Creating High Performing People
Valuing a Growth Culture


Could talent coaching help identify, grow and retain future leaders?

Talent coaching

How do we identify, retain, nurture and grow our school leaders of the future? Nicki Smith, OLEVI Lead Facilitator and Professional Coach, reflects on: How could talent coaching influence the answer?

“Two-fifths of teachers, school leaders and support staff want to quit in the next five years – blaming ‘out of control’ workload pressures and ‘excessive’ accountability, according to a poll by the country’s biggest teaching union”. My peaceful afternoon was abruptly interrupted by this Guardian article and I instantly felt tears in my eyes. I realised that perhaps I had been living in a bubble somewhat after teaching at the same school for 14 years, alongside many others who have ridden the waves of changes and challenges in education. The same survey by the NEU of more than 8,000 teachers, school leaders and support staff from across the UK found that 26% of those with between two and five years’ experience intend to leave education in the next five years. So I started to ask myself: What is the future of our schools?; Who will be there to inspire and nurture the next generation?; What can we do to support others to do this? Schools are gifted with people with a talent – the passion and potential for inspiring children and their colleagues to be better learners, teachers, leaders and people – and the question is: But do they want to continue to do so and grow others to do so?

How can we identify and retain those who are influential?

“I hope you all had a wonderful summer” – it already seems like a distant memory, sitting in the hall on our first day of the new academic year with this headline still in the back of my mind. As I look over at my colleagues in the Science Department, there is one (Sasha) who seems to be naturally engaging the team around her and creating an energy and momentum for their day ahead. I remember her as part of our NQT cohort last year and I got a feeling, a hunch, that she would be someone who would take others with her. Socially and professionally she is incredibly influential, and the other staff seem to cherish her, despite her questioning them and responding confidently to any negativity and challenges that they bring about the day ahead. Sasha just seems to have something about her and I am unsure whether it is due to her actual performance or bursts of potential; it is an intuitive thing where you just know that she has a talent to share.

During the morning session, I admired the way she challenged expectations by questioning the presenters and adding suggestions, rather than avoiding eye contact with anyone who invited staff participation. I think back to key turning points in my career and the small but significant moments when people around me have shown me that they see potential in me, either explicitly in something they have said or implicitly through the opportunities given. That simple recognition of the influence that I could have has been enough to motivate me during times when my own confidence has faltered. I ask myself: Is spotting talent an art or a science?; What is it about some people that makes them so influential amongst students and colleagues?; Could we be more systematic at identifying these ‘Sashas’?; Do we make the time to explicitly acknowledge and grow the ‘Sashas’ in our organisations?; How can we use coaching to recognise and engage these ‘Sashas’?

How can we nurture and encourage ambition?

Glancing around the hall I try to guess which people are feeling an excitable ambition. I wonder if my ripped jeans and flip-flops distract people from the optimism and hunger to improve things that has been in my bones since I started teaching, and I question how my ambition to improve education came about.

As a psychologist I have always been interested in whether ambition and talent are due to nature or nurture, and I am drawn to Matthew Syed’s idea that:

“Talent must be lived and learned”.

We often explore this with students and stop short of applying the same principles when thinking about the potential of staff. Ericsson’s suggestion that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is necessary and sufficient to create elite performance levels makes me question: Are exceptional teachers and leaders born this way or is it a result of hard work?; And if this talent isn’t innate then how are we nurturing and encouraging it?; What is our moral responsibility for growing these talented people?

There have been times in my career where those in leadership have gone above and beyond their role to listen and respond to me one-to-one and investigate what really engages and excites me about my role. These conversations, where someone has taken a genuine interest in how I think I can change or improve things, and where they have given me their time generously without judging me or bringing their own agenda, were significant in developing my ambition and self-efficacy to grow.

In terms of developing talent and ambition it is interesting to explore the extent to which people are being the best that they can be, or even want to be. I wonder if the excited SLT member at the front of the hall ever lets the workload pressures place a question mark over her current ambition. Could the right combination of personal aspirations, support and hard work be enough for anyone to have the talent that she effortlessly displays? How many school cultures are that of ambition? How can we enhance and nurture this ambition in our rising stars within education?

How can we grow future leadership?

As we come back from lunch, I sit behind the History Department and notice that Jack has returned; an old student who I used to teach is here on placement. I remember his leadership skills even in Year 7 and his confidence to listen to and learn from any feedback given. Syed’s suggestion that:

“Feedback is, in effect, the rocket fuel that propels the acquisition of knowledge”

reminds me of the impact that a skilled coach can have in enabling a space for people to reflect on this feedback and grow from it in a safe and non-judgemental context, an essential ingredient for developing the leadership skills of the next generation of ‘talent’. I wonder if Jack will be leading one of these PD sessions over the next few years and whether he will be encouraging us to think deeply about the ‘Why’ behind the decisions that we are making for our students, or whether he will be starting afresh in a new career elsewhere. There will be many ‘Jacks’ sitting in the hall today, dotted amongst the various teams, ready for their leadership skills to be grown.

When I think back over my own experiences of leadership it becomes apparent that I have been given so many opportunities to grow and develop as a leader, with varying results. Some have been rewarding and incredibly successful and some have been unbelievably challenging and quite frankly disappointing. The key learning from all of them was that, regardless of the outcome, I had the support and freedom to take risks, be open and honest and make changes where needed. Why is it that some of our potential future leaders will thrive with the prospect of responsibility and ownership whilst for others this accountability will be enough to drive them out of a career that they once dreamed about? How do we retain these ‘Jacks’ and ensure that our students and staff benefit from their leadership? What will make the ‘Jacks’ want to stay here and grow rather than be amongst those giving a leaving speech in the summer? How can we give them what they want and need to build their leadership at key times?

Times and culture in education have evolved beyond people leaving for a promotion to a higher pay scale. The new generation of teachers is looking for a deeper level of satisfaction from work, a more holistic reward from their career, one that satisfies their mind and soul rather than a tokenistic recognition. In the current educational and financial climate there is a need for us to use support and challenge rather than money as an incentive to attract and grow our talent. When thinking back to the headline, I am still grappling with the reality that schools are gifted with people with a talent – the passion and potential for inspiring children and their colleagues to be better learners, teachers, leaders and people – and the question: But do they want to continue to do so? But now I am also asking: If not, then what changes do we need to make so that they do want to?; How do we grow and nurture a talent culture?; How can we use talent coaching as part of this change?


OLEVI’s Talent Coaching Module is designed to further deepen the professional coach’s understanding of specific areas of coaching and provide practical strategies and resources to drive up standards. It explores how to tap into the potential of those who want to grow and develop; the next generation of leaders who have a drive and desire to bring others with them. The themes of leadership, influence and ambition are explored in relation to coaching these talented professionals. Please check the website for details.

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