Lessons From Business Leaders: What can educators learn from the private sector about a sustainable peer coaching model?

robert louis stevenson quoteThroughout these past three months I’ve been exploring and practicing the peer coaching model. My professor, Les Foltos, literally wrote the book on the topic. His book, Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration (http://amzn.to/2g7WiW7) is a valuable introduction and instruction manual for implementing peer coaching on an individual and school-wide basis. All quarter long I’ve alternated between a sense of overwhelming encouragement and challenge as I’ve worked to implement the peer coaching model into my efforts with teachers and fellow librarians in my district, and I’ve personally struggled with doubts through these initial efforts. Is it worth the effort? Am I truly acting as a peer coach or am I falling into comfortable habits of enabling learned helplessness when it comes to technology integration in my colleagues’ teaching? And can I truly succeed in my efforts and sustain true peer coaching relationships with colleagues? Perhaps more importantly, can I extend and sustain the peer coaching model beyond my classroom walls?

My wife works for an aerospace company as a first line manager and often serves as a sounding board when I’m struggling with a concept or issue at work or when I’m just exploring ideas that are new to me. Her undergraduate degree was in elementary education, though she has spent nearly two decades in the business world so our conversations often bridge between the two worlds. I never cease to be amazed at how similar our worlds are (unfortunate salary disparity withstanding) and we often find answers across the divide of public and private sector. With that in mind, I spent the past few weeks exploring the concepts of peer coaching in the world of business with the hope of discovering practical and sustainable practices for maintaining system-wide peer coaching success. What I found was that strong leadership and shared vision are crucial elements to sustained peer coaching success, in business and in education alike, though the idea of a “strong” leader is often misunderstood and “sustainable” is highly dependent on individuals.

Every year Bill Gates commits to reading roughly one book a week. As a librarian, I can’t speak highly enough about how much I value real-world examples of lifelong readers like the Microsoft co-founder. For the past five years Mr. Gates has put out a twice-yearly “Best Books List” (https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books#All). This year’s list was announced yesterday and I was struck by his words regarding one of the books, The Myth of the Strong Leader by Archie Brown.

bill gates quote on leadershipGates: “Brown’s core argument is exactly what his title suggests: despite a worldwide fixation on strength as a positive quality, strong leaders—those who concentrate power and decision-making in their own hands—are not necessarily good leaders. On the contrary, Brown argues that the leaders who make the biggest difference in office, and change millions of lives for the better, are the ones who collaborate, delegate, and negotiate—the ones who recognize that no one person can or should have all the answers.” (Gates, 2016)  

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman explored a similar idea in their research and shared their findings in the Harvard Business Review article “People Who Think They’re Great Coaches Often Aren’t”. They looked at nearly 4000 business leaders who self-identified as “coaches” and who were willing to self-assess and be openly assessed by their peers. What they found was 24% of coaches had a blind spot when it came to their coaching abilities. They saw themselves as successful, though their level of coaching success was in the bottom third of the rankings. In summary: “if you think you’re a good coach but you actually aren’t, this data suggests you may be a good deal worse than you imagined.” (Zenger and Folkman, 2016)

perception vs reality business leadership characteristics

The common thread that arose again and again was the idea of servant leadership. A timeless concept through relatively uncommon in leadership circles in the Western world, both in education and business alike. “Servant leadership is both a leadership philosophy and set of leadership practices. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid.’ By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servant_leadership

Robert Greenleaf popularized the term “servant leadership” in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader,” and he went on to found what is now the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership https://www.greenleaf.org/. His work was instrumental in bringing the seemingly oxymoronic idea of a servant leader into the world of business management.

servant leadership guiding principles Bill Gates is often cited as an example of a successful servant leader, both in his time as founder and CEO of Microsoft and subsequently his charitable work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks, has often shared about the value he places in servant leadership (New York Times 2015 Op-Ed). In announcing his upcoming retirement this week, Schultz shared the timing was right because of my confidence in the strategy, my confidence in the team, and my deep deep respect for Kevin Johnson as a servant leader.”

So what does all of this mean for educators? What lessons can we take from the business world? There is no shortcut to a sustained and successful peer coaching system-wide model. It takes great effort. Be patient. Our efforts today may not come to fruition until far down the road. Small steps now set the path for colleagues to follow. It’s a continual process of honest self-reflection and improvement. Open communication can remove many of the roadblocks to successful peer coaching relationships. Remember the coaches who self-assessed themselves as “great”… If you think you have all of the answers, you don’t.  And it requires strong leadership. Foltos writes: “Changing a school’s culture is something that coaches cannot do on their own…  The school needs formal leaders that are committed to defining and implementing a culture of collaboration focused on continuous improvement of teaching and learning.” (Foltos, 2013, pg. 180).  So there is no silver bullet, but the world of business can provide excellent real-world examples of the value of coaching and collaboration.


Gates, B. (2016, December 5). What makes a great leader? Retrieved from https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-Myth-of-the-Strong-Leader

Crippen, C. (2010). Serve, teach, and lead: It’s all about relationships. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 5, 27-36. Retrieved from http://insightjournal.park.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/2-Serve-Teach-and-Lead-Its-All-About-Relationships.pdf ERIC Number: EJ902861

Foltos, L. (2015, February). Principals boost coaching’s impact. JSD | The Learning Forward Journal, 36(1), 48-51,61. Retrieved from https://learningforward.org/docs/default-source/jsd-february-2015/principals-boost-coaching’s-impact.pdf

Foltos, L. (2013). Sustaining coaching and building capacity. In Peer coaching: Unlocking the power of collaboration.

Friedman, S. (2010, February 23). Honing your skills as a peer coach | Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2010/02/honing-your-skills-as-a-peer-c

Friedman, S. (2015, March 13). How to get your team to coach each other | Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/03/how-to-get-your-team-to-coach-each-other.html

Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. (n.d.). What is servant leadership? Retrieved from https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/#

Heskett, J. (2013, May 1). Why isn’t servant leadership more prevalent? Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2013/05/01/why-isnt-servant-leadership-more-prevalent/#314983f94c36

Jewett, P., & MacPhee, D. (2012). Adding Collaborative Peer Coaching to Our Teaching Identities. The Reading Teacher, 66(2), 105-110. doi:10.1002/trtr.01089

Kanter, R. M. (2009, August 12). Change is hardest in the middle | Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2009/08/change-is-hardest-in-the-middl

Mashihi, S., & Nowack, K. (2012, July 17). Clueless part 1: Three necessary conditions for initiating and sustaining successful behavior change. Retrieved from https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/Learning-Executive-Blog/2012/07/Clueless-Part-1

Morgan, H. (n.d.). Howard J. Morgan resources. Retrieved from http://www.howardjmorgan.com/coaching.html

Schultz, H. (2015, August 6). Howard Schultz: America deserves a servant leader – The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/06/opinion/america-deserves-a-servant-leader.html

Spears, L. (n.d.). Ten principles of servant leadership | Butler.edu. Retrieved from https://www.butler.edu/volunteer/resources/ten-principles-servant-leadership

Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2016, June 23). People who think they’re great coaches often aren’t | Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/06/people-who-think-theyre-great-coaches-often-arent

ISTE-Coaching Standards


Standard 2: Teaching, Learning, and Assessment

  1. Coach teachers in and model incorporation of research-based best practices in instructional design when planning technology-enhanced learning experiences

Standard 6: Content Knowledge and Professional Growth

  1. Engage in continuous learning to deepen professional knowledge, skills, and dispositions in organizational change and leadership, project management, and adult learning to improve professional practice
  2. Regularly evaluate and reflect on their professional practice and dispositions to improve and strengthen their ability to effectively model and facilitate technology-enhanced learning experiences