#2 The coach has some great questions for your answers

The coach has some great questions for your answers.

Today's leaders can't have all the answers; that's why coaching is so effective.  Long time coach, Mandy Dunn, talks about how she uses her experience as a school principal to tap into the needs of the people she coaches by assisting them gain clarity, regain energy and find focus.



#2 Mandy Dunn

Coach with Growth Coaching International

You're listening to Loretta Piazza, experienced school, principal, mentor, and coach, and together we're 'talking out of school'. You will hear from leaders who have lived and breathed so many experiences, agonized over decisions and have tossed and turned through countless sleepless nights. These are the people who will help you stay ahead of the game.


According to Tom Landry, Texas born professional gridiron football coach, a coach is someone who has you see what you don’t want to see so that you can be who you have always known you could be.  Well I’d go a step further and say that a coach will help you see what you can’t see.  This is why coaching is such a powerful tool.  In today’s episode we get the indepth perspective of a very experienced coach, Mandy Dunn, who works with Growth Coaching International. Mandy tells us about solution-based coaching, the importance of building trust and she explains how she empowers her clients by asking the right questions.

Interview with Mandy Dunn

Loretta Piazza:  Hi, Mandy, welcome to talking out of school. Now your background and history is in coaching, but prior to that, you were a principal for a long time. So how long were you with the education department?

Mandy Dunn: Oh, golly. I was with the education department for probably 45 years, but about, um, 15 ish years as a principal and, and five years as a system leader.

L: So for a fair amount of time, more recently though, you're an accredited coach and you do coaching, but I'm really interested in your time as a principal. And I understand that you sought out a coach to actually work with you. Now, how did you know to do something like that given that coaching wasn't really the in-thing for principals back then?

M: Good question, Loretta. Back, it was the end of last century when I was first appointed as a principal, and at that point, um, I probably, I needed someone. I just knew I needed someone to talk to, someone who would be confidential, a sounding board and someone who was…. coaching wasn't the word then. But, um, this person was actually a psychologist, but was a coach as well.nNow I knew him previously and knew he would be the right person. So I had trust and the relationship with him because it worked in my previous school. And, um, so I approached him and we would meet. About once a term, I think, and I kept in contact with him. Um, over a 10 year period, especially when I needed to, um, revisit to, to, to think about my, my messages, my, my purpose, my moral purpose, what was going to be my focus that year. And I used him at different points in my career for different….

L: Now you're a very experienced coach. And looking back to that coaching experience that you had then, was it similar or the same, or was it different?

M: Similar, the same end, different probably all of, all of those things. Well, each was, as I say, you've got to build the relationship. We had a good relationship. Um, I knew that I was probably easy to coach and some people are. And I just needed the time and the space to think. And for someone to sort through my thinking, to give me clarity about what I needed to do, and that's what I did for a range of reasons, some for my own health and wellbeing, some because I needed that sense of purpose are as I spoke about. And sometimes because I had difficulty maybe managing people, cause it was a fairly difficult situation. So, um, yeah, same different. And we, we met, um, we met in strange places, Flinders street station, which is now Southern cross. Um, we used to meet there because that was convenient. We did mostly face-to-face in those days. And so there was a bit of travel with the travel gave me time to think as well, but to and from, so if you know, it's really worthwhile, so some bits, but with time the relationship was strong. Some bits were different because this person came from a different background and some, what was the other question saying? Well, whatever. Yes. All of the above.

L: And I suppose, while you were experiencing all of that as a principal, you would have launched into a bit of mentoring and coaching as a principal with your own staff. Am I, am I right in thinking that?

M:  Yeah, you're right. Because I knew that the value of coaching, I went and did it a coaching qualification. So that probably triggered um, awareness or that level of understanding about impact you could have with people. So my role as a principal probably changed more than anything. In that, uh, in the conversations I could have with people having a different hat on, you know, the coaching hat or the mentoring hat and being there to help. I suppose it's a sense of, of helping people become better to do their work better.

L: Wonderful. So when someone approached you and needed some sort of support or advice or whatever, because something was happening to them, how did you know whether to be a mentor or a coach? Because as principals we’re great mentors. We do that all the time. Coaching has a, a different nuance. So how did you know how to approach the situation and help your staff members?

M: So knowing the person and being interested in their development, um, and asking them coaching questions brings on their development. Mentoring, um, is not always needed. So having that conversation where you are, uh, not, not, um, delving into the problem, but looking for solutions and looking with, looking at the situation to get a good idea of what the issue was, then exploring the options rather than telling the mentoring telling is the big difference with a mentor. You need a mentor at times to tell you how to do things. To help you orientate to a new role. There's a purpose for mentoring. There's a purpose. Sometimes in the coaching work I do to tell someone, um, you know, that something that would be helpful, but with coaching, it's really about, really about, um, bringing it on that self-awareness that responsibility to do something about it. And then the continued conversations should have, so they're often not one-offs and they're often even if it's a 10 minute conversation. It could be then a follow up the next week. How'd you go with that? Tell me what went well, what didn't go well, what would you do next time? It's those interactions and that coaching approach you have, rather than a coaching conversation, all coaching approach.

L: Can you tell us a little bit more about, well, building that coaching approach?  Is, is more about the, um, the way of being you have with people, the curiosity you bring, that sense of partnership with people, rather than the telling people what to do.

M: It's a, it's a genuine, genuine interest, a sense of being humble too, and, and investment in that person. So you bringing a it's, it's a, it's sort of a nebulous thing to identify, but it's lots of qualities and stuff. And awareness of the environment that you bring so that you create a safe, comfortable environment to someone to share some things that are sometimes quite….So you need to bring, um, a strong sense of, um, trust and confidentiality. Um, all those qualities you bring to a conversation, which is hard as a principal because you, you don't have a lot of time. So you've got to quickly switch from wanting to bring that parent back or do whatever you need to do and think what is important I need to do now with that person, or do I need to make another time to have a conversation? So they're really rich conversations where you've got to tell me more about that go deep into, into what's happening so that you can then explore some outcomes that they want to get to from that conversation.

L: So reflecting on what it was like back then when you were a principal and all that knowledge and experience and expertise that you have gained along the way and what you're like today, if you were to go back into a school as a principal and engage in coaching, how would it be different?

M: Well, it would be different cause I know more now. And I'll tell you what, I would have trouble going back into the principal role now, just with what, what has, um, what is the principal's role now and the learning…..

L: I have to tell you, Mandy not much has changed…..

M: Okay. So what would change would be a very strong sense of creating that environment, the trust and the relationships. Number one, that sense of letting people know that you're there to help them become as good as they can be in their role, and to allow people that time that they may need. Now, it may not be just the principal doing this, and I think larger schools that bring on a coaching approach in a school, it's the range of conversations you're having. So, um, a lot of schools have learning specialists who have a coaching role and other people in a school have a coaching role. So on that continuum of coaching, you've got quite direct conversations in that mentoring sphere and you have pure coaching conversations on the other end and a whole mix of conversations along the way. So I would be building an environment that would promote a range of those coaching conversations you would be having in a school.

L: Do you think it's a good idea for principals to actually coach their staff, given that a principal is a leader and is the overarching authority in this?

M: That’s another really good question. I think a principal could be a coach, definitely, um, but not of many people if it was a pure coaching approach you were having, because that would be really time-intensive. Yes, you could do it. But all would be building a coaching approach where you would be having, um, building, building those conversations that you would be having with people using a coaching approach rather than just being, as I said, being curious, ‘tell me more about that;  What do you think you can do to solve it?’ having more a solution focused approach to conversations rather than pure coaching of people.  You would hope that as a principal, you would be having other people who would be doing that to improve their, their teaching capacity, their, their, whatever they wanted to improve in their professional sphere.

L: You just mentioned a new term solution focused.  What's that? Is that different:

M: No, it’s just another, it's a, it's a way of coaching using, um, look, I, I think I used to have solution-focused, um, posters in my, in my office as a principal. So it's definitely not new. It's used in psychology. It's generally, it's a very simple approach in many ways. It's just around creating that platform for people to dive off and, um, explore the possibilities and come up with solutions and some movement towards what they want. It's it's, it's, it's just having that, that frame of reference around improvement and how you can, where you want to be, and, and creating these small signs and counters, we call them to, to move them along.

It's very small. Um, and identify what those small steps are to, um, what they do after you have the conversation.

L: Now, um, if you and I were to sit down for a coaching session, you're my coach. I'm the coachee. What could I expect to hear, say, think, feel?

M: Good question. Well, I would hope you wouldn't hear me talking much. I would hope that you would hear some silence. It's a strange thing to say here, silence, but here's some silences which would mean that I've asked a question that's encouraged some really deep thinking. I would hope that you would hear a bit of laughing. You would see eye contact, you would see the person being really comfortable.vYou would, um, you would hear some questions that I think I said that before that promote thinking, you will hear a sense of concern. A sense of empathy. You would, you would get a sense that on sifting through what they're saying to, to then paraphrase it back to make sure I'm clear about what it is that they're wanting or doing or saying. And you would hear some excitement and energy at the end where they're ready to go some motivation, because coaching's about actions, clarity, and so hopefully, hopefully you're getting a sense of that, of the clarity, the actions that the person's going to take from that session and the energy that, or the motivation they've got to go and do something. There's a little bit of accountability there because they know you're going to get back to them next session. So, so they, they know. So, um, and these are only small steps they're taking. It can be a very small, very small action that can make it have a big impact for them either personally. Or for whatever it is around their goal, their improvement area.

L: Well, I hate to tell you, Mandy, I'm an absolute dud and I'm thoroughly exhausted. How are you going to help me move on from this? Because I can't come up with any ideas, any solutions.

M: Sometimes that can happen. People still will make contact for a session and feel brain dead. Although it is better to make it when that, to make a time when they are feeling at their best, but that's not always going to be the case. So there's lots of tools you can use to, to, as I say, sift through, I use things like, well, what words are coming into your head? Different questions. I use a bicycle wheel as a bit of a symbol and get them to write a word in each of the prongs of the wheel. I also, um, get them to think about a time when things were working well for them. Think of, think of somebody they know that may have had this problem before and how they solved it. And then at the end, maybe offering them some, some possible options or suggestions if they're really stuck. So you're looking at a range of responses. Going from what have you done this before? If he does something similar to this before, do you know someone who's done something like this before or this before, and then would you like some suggestions from me? And it would be suggestions that would be around maybe, something that I've seen someone do. Not all suggestions about me from me, if you know what I mean. So I'm not telling. I'm using a different frame of reference and it could be just a website. It could be, have you thought of doing this? Have you thought of doing that? Okay. What is it, what is it, do you think you're going to do now? What will be your first step after we leave this conversation?

L: It’s certainly a skill, isn't it? To, to elicit that sort of information from…

M: They’re coming to you because they want to, they're coming there, they're having these sessions because they've identified something that they want to work on. Otherwise they wouldn't be there. So there's a sense of a purpose around why they're there. So you really invested in them and that generosity of spirit comes through coaching and the unconditional positive regard you have for that person. You remove all judgment.  You're just there for them to listen, to get them to build their awareness. So sometimes there's a bit of reflection in there for them. You know, why do you think that worked? What strengths do you bring ? A lot around their strengths, identifying their strengths, using their strengths. You're always coming from a positive mindset rather than a negative mindset. It's that, that that's the difference between problem-based and being solution-based. You're using a positive mindset all the time. Even the first question you ask and they want to launch in with how bad are things.

L: Yeah. I was going to ask you, I guess, especially with principals, you know, with lots going on, is it that natural tendency of theirs to say, oh, this is happening or that person's annoying me or….

M: Yeah, they they're wanting to solve a problem. So before they start, you've got to launch into something. You know, what you're proud of in the last few weeks, what's something that's really that's been positive. Or if you try to start the conversation in a positive way, um, and then they can go to whatever is the, the, the issue they've had. And often there are a number of things that come up in a coaching session that aren't necessarily around the goal, but it's around improving their health and wellbeing. It could be around improving, um, oh, a range of things that run alongside their goal. Their goal could be around school improvement. It could have been around, you know, um, something like, yeah, that school improvement being an instructional leader, something around that, but there's going to be other things. Managing difficult conversations comes up often. Um, all the time and oh yeah. Yeah. Managing conversation, managing difficult conversations is probably number one.

L: I know, I reckon that one comes up a lot because we have that trust and that respect for, well, generally we have that respect for people and then to deliver something really unpleasant or unpalatable is very difficult for us. We just don't want to do that.

M: Yes, that's right. Yep. Yeah. So I suppose again, it's looking at that person's strengths, even talking through a script that's going to help using, um, some, some, um, coach, even coaching resources to enable um, to work through that conversation. I know the, um, what's the program that Bastow ran a few years ago that had remarkable impact on people? Oh, I can't remember the name of it, but just calming it down, scripting it out, getting them to, to plan ahead. Just relieves that pressure so much for them. I'm not telling them what to do or say, it's just asking the questions. Well, what do you think you would do first, or flipping it and saying, if you were that person, what do you think you would like the principal to be, to be, so flipping it sometimes creates a bit more empathy and sometimes just the fear of working, working through that conversation and thinking it through just helps person clarify it for them.

L: Earlier you mentioned that there are silences. That would be really difficult. I mean, I don't know about you, but when I'm not talking and I'm only listening, it can be sometimes quite uncomfortable. So how do you get through that?

M: Well, I used to coach on the phone before they, they brought in zoom and all these interactive, but I think zoom in and being interactive is fantastic. But on the phone, there would often be silences. And when you, you are not face, face-to-face, it's easier because you know, your eyes wander. Um, you could see the thinking. So when there's a silence on the phone, I let it go. And then when the person comes back, I'll say something like I knew you were thinking, I let you let you let the conversation go. Just wait. And it could seem like ages. It's not, it's sometimes only about three seconds. It just gives the person that time. Well, they may say, ah, that's a good question. So you wait and you wait, don't jump in. A lot of patience needed really good listening skills.

L:  And that's how you build empathy as well. That way of being. What are some of the highs for you?

M: Oh, many, many, many, many highs. Seeing their successes, seeing the joy in and the pleasure they get out of achieving their goal, because often at the last session I will go through, let's say, let's look back at what you set your goal or your focus area as, and are you scaling a lot? So scaling, we may have scaled at the start in terms of, you know, on a scale of one to 10, where do you think you were and then where do you think you are now? Sense of achievement accomplishment? Yes, I've got that goal. Sometimes it can happen early on though. It doesn't have to happen at the end of the cycle. The pleasure, the response you get back from people…I need to talk to you now. Um, you know, that you know, that they value the time they really value the time they've had with you. It doesn't go on forever. It's there for a reason and there's been highs. There's been lots of people get, get promotions, lots of people uh, things get better for themselves, either being in their health and wellbeing, even leaving the job, if that's the decision that they come to. So, um, it's empowering them in seeing that empowerment for them to be able to then make decisions.

L: Well, having been in education for so long and a principal as well, you have fantastic knowledge about how schools work. I'm sort of thinking if you didn't have that background knowledge, would you still be an effective coach as you are now?

M: It helps. I, I think I could have coached people in, not, not just in education in other organizations and the first coaching training I did wasn't um, in education at all, it was for coaching that could work in across all spheres. So it wasn't that leadership type coaching. Having experience helps because you're already up the ladder in terms of trust and, and respect. They already know that you've been there. And I often get that when you were a principal, you would know this or, um, you would understand this, so you you're automatically given a sense of, she gets me or he gets me, he understands, or she understands what this is like. So coming from the same career background helps. It doesn't have to be though, because it's about the questions. It's the power of the questions that are going to drive the, the action.

L: So where to now?

M: This year with the, um, with Bastow the ducation department in Victoria, um, our contract, we have, we've had coaching quite a lot of coaching this year, and there's quite a few new coaching programs in 2022 through Bastow that are attached to programs. So it'd be coaching about the learning in the program, which is another new learning, well, not a  new learning for me, but it's a different way of coaching because it's connected to a learning. So it will be paced alongside what they're doing.

L: So will it be coaching specifically around something that principals are doing and elements of their work and their learning?

M: One of, one of them's, um, around school improvement and the other one's around student engagement.

L: If I asked you to sum up coaching what it is in, in a sentence….

M: Well, it's, it's a conversation. A trusted conversation you're having with someone that's going to make your life better. There you go. It's really simple.

L: Yeah. Well, I mean, that's sometimes simple is best. Isn't it? What advice would you give to principals? At any stage of their career regarding coaching?

M: If you are looking for a tool to use, to, um, improve what you're doing, try coaching

L: Fantastic. You’re certainly a really good advertisement for coaching. In this series I've spoken to quite a few people around mentoring. And also coaching. And what stands out for me is, and my thinking has changed I have to be honest, that it's less, uh, less about the label, whether it's coaching or mentoring, but more about how I can help the person who needs clarification or, you know, who just needs to move on with their thinking. So that's been a really great mind shift for me. And I'm hoping that it comes through in this series of podcasts because it's, it's been quite an aha moment for me, I've got to say, and people like you have really enabled people like me to really get to the heart of coaching. So from my point of view, thank you very much. Thank you for your time. And I have no doubt that our listeners have gained lots and also about you as a person and your belief and your efficacy, and having been a principal we understand that, you know, you wanted the best for your kids and for your staff and for people generally, but now you've moved into coaching. And it's exactly the same thing. The people that you're working with, you want the very best for them. So that's wonderful. So thank you very, very much, and I wish you all the best in your future endeavours.

M: Thanks Loretta. Bye.

Thanks for listening to this latest episode of talking out of school, where we cover topics and dilemmas associated with the ups and downs, and even the downright curious of the school leaders job. Want to know more? Then visit me at www.shapingleaders.com.au

But for now here’s to staying ahead of the game.