School of Management

The Centre for Public Services Organisations

Coaching, Action Learning and Mentoring for Leadership and Organisational Development in Higher Education

Over sixty delegates representing forty-one higher education institutions from throughout the UK (see list in Appendix) attended a dissemination event at the London School of Economics on the 19th May 2006. The purpose of the event was to disseminate the findings of an evaluation study of coaching, action learning and mentoring in the CALM Network for Higher Education. The evaluation study, which was led by the School of Management, Royal Holloway, University of London, was funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education under the Small Development Project initiative.

In his introduction Professor Ewan Ferlie commented that the excellent attendance was an indicator of the growing level of interest in coaching, action learning and mentoring in the sector as an alternative to more conventional, course-based management development. It was encouraging that 70% of the delegates present rated themselves as having 'some' direct knowledge and experience of coaching and action learning, while a further 15% said that they had 'extensive' knowledge and experience. One delegate commented that event had confirmed "that there is a real momentum in HE towards coaching which is reassuring". Many delegates committed themselves to actions to maintain this momentum on their return to work:

"I will revisit schemes in coaching and peer-mentoring with a view to pilot action learning"
"Work in coaching to existing courses"
"Inject more life into current scheme of developing in-house coaching, but seek to do this in partnership with other HEIs and with private sector businesses"
"Explore the use of external coaches to get the ball rolling and offer it to Heads of Department"
"Network with colleagues with similar challenges but who may have progressed this further than us."

Juliet McDonnell, one of the evaluators, gave an overview of the evaluation study's main findings. In making an overall impact on the learning of senior academic and administrative staff participating in The CALM Network, she reported that staff valued the time engaged in coaching and action learning and were able to articulate personal and organisational benefits. They also appreciated the approach and impartiality of the CALM associates who provide an external perspective, but who are also able to contribute detailed sector knowledge and expertise.

With regard to mentoring, the study found that participants were not able to differentiate between coaching and mentoring, when the latter was delivered by an external CALM Associate. As a result, The CALM Network has decided to refocus mentoring on support for internal schemes, rather than by providing it from an outside. Another outcome of the study is the creation of a peer supervision process for CALM Associates to take forward the study's objective of contributing to the professional development of associates.

The study provides convincing evidence of the effectiveness of coaching and action learning as a means of individual learning and development. However, the study also considered whether these activities can be 'joined up' to contribute organisational development - where, for example, CALM associates are working with a number of senior managers in one faculty or department. The key ethical question here (which the evaluators intend to address in further research) is whether this type of 'hybrid' coaching and consultancy activity can be carried out with out compromising the valued impartiality of the coach.

The link between individual and organisational development was expounded by Steve Collins, Coordinator of The CALM Network. He suggested that top down 'heroic intervention' models of management development were based on a 'unitary' model of organisation in which departments and individuals are all working towards the same goals. In reality, higher education institutions are highly pluralistic organisations which have very diverse cultures at department and faculty level. He argued that bottom up initiatives such as coaching and action learning have a much better chance of tapping into the social reality or 'unconscious organisation' of what is really happening (as opposed to what managers think is happening). He also suggested that it was much more realistic to try and work towards coaching culture (where staff ask for coaching and managers set an example by coaching others) at the individual department and faculty level rather than trying to change the culture of a whole university.

In the group discussions and in their comments on feedback forms, most delegates seemed to agree that a bottom up approach was a more effective way of engaging sceptical managers in higher education:

"The heroic intervention v social reality model has caused me to reflect how I address some development issues"
"I have learnt that it's OK to work with the social reality model"
"That other staff developers are interested in a 'below the surface approach"
"The importance of getting 'to the issues' in action learning"
"The session has been very energising - I will start with very small initiatives in organisational units and build upon these"
"I now have an insight on how I can tap into the unconscious organisation to introduce coaching and action learning at senior manager level and how to get buy in."


The CALM Network for Higher Education is a joint venture between
Steve Collins and the Personnel Department, St George's, University of London. For further information email ring Steve Collins on 0770 961 7930 or log onto

APPENDIX: Universities and other Higher Education Institutions Represented

Anglia Ruskin
Canterbury Christ Church
De Montford
East Anglia
Goldsmiths University of London
Institute of Education
Leeds Metropolitan
Liverpool John Moores
London School of Economics
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
London South Bank
Middlesex University
Nottingham Trent
Oxford Centre of Staff and Learning Development
Oxford University Library Services
Queen Mary University of London
Royal Holloway, University of London
School of Oriental and African Studies
School of Pharmacy
Southampton Solent
St George's University of London
University College Falmouth
University College London
University of the Arts