Seven tips for starting a student success coaching program with an outside partner

One proven way to improve retention is by supplementing traditional academic advising with student success coaching. Student success coaching helps students fit school into life and life into school while building up the skills they need to be successful, including study skills, time management, and stress management. As institutions explore the possibility of starting coaching programs to improve student outcomes, there are several challenges they will face. Having gone through the process of launching a successful coaching program at a large private non-profit research university in cooperation with an outside partner, there are seven few tips I’d like to share—lessons learned that I hope will save others time and frustration. Bottom line: the challenges are as much about fitting coaching in to your university’s culture as they are about the mechanics of the coaching program itself.

Our partner in this effort, a firm called Inside Track, proved quite savvy about the higher education landscape and their need to fit into the culture of our organization. However, this article focuses not on what they did to fit in, but on some of the things that need to happen on the university end to make an initiative like this successful.

1. Find an executive sponsor

As with any change initiative, the buy-in of an executive sponsor is essential. Getting a top executive on board signals to the university that the coaching project is important and needs to be supported. Be sure to provide periodic “executive summary” updates to your sponsor. If you run into some bumps in the road during the project, especially internal disagreements, your executive sponsor will be an invaluable resource. Our executive sponsor took the opportunity to visit one of our partner’s coaching centers and met with their executive leadership. In addition to clearly demonstrating our partner’s capabilities, this visit made the coaching project more tangible to the sponsor and served to deepen his buy-in to the project.

2. Assemble a guiding coalition

To manage the implementation and operation of a coaching project, you need to assemble a guiding coalition made up of the university stakeholders most impacted by the project. This will likely include the managers of academic advising, someone from institutional research, and IT representatives, along with your partner’s primary liaison. This is the group that is going to support the partner’s project management and hash out any issues that come up. The group needs to be powerful enough to make things happen, at the right organizational level to be actively involved in operations, and the right size to have productive discussions. Try to include any influential people that have expressed concerns about the project, as they will potentially improve what you are doing and hopefully temper their criticisms if they have opportunity to provide input.

3. Collaborate with your partner on definition and calculation of success measures

It is important that your internal stakeholders have faith that the project is being fairly evaluated. In some quarters of academe there is an underlying distrust of “outsiders.” In any two-party arrangement, both parties need to be on the same page about how success is being measured and have faith that the measurement is accurate. In our case, although our partner’s team did the heavy lifting, the university institutional research department was actively involved with the design of the project, including collaborating on detailed definitions of the outcome measures and the statistical methodology. IR verified their calculations and metrics throughout the project. While there was never a problem with anything that our partner did, the involvement of institutional research gave the results a higher degree of credibility within the university community than would have otherwise have been the case.

4. Address financial and budgeting issues

If your institution agrees to begin a coaching program, it is because from the perspective of the organization as a whole the program is anticipated to have a net benefit financially and on other important outcome measures, such as student satisfaction and persistence. Generally speaking, your program will have upfront costs, with the benefits accruing over a period of time. You need to make sure that the internal financial accounting of the project is perceived as fair by stakeholders. If one organizational unit is required to absorb the costs for the coaching program while another unit gets credit for the financial benefits, the group taking the costs may not be enthusiastic about the project even if the results are great.

5. Build trust

For your coaching project to be successful, building a trusting relationship between your university and your partner is essential. Obviously, building trust isn’t a task on a project plan, but rather an ongoing process of developing interpersonal relationships. It starts with all stakeholders (or as many as possible) having a positive outlook about the project, in the sense that they are going to work to give it the best possible chance to deliver the intended benefits. At the beginning, especially, but over the entire course of the relationship, stakeholders need to say what they mean and mean what they say and follow through on commitments. Frequent phone / online meetings and periodic face-to-face meetings with partner staff help build personal relationships and trust.

6. Get coaches and advisors on a first-name basis

For coaching to work effectively, your partner’s coaches must work hand-in-glove with your academic advisors. In our institution we have a staff advising model. As you might imagine, at the outset, some advisors and advising managers viewed the coaching project with suspicion. Initially, in an attempt to differentiate the roles of advisor and coach, we limited the interaction between the two groups. This was a big mistake. Once advisors and coaches began sharing information and meeting regularly, advisors and coaches recognized they were playing on the same team. Everyone’s role fell into place, and the partnership became much more effective. It also helped that the coaches were great about constantly reinforcing the central role of our academic advisors in their conversations with students.

7. Communicate, communicate, communicate

As with any change initiative, frequent communication to all stakeholders is a must. In the case of our project, our partner hosted weekly conference calls with the guiding coalition members and came on site for periodic strategic planning meetings. We made regular updates to senior leadership and periodic presentations to various stakeholder groups. Keeping in mind that you are dealing with an academic audience, the communication needs to be honest and objective and not come off like a sales pitch. Talk about results certainly, but also about challenges and what is being done to overcome them and what you are learning along the way. It is more effective and adds credibility if a respected university leader takes the lead on presentations with partner staff taking a supporting role.

Although I am no longer part of the coaching project, I can report that initial results were very promising, in part because of the attention paid to these issues. I also found working with a partner to be a great experience. The key to success is understanding the systems and processes that go on behind the scenes and the accommodations that might need to take place to make the program successful. In our case we were fortunate that everyone we worked with at all levels of our partner organization proved to be a consummate professional with peerless people skills and a sophisticated understanding of the higher education environment. May you have a similar experience and best wishes for the success of your students!

Eric J. Hagan is an independent consultant and former university administrator


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