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  • Sherry St. Clair

Why a Listening Tour is Step 1 of Coaching

Leadership is the heart, coaching is the work, and listening is the key


One of the great joys of my work as an instructional coach—first as and administrator and coach to teachers and now as a consultant to instructional leaders—is the privilege of meeting educators all over the world who know nothing is more important than keeping students first—even if they are struggling with how best to do so. Recently in my work, I had my first meeting with an assistant superintendent who shared recent survey data that only 53 percent of their elementary students liked school. He was crestfallen, as he and his team care deeply that students develop a love of learning.

In talking to this educator, I was reminded of an article I’d read in Harvard Business Review where Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh wrote of his effort to turn the company around. When he joined Levi’s in 2011, Levi’s had been losing money for ten years. The brand had lost relevance in an industry with countless new competitors. Bergh realized that if he was going to devise a solution, he first needed to diagnose the problem.

Bergh understood that every employee was an invaluable resource because each knew more about the company than he did. He spent an hour with each of the top sixty executives and held town halls to ask employees questions and listen to learn from them. He also listened to consumers. The insights he gained from listening to how they perceived the brand and used the clothes were so powerful, one even lead to the company’s new tagline.

At the end of his listening tour, Bergh was educated enough to see the root cause of problems and a vision for their solutions. Consumer insights also showcased how the company could evolve to meet their needs.

Importantly, Bergh spoke to all key stakeholder groups. Had he spoken only to employees, his strategic plan might have solved corporate problems; but it would have failed to design clothes consumers wanted. Had he spoken only to consumers, he might have suggested a plan to offer clothing they wanted; but without also addressing company problems, the change would’ve had only so much impact. In either scenario, only so much growth would be possible before hitting a ceiling.

The benefit of studying leadership and the business world hit me years ago when I was an administrator in charge of instructional coaching. My teachers were making progress but then hitting ceilings. To understand why, I began talking to teachers, administrators, students, their families, and even some community members. In learning from them, it became evident that there were some systemic issues blocking teacher growth. It was then that I understood that if I was going to deliver on the promise of coaching—improvement and guiding teachers to lead their own learning—I would also have to lead some school-wide changes to support individual growth.

Today, I call this coaching redefined, where a coach understands that unlimited individual growth must be supported by school-wide change. This asks us to learn not just about the coaching cycle and instructional strategies and tools but also about leadership.

The Levi’s story is powerful because it shows us that leaders listen before suggesting changes. And it shows us that the entire school must adapt to support everyone’s growth—including that of students.

As I sat before this disheartened assistant superintendent, I shared with him my full confidence that he and his team were well positioned to turn all of their students into learning enthusiasts. After all, they had done something instructional leaders often forget to do—they had listened to learn from all key stakeholder groups: students, teachers, administrators, parents/guardians, and community members. Through their insights, they were beginning to see sticking points in the system that were stymieing teachers’ growth potential. With this profound awareness, I assured him the instructional leaders in his district were ready to become coaches redefined.

The first step to becoming a coach redefined is conducting a listening tour with all key stakeholder groups—before making even one suggestion.

As you set out to do your own, use your judgment when devising questions and mind school protocol in your approach, but always bear in mind the tour’s two-fold goal:

1) You want to understand issues and identify appropriate solutions. To do this, you will need to get qualitative and quantitative data. Questions need to unearth perceptions of the school, the teachers, the leaders, and the students and how to improve them. They need to unearth attitudes, if people are pleased with the school or frustrated and why, and so on. Follow this link for the questions I typically ask.

2) The listening tour will let everyone know you are here to meet their needs, not yours. Listening is step one in cultivating relationships. By listening, people will begin to trust you. Trust is the only way people will, in time, open up to you and make themselves vulnerable to change and growth.

Lead and listen, and you will be a coachredefined.


How can I help you? Please connect with me to share your own concerns or ask for assistance. We truly are all in this together.

Website: Reflective Learning, LLC

Twitter: @Sherrystclair

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-High School Admin

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