Anyone who aspires to a leadership position in higher education has probably taken a seminar, participated in a workshop or experienced some other sort of leadership training or mentoring. But for those who have already reached that top rung on the administration ladder, this kind of training is no longer enough, and it can be difficult to know where to turn for help in dealing with crises, stress, work-life balance and simply finding one’s footing as a leader. Here’s where Dr. Audrey Reille comes in. Reille is an executive coach who has found her niche working with leaders in higher education, from directors and deans to vice presidents and presidents. “I work specifically with people who already are executives, but desire to grow in their positions,” she explains.
Coaching is growing in popularity as a profession and a service for those seeking guidance in their careers or personal lives. While some may confuse it with mentoring or counseling, as Reille explains, executive coaches offer a distinct service that applies a counseling-like approach to the professional, tackling distinct objectives through personal exploration and growth. “We start by writing down our coaching objectives, meaning what do we want to see happen? What does success look like?” she explains. Reille usually speaks with clients once a week by phone, a session that follows an agreed-upon agenda and includes discussion of how clients have put coaching lessons into practice. “They do have to implement what we talk about so we can keep building upon what we’ve done,” she says. “It’s very powerful very quickly. We see rapid progress in terms of transformation and results.”
An Overachiever’s Epiphany
Reille is like many executive coaches in that she did not set out to be a coach – she came to the profession somewhat unexpectedly after years of success as a higher ed administrator herself. Born and raised in France, Reille was an ambitious student who completed an undergraduate degree in the UK, returned to Paris to get her master’s in international business and studied abroad in Spain and Italy before coming to the United States. “My parents were the typical baby boomers who worked insane hours, and I was raised to truly believe in hard work, hard work, hard work. That was the number one value in my home,” she says. “I felt growing up that my entire self-worth was attached to my accomplishments. In a way that served me well because it gave me drive and ambition, but it gave me also a lot of pressure.”
Reille eventually completed a doctorate in higher ed administration at USC, and throughout her 20s and early 30s she worked tirelessly as a community college administrator, driven to climb the ladder with her sights on one day becoming a university president. At age 33, however, a personal tragedy caused her to step back: her father passed away at age 58. “That really changed everything for me,” she says. “I had spent my entire life focused on work, accomplishments, status, money, success and all those unimportant things. And I didn’t really take much time to focus on my personal life, or health, or hobbies or relationships.”
This event was the catalyst for Reille to start reconsidering what she wanted out of life and work. When the opportunity arose to enroll in a coaching program, she took it, hoping it would help her with her own career and teach her new skills. For her certification, Reille was required to coach clients over of the phone. “What was so shocking to me is how much I loved it,” she explains. “There was so much about self-empowerment and patterns – the psychology of why we do what we do, understanding ourselves, understanding others, motivating others, motivating ourselves – and it was so fascinating and so powerful.” The experience was so impactful that it prompted Reille to reevaluate her career goal and choose to leave administration to coach full-time.
Coaching: An Internal Exploration
Reille understands that many in higher education may be uncertain about the benefits of coaching, particularly if they are already working with a mentor. But she’s adamant that coaching has a lot to offer that mentoring cannot provide. “The mentor’s role is to share their personal experience and in a nutshell to say, ‘I have been in your shoes, I have had this problem, let me tell you how I fixed it, and here’s what you need to do because it worked for me,’” she says. “A coach is someone who has helped either hundreds or thousands of people with a similar problem and understands the complexity of it and how there are no cookie-cutter solutions. The coach is going to help the client find clarity on what is the best approach for them, based on their own psychology, values, and unique situation.” During her sessions with clients, Reille’s role is ask questions to help clients have a breakthrough, rather than tell them what to do. a good coach, she explains, knows what questions to ask to change someone’s perspective. “You’re triggering new thoughts in someone’s mind. They’re getting out of their normal, habitual ways of thinking . . . and that’s how we create genuine growth and empowerment.”
She offers an example from her experience working with women in higher ed in particular: “I have female clients who are struggling with time management, and it’s not because they’re not organized,” she says. “In fact, some of them are the most organized human beings you will ever meet. But it’s maybe because they take on too much. They are doing other people’s jobs.” As a coach, Reille’s job is not to simply tell them this – in fact, many of them are already aware they are over-committed. Instead, she asks questions that probe at the root of the problem. “For some, it’s because they were raised as little girls to be pleasers, so they have to say ‘yes’ because they don’t want to upset anybody,” she explains. “Then there are other types of female clients who are overworked because they’re perfectionists. They cannot forgive themselves if they make a mistake. So they seek perfection in everything that they do. If they could do something pretty well in 15 minutes or perfectly in two hours, they will take two hours to make it perfect.”
These two scenarios, Reille explains, represent different emotional needs that go beyond any kind of time management tips one can teach. “Basically, what I teach is not just ‘eat your frog first,’ because everyone knows that,” she says. “Coaching hours need to be focused on bridging the gap between what you know you should do and what you’re actually doing. Where is that inner conflict coming from? And it’s only when women become more self-aware about why they do what they do that they can change their behavior and make better choices.” The power of coaching is that once clients realize where their behavioral patterns come from, they can tackle the issues at the root of the problem first and foremost, which will be much more far-reaching and impactful than simply learning a shortcut.
Women in Higher Ed and the Feeling of “Enough”
One issue that seems to come up for Reille’s female clients again and again is perfectionism and the pressure to constantly improve. Many times, she says, prospective clients will come to her without a specific problem, but a certain feeling of inadequacy. “I’ll get a call from someone who is extremely accomplished, exceptionally smart, absolutely mind-blowing in every possible way. And that person will tell me, ‘I would like a coach so that I can be better,’” she explains. “And I have to tell them that we need to identify specifically what they would like to work on. That person is already at the top of her game, but if there’s any little thing that doesn’t unfold the way she thinks that it should, she feels like she’s not enough. Or maybe even if there’s no evidence that something is missing, she’s still operating from that place.”
In these cases, Reille will help clients get to the bottom of their need for perfection, for more, with coaching sessions that focus on the development of self-compassion and emotional intelligence. “The reality is, when we are unwilling to forgive ourselves, when we have no compassion for ourselves and we’re always pushing, pushing, pushing . . . we’re limited in how good of a leader we can become. Self-compassion doesn’t make us complacent, it makes us rise to a whole new level”
Reille has learned many things in her years of coaching, and one is that many of the issues she deals with – stress, perfectionism, compassion, emotional intelligence, time management and organization, micromanagement, etc. – are all connected. And there is an additional factor that drives many issues for leaders in higher ed and elsewhere: fear. “One of my mentors always said that “stress” is the overachiever’s word for ‘fear,’” she says. “We don’t say ‘I’m afraid to mess up. I’m afraid to be judged. I’m afraid to get in trouble, I’m afraid to miss a deadline, I’m afraid to say the wrong thing, I’m afraid to show up at a meeting unprepared.’ We don’t say ‘I’m afraid.’ We just say, ‘I am under a lot of stress.’”
While confronting fears and feelings of inadequacy isn’t easy, an executive coach has the ability to take you out of your head and help you to realistically evaluate your career and relationships to banish this fear. “When you know your worth, when you know what your values are, when you know what your standards are, when you know how well you’re truly performing, then you’re less at risk of questioning yourself and seeking approval, because you can see things much more clearly,” Reille explains. “So much freedom can come from that place.”
Trends for Women in Higher Ed: A Coach’s Perspective
Although Reille doesn’t work exclusively with women, we asked for her perspective on what she thinks the future holds for women in higher education. She immediately mentioned the work of Dr. Brené Brown, whose books, including last year’s Dare to Lead, focus on the importance of vulnerability in leadership. “Now that Brené started this conversation around the power of vulnerability, now that there is so much being discussed on compassion and empathy and ability to lead from the heart, I really think women will be encouraged to express their full potential,” she says.
Regarding advice for women in higher ed, Reille is quick and clear with her answer. “If I have one piece of advice to give to women leaders, it’s to make sure they are never isolated, to keep an empowering peer group,” she says. “Because I see isolation, especially at the top. When women are afraid to show weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and they have decades of being the one that solves every problem, makes every decision, they don’t know how to ask for help.” She encourages women not to neglect their support systems, and to keep a group of friends to regularly get together with – once a week if possible. At the very least, she recommends a regular phone call with a best friend, someone with whom you can be yourself. “You need to have that person,” she says, “someone you can talk to and you don’t feel you need to hide anything, but also somebody who can be a good friend, who can make you feel strong, and accepted, and loved.”
To learn more about Dr. Audrey Reille and her work as a higher ed coach, visit www.thrivinginadmin.com.