and tapping their pencils. (Raised 6 times)

13th=. Public speaking. Ways to increase empathy with one’s audience. How to plan and deliver a presentation. Bolstering stage presence. Less nerves. (Raised 6 times)

16th=. Refined email protocol. Spending less time on them. Self-organisation of work practices and in-tray. (Raised 5 times)

16th=. Strategic (and commercial) thinking. Restoration of optimal numbers in the school. Marketing and registrar methodologies. Visionary thinking. Developing key messages plus how and when to use them. Broader long-term thinking beyond day-to-day action to positively impact on department/faculty/whole school. Creating a reputation of national significance. Walking about more/not stuck behind one's desk. (Raised 5 times)

16th=. Developing the team. Composition and structure. Delegating in the most efficient ways. (Raised 5 times)

16th=. Giving and receiving feedback fairly and constructively. Lessening defensiveness. Refinement of annual appraisal processes (particularly an issue for teachers of non-academic subjects such as sport, music and art - HoDs often rant about the inappropriateness of ‘standard’ school formats). Different ways to provide feedback to people who might not welcome such feedback. Problems of only giving good feedback. Observation and intervention at the right time to raise performance levels and clear the air. (Raised 5 times)

16th=. Imposter syndrome. When am I going to be found out? (Raised 5 times)

How does OvationXL’s 1-2-1 leadership coaching work?


30 – 45 minute meeting with the Head, at no cost to the school and without obligation.

We discuss how other schools are benefiting from coaching plus how to select candidates, as there are useful tips to share. Personal development is ranked highly by most teachers.

The Head then discusses the coaching concept with the candidate(s) in mind. Some Heads start the initiative with a single candidate, whilst others start with two or more. The Head then talks to me about what the specific benefits would be for the school and for the candidate.


A short confidential questionnaire is emailed to each candidate. This takes up five minutes of their time plus up to 20 extra minutes in thinking time. Their answers help me craft relevant questions ahead of the all-important ‘pre-session’, which is designed to establish rapport and help mitigate entirely natural fears or scepticism.


45 minute to one hour ‘pre-session’ with the candidate, again at no cost to the school and without obligation. During the last 14 years only three candidates have backed off at this point (none since 2010). Even the most sceptical candidates soon recognise the potential benefits to the school and to themselves. The ‘pre-session’ format has been developed over many years to precisely articulate valuable areas to work on during the live sessions. Candidates invariably find their ‘pre-session’ invigorating, therapeutic and thought provoking, even though the coaching proper has not yet begun.


Coaching sessions are entirely bespoke and carefully planned out to produce impact and sustainable results.

Between the ‘pre-session’ and Session One, I prepare approximately eight coaching themes in longhand that the candidate scores and edits in particular ways during their first session, along with other tasks.

After each session the candidate receives between 15 and 30 pages of bespoke notes that record the main points discussed along with any agreed action points/deadlines. The notes that follow Session One compares the candidate’s leadership and communication style with that of over 350 other leaders that I have coached over the last 10 years. Quality leadership coaching is about achieving tangible results. To provide hard evidence, please read the full set of over sixty attributed recommendations that candidates have posted on Linked In.

My style is sensitive though has to be direct. I strive to make the initiative enjoyable for the candidate as this helps the learning process – though tough truths have to be taken on board. When I began coaching leaders back in 2000, most of my candidates were described as ‘remedial’. These days much of my work is with the stars who need to progress to their next level by overcoming certain engrained rough edges. Good quality leadership coaching is motivational and increases loyalty, effectiveness and happiness. The Heads of several famous independent schools have worked with me for years and frequently refer me to other Heads.