I have increasingly been offering coaching support to those involved with developing research impact. It meets several objectives including being bespoke and can be delivered online or in person. After being invited to collaborate with Jackie Reynolds (Staffordshire University), Dr Ged Hall (University of Leeds) and Dr Joyce Reed (Fast Track Impact Ltd) on a webinar looking at the topic we co-authored the following reflections.
Coaching for Impact
Research impact is based upon a simple principle of making a positive difference through research. Impact professionals up and down the land have a well-worn script in which we urge researchers to consider who might benefit from their research: to build their external networks, and to work together collaboratively to address societal challenges. And we develop programmes of training that might typically focus on mapping pathways to impact, engaging with policymakers, delivering public engagement, and writing for impact. Increasingly, however, impact officers are also considering how offering coaching to researchers might form part of the package of support in Higher Education Institutions.
According to Whitmore (2017:12-13): “Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them … We all have a built-in, natural learning capability that is actually disrupted by instruction.”
So, what might be the value of developing coaching initiatives to support impactful researchers?
What could this include and what are the benefits and the challenges?
These questions are being addressed in a series of Coaching for Impact webinars, organised by Associate Professor Jackie Reynolds, Research Impact Manager at Staffordshire University. Jackie has written previously about an initiative called Research Impact Coaching Cohorts at Staffordshire University. The interest generated by that blog post led to the formation of a working group of people with experience of leading coaching initiatives in universities, and an enthusiasm for sharing learning and generating meaningful discussion.
In June 2023, I partnered with Dr Ged Hall (Academic Development Consultant: Research Impact, University of Leeds) and Dr Joyce Reed (practising health coach and Managing Director of Fast Track Impact) in joining Jackie to co-deliver the first webinar of the series and have co-authored this blog post to share some of the insights of that session. You can watch a recording of the session recording here.
What are the principles of coaching?
In my presentation, I shared a set of seven principles for coaching (as proposed by RD1st) that I believe are relevant for developing coaching-informed impact support:
- Trust: Trust is essential in a coaching relationship. The aim is to create a safe place for the coachee: where they are accepted, actively listened to and heard; a place where they know they have the freedom to say or think anything.
- Non-Judgmental: Building impact effectively will always include setbacks and failures and roadbumps and diversions so using coaching to support resilience and learn from failure is a great opportunity.
- Awareness: Achieving a greater understanding of self and others. This can be useful for self-reflection in terms of helping researchers to see their options and what would work well for them using their own strengths and aptitudes.
- Forward thinking: Coaching is essentially future based and works with identifying clear goals and objectives.
- Solution focused: Acknowledging barriers and how to address them is a useful technique for coaching but we can also become ‘attached’ to our problems so using a coaching approach to focus on solutions raises energy and the potential for change.
- Self-directed learning: the impact officer’s job is to help facilitate the coachee in their own learning and development. Once clarity is reached the impact coach can promote reflection towards new options or innovations that might support the coachee’s intentions.
- Responsibility: It is important the coachee feels responsible for their own progress. The coachee needs to be able to understand they have been responsible for their own development and feel able and responsible for their future.
These principles are particularly significant given the increasing recognition that healthy impact cultures take account of the individual and shared identities and values of research community members (Reed 2021), as they allow for deeper reflection, meaning making, and addressing complexity.
What is the potential of coaching for impact?
While the basic principle of research impact is a simple one, we know that pathways to impact are extremely diverse and there are no blueprints you can use to build an impact plan. Key drivers of impact planning move beyond the facts and data of research topic or methods and are fundamentally affected by the attitudes, aptitudes, skills, experience, and values of researchers involved. So those involved with supporting researchers to develop impact need to find a way to draw out those conditions for creating impact.
A further requirement is to ensure that support can meet researchers where they are in terms of their knowledge, skills, and experience. Both requirements can be met by using a coaching approach to impact support. During the webinar, several attendees noted that they were undertaking a coaching qualification or had come to their impact role via previous coaching roles. Coaching expertise can therefore be viewed in terms of the professionalisation of research management.
Dr Joyce Reed’s contribution to the webinar emphasised how the principles and skills of coaching, such as active listening and developing an aptitude for open questions, can be transformative in terms of delivering professional support for impact, and the empowerment of the coachee. In addition, coaching can be used to foster self-compassion and empathy, which are vital both for researcher wellbeing and also for building teams to achieve impact.
Coaching also supports deeper reflection over issues such as the ethics of impact and equality, diversity and inclusion. These concerns are recognised as a high priority, especially considering the forthcoming changes for REF2028, with an increased focus on research culture. They were the subject of significant discussions during and after the webinar.
What are the possible challenges?
Webinar discussions have emphasised that one of the biggest challenges for impact officers seeking to develop coaching initiatives is that of competing expectations or requirements experienced within their role: sometimes they might be supporting and enabling impact development, but other times they might be assessing, evaluating, reviewing or reporting on impact progress or achievements. It is very important from an ethical perspective to ensure clarity about the objectives and scope of coaching and other support initiatives.
There are undoubtedly times when researchers will be seeking advice and guidance from impact officers. And the significant pressure to develop high-scoring REF Impact Case Studies will always be a dominant factor shaping the nature of impact support and guidance. As a result, impact officers may have limited time available to offer coaching initiatives, and indeed the academics who they support may also have limited time to engage.
Coaching in action at the University of Leeds
Dr Ged Hall’s contribution highlights his experiences in leading coaching initiatives at the University of Leeds, where impact development provision is mapped onto a 3Cs framework:
Curiosity is about the foundational knowledge, that is needed;
Creating is opening spaces to explore the implications of that foundational knowledge, and
Catalysing is driving the learning towards tangible outcomes.
Coaching approaches are used in the latter two Cs (creating and catalysing). Firstly, in the Building Impact Momentum (BIM) programme, safe spaces are created so that peer coaching can flourish over the duration of the programme. BIM’s curriculum and pedagogy provide the structure for those peer-to-peer coaching conversations. Impact Coaching, for individuals and small groups, has greater flexibility. It aims to move coachees from the Creating phase to the Catalysing phase so that they are able to deliver tangible impact, while feeling supported.
The most valuable affect reported by participants in BIM and Impact Coaching is that they no longer feel alone and that they have found their impact team, which is often part of that well-worn script we mentioned. Entering into this wider team also brings additional benefits, such as participants reporting an increased awareness that the University does truly value their research and their efforts in achieving impact.
Coaching in action: The Resilient Researcher Coaching programme
Fast Track Impact has been interested in the use of coaching to support university teams to get more impact for several years. The value of coaching crystallised for the Fast Track team during the pandemic when they were approached by several universities for support with staff moral and health and wellbeing. How does staff wellbeing affect impact?
From this question was born the idea that the wellbeing of staff (or its absence) is fundamentally linked to the quality of work around research impact. Fast Track decided to develop the Resilient Researcher Coaching programme which supports teams and staff across university roles to remove barriers to self-care and develop a wellbeing toolkit. Ultimately empowering them to realise a greater potential in the amount and quality of work they produce, as well as leading to improve wellbeing and work life balance. The team also developed a training course in conversation and listening skills for teams, so that daunting conversations with impact partners can be approached with greater confidence.
Drawing on the findings of the above work at Leeds, they also frequently hear in feedback that one of the most valuable things about coaching is talking to others about shared experiences and challenges and coming together with others in the group to share ideas for potential solutions.
We have been delighted with the level of interest in the webinar series, which continues to grow. We held a second webinar in September 2023, with significantly increased attendance, mainly from professional support staff working in Higher Education Institutions throughout the UK.
The Research Impact Coaching Cohorts initiative at Staffordshire University also generated interest at the International Research Culture Conference at the University of Warwick in September 2023, where it was disseminated in a poster presentation. We know from our discussions that most institutions are at a relatively early stage of considering and/or implementing coaching initiatives within their support for impact. We are therefore keen to continue the conversations, and to provide opportunities for future attendees to share their experiences, along with successes and challenges.
Reed, M.S. (2022) Impact Culture. Fast Track Impact
Whitmore, J. (2017) Coaching for Performance: The principles and practice of coaching and leadership (5th Edition). London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
After more than a decade working with universities in the UK, Europe, and in the developing world, Saskia Gent launched Insights for Impact to offer consultancy services to institutions, researchers, departments, and research projects, enabling them to access impact expertise, add flexible resource, and address specific issues innovatively.