Support Strategies for Leaders

I went for a walk with a friend to talk about her new role, a big promotion to a senior leadership role in a new organisation. She does not work in schools but is in education. She is an expert in her field but she does not have experience in a formal leadership role. Despite being encouraged to apply for the role, performing well at interview and securing the role, she is hesitant. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the Imposter Syndrome and the Inner Critic have come to visit, and they are undermining her confidence in performing in the role. She has been doing lots of reading about how to prepare for the transition and we discussed some of these frames on as we walked and talked.

One of her questions has really made me think and I have passed this question on to others in the last few weeks to gather their responses:

When you became a Senior Leader which of the following  professional supporters did you have: Mentor? Coach? Sponsor? Therapist?  

She shared that she had a read a piece of literature identifying that these different people are sources of external support for your careers.  They are experts which you need to have, or to find, to draw strength from to help you grow and perform in a leadership role.

I can’t find a model with these 4 functions on, but this is the closest I can find about the intersection between these different resources.

professional support

I am going to reflect on who I have had for each of the 4 categories she asked me about.


I was fortunate in my career to have strong line managers who mentored me in my roles. One who stands out is Rob who was VP when I was AP. Our weekly line management meetings were developmental and he actively mentored me. He built CPD and professional growth personalised for me into these sessions.

I have shared a process he made me do each week with others before – at the start of each academic year he would ask me to RAG rate the job spec for the role above me, in this case VP. I would highlight in green my strengths, in yellow my growing areas of competence and in pink the areas I needed to work on. It was my self-evaluation tool for my performance as a leader. He would then work on the pinks with me to make them yellow. Each term we would revisit and I could see the progress I was making to my next step as the pinks became yellow and the yellow became green. He was a brilliant mentor for developing technical expertise, the what of leadership. This process developed my skills but also my confidence, it also enabled me to track my impact.

In my career I have lacked female mentors around me so I have actively sought them out and this is part of the reason why I co-founded #WomenEd. When I became a new Headteacher I did not have a mentor and I was not really line managed so I found mentors from my network who I could call on when I needed to know how to do things. I took it upon myself to identify these people and asked them to help. I have learnt a lot about the how of leadership by observing others and how they deal with things, also by asking them to show me how to do things that are new or foreign to me.

My advice re mentors is that they should be your line manager or someone in your organisation. If not then someone who has done your role or who is doing your role. You want someone with recent experience and current knowledge, who can walk you through some of the things you want to learn. Mentors will help you navigate the systems and processes of your leadership. With a mentor there is a professional respect but you might not cross over into the emotional aspects of leadership depending on the type of mentoring relationship that you establish.

You can read more on mentorship here and here.


Through leadership courses I have done in the past I have had coaching as they have been offered as part of the programme. These coaches have been about the technical skills I was developing on my NPQSL or NPQH. Through #WomenEd events I have met so many brilliant coaches that I have had a number of coaching conversations over the years. When I start a new role I want a mentor for the first layer of support, the first term or the first year is about developing confidence and expertise. As I begin to perform from muscle memory and the role settles into a rhythm and flow, with confidence in what to do, this is when I seek coaching. A coach helps me to perform at my best.

Moreover a coach helps me to navigate conflicts, dilemmas and stay in alignment with my values. I can remember talking about coaching with an old flat mate, Stephen. He was a Senior Leader at Barclays at the time. He was an accelerated leadership pathway and had a coach. A career coach who was invested in him and what was right for him, not what was right for the organisation. This objective and neutral lens, enabled him to discuss opportunities within and beyond the organisation openly, and evaluate the best next steps for him as an individual.

Coaching has especially served me when I have experienced dilemmas and I have not wanted to discuss them with colleagues I see daily. Having someone to meet or to call to run scenarios by, to unpack how you are feeling and to navigate the frustrations is for me a process of sense-making. The probing questions will help you pull a thread out of a messy knot. Moreover, coaching helps to settle the head and the heart.

The timing and location of a coaching session is key, especially for school leaders. Where a line management or mentoring meeting can happen during the working day, I have struggled to fully embrace a coaching session when I am at work, particularly when working in a frenetic school with constant interruptions. I have found coaching in evenings, on weekends and in the holidays has give me the head space to then reflect and process on the questions posed so that I can self-coach following the coaching session and fully process. I often need to sleep on it and wake up with a fresh perspective.

My advice re coaches is that they should not be your line manager or someone in your organisation. They need to be someone objective and neutral. They are invested in you and not your employer. Finding  the right coach is about fit and rapport. I have tried different coaches and different coaching style and would recommend you don’t make a commitment until you have had a trial session.  Coaches will help you navigate your leadership values, behaviours and dilemmas. With a coach you can be your vulnerable and authentic self, you will explore your emotions and you will develop your emotional intelligence.

You can read more on coaching here and  here.


This term is becoming more common in UK leadership rhetoric but stems from US leadership culture. A sponsor is someone who is in a position of power, someone with influence. A sponsor is someone who champions you and advocates for you. A sponsor is someone who opens doors for you, creates opportunities for you and grows your network for you. A sponsor will ‘tap you on the shoulder’ and will encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and take a leap of faith.

I have had some brilliant sponsors and door-openers in my career. I have had Headteachers who have invested in me and rooted for me. They have enabled me, my career and my rate of progress up the leadership ladder. Externally, I have had many sponsors too. I have experienced and established leaders in my network who have brought me in on projects and exposed to me to opportunities that I would not have known about.

My advice re sponsors is that you cannot force this relationship. However, I have challenged individuals when I have felt there is some bias in who they are sponsoring. I have worked in MATs where experienced male HTs sponsor dynamic, ambitious male AHTs and put them on a fast track to headship. I have encouraged these white, straight males to consider sponsoring a high-potential female or BAME leader who needs the sponsorship more.

You can read more on sponsorship here, here and here.


Counselling or therapy is not a resource I have needed to draw on. I don’t carry very much emotional baggage and I have not experienced a lot of trauma. I know that a lot of my friends and colleagues have drawn on therapeutic services to help them in their healing process, sometimes to explore mental health issues, identity issues or bereavement and loss. I am a trained Mental Health First Aider, and I am very mindful of signposting friends and colleagues to experts if I feel that our conversations are identifying a layer of support that I cannot offer as a mentor, coach or sponsor.

Therapy is about increasing self-awareness and personal  insight, through the process of reflection and connecting our personal history to how we are currently functioning. I have encouraged several friends to engage in counselling or a form of therapy when they have not been coping.  Especially following a trauma or a bereavement, there is still some debunking of myths and destigmatising we need to do around engaging in such a source of support.

My limited advice on seeking a therapist is that if you feel like you are not coping then you should seek advice from a medical expert:

Talking therapies can help you work out how to deal with negative thoughts and feelings and make positive changes. They can help people who are feeling distressed by difficult events in their lives as well as people with a mental health problem.

You can read more on therapy here and here.

The other category I would add from my own personal experience is Critical Friendship.

Critical Friends:

A critical friend is someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. Throughout my career I have sought people around me to challenge me and to give me constructive feedback. I have formed friendships with peers in my school or in a school within our group of schools to align myself with, but also to learn and grow from. As a female VP, I grew a circle of other females VPs around me. Women who I trusted and admired.

I have also curated a network through social media of critical friends. People who I initially followed and admired, people who I met remotely but who have become face to face friends through connecting at events.  As our paths have crossed our critical friendship has grown.

A critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues. Critical friendship for me is a two-way process based on mutual respect and trust. I have critical friends who I bounce ideas around with, who I ask to review things I have done to give me critical feedback.

I am currently going through an accreditation process to become a Resilient Leadership Consultant and I have been paired with a coaching buddy in the states. In our initial call we have  shared a lot about our personal motivations and our professional journeys. We have shared details of who we are at our best and what helps and hinders us.

My advice re finding and forming critical friendships is that they need to be intentional. There is a process of contracting with your buddy around how and when to give and receive criticism which is vital to how successful this relationship will be.

You can read more on critical friendship here and here.


In a range of different conversations with different leaders that have followed that initial conversation I have asked them to consider who in their personal and professional lives falls into each of those categories and whether they have gaps in the circles of support around them. The gaps can then be intentionally filled by careful networking and identifying people to follow and connect with.

I have also asked them to consider which of these categories they fall into for other people:

As a Senior Leader which of the following  professional supports do you fulfil for others: Mentor? Coach? Sponsor? Therapist?  

Since my friend raised this with me I have been reflecting on it a lot. It is an interesting lens through which to review your leadership identity. I have reflected on different stages of my career and who I have leaned on. I have also considered who has opened a door, given me a helping hand and a leg up as was needed. We sometimes lump all of our network into one big circle, but reviewing my supporters and categorising them has been a process of awareness for me. Moreover, as I transition into a new role and a new way of leading, it has enabled me to look at my network with a fresh set of eyes and identify current gaps for me to intentionally close.

You wouldn’t hire an electrician to fix a leaky pipe, so why hire the wrong professional to help solve your career issues?

Read more on when to draw on each type of support here.

Therapy: the foundation of your home. We all have a past, and sometimes past emotional issues are still an issue in how we function today.

Consultants: the windows and walls of your home. If you wanted to replace your windows, you would call an expert to recommend the best windows for your home.

Coaching: the home renovation blueprint; it creates a future vision and an action plan to get there.

Mentoring: the all-knowing friend who has recently—and successfully—bought a home and is full of advice and connections.


Published by Ethical Leader

Leadership Development Consultant, Facilitator, Coach, Speaker and Writer. Experience of teaching schools, initial teacher education, mentoring & coaching, diversity and equality. Passionate about integrity, ethics and values.

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