View from the River: Dr Jennifer Barnes, Executive Coach

We are very pleased to share more personal insights from the team at Saxton Bampfylde. Dr Jennifer Barnes is an integral Partner in our Leadership Services team focusing specifically on Coaching for senior leaders.

In this feature Jennifer shares her approach, experience and recommendations on professional coaching, and gives us a glimpse into her personal experiences and learnings during lockdown.


Please will you share a lockdown learning?

My biggest learning was to accept the greater flexibility and additional time in the day that came from lockdown. This was not easy for me.

At the beginning it really felt very unsettling to be so unscheduled. I, like most people, had never spent so much time at home, and I wasn’t commuting or rushing from one meeting to the next. This brought with it initially a deep sense of panic. It meant I had to face some level of anxiety, but my training really helped me to understand and listen to what my instincts were telling me: I was addicted to being busy.

It only took about five weeks, however, and I began to notice that I was sleeping better, had more patience, and generally felt good. Not having to commute, having a more flexible schedule and taking more time to reflect and acknowledge feelings, rather than a series of reactions and actions. That put me in a much better place personally and professionally and I am grateful to have had the chance to recognise this.


With the choice – pop on a podcast or bury your nose in a book? And please share any good recommendations…

My podcast expert is my 25-year-old daughter and she makes excellent recommendations. I can also Netflix binge as well as the next person and have taken out subscriptions to ‘StarzPlay’ and ‘Britbox’ during lockdown.

However, I would opt for books as my absolute favourite. I am an obsessive reader, always having to know I have the next book lined up. Saxton Bampfylde has a brilliant book club and we get fantastic suggestions from that.

My recommendation is: “In a lonely place” by Dorothy B Hughes, written in 1947. She is probably one of the greatest ever crime writers with a writing style which was years ahead of its time. She wrote about the steamy side of California, adopting the voice of a serial killer; it is brilliant and scary. I just love to think she was a woman working in this style in 1947 and completely nailed it.


Can you tell us about your role and focus at Saxton Bampfylde?

My career has been varied, with leadership roles at specialist institutions such as the The Royal College of Music, then as Director of Education at BP before moving to be President of a College and Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cambridge.

I was a search consultant with Saxton Bampfylde for five years. In July 2019, I decided I wanted to focus more specifically on coaching. It was Executive Search that allowed me to acknowledge this wish, long buried, to better understand the impact of the working environment on individuals.

I have always admired the way Stephen Bampfylde, the co-founder, has an entirely open mind, and introduces candidates that the panel might never have considered. I myself was a beneficiary of this imaginative approach when I went from a music conservatoire to a role at BP. So, in the course of search, you have a chance to meet wonderful people, and I realised that what I most wanted to do, spend concentrated time, one-to-one with them on promotions, or new roles or changes of sectors.

Timing was on my side. I was already some way into my training when the pandemic struck. I was able to take time and finished my senior practitioner training at the Tavistock. I then transitioned to the Leadership Services team at Saxton Bampfylde to augment the coaching offering.


Can you tell us a bit more about the difference between coaching and mentoring?

You’d expect your coach to have a professional coaching qualification. As a coach there is a very fine balance to be struck between being directive, giving advice, and knowing when to hold back and when to ask more and encourage the coachee to make connections that are not yet clear to them. Most people come into coaching presenting a certain issue, but quickly that develops to indicate other areas which lie beneath. It is very important that a coach really understands the institutional culture, the client’s specific role, personal background and how the coachee performs under pressure.

A mentor, also very valuable, is frequently someone who has gained specific experience of a sector or role at the most senior levels. It involves empathetic listening to the mentee’s issues and giving advice and sharing reflections through the mentor’s considerable knowledge and experience, even insight into specific people and situations the mentee will face. It is a connected system used to support an individual, whereas the coach should have an objectivity in which to support their coachee.

I advise all my coaching clients to develop their mentor network. It’s not either/or: both are needed by senior leaders. When people take on their first leadership role, I urge them to think about finding a core group of people they can call on. That might include a coach and four or five mentors, if possible.


Is coaching typically a self-referral process? 

Many work with a coach in the same way a professional musician or athlete has a coach: they are at the top of their game but know they need to continuously improve and keep their skills and approach sharp. Leadership can be quite lonely. They know they can’t confide in their colleagues, as they no longer have a group of peers in their own institution. They worry that confiding in their Chair or members of their Board may not be appropriate, either. A coach’s independence is key to allowing an individual to be open about what is really happening and how they are really feeling, as they are in roles where their outer appearance must offer support and a sense that they are always ready to solve the problem.

Others seek out a coach because of a stumble, a disappointment or issue at work. Initially these people feel unfamiliar, distressed and frequently a sense of shame and failure. That is where a coach’s training really comes in, to bring perspective to what is often a normal rite of passage for any leader. The coach, as a non-judgemental advocate, will be alongside the person to help them find and explore what is causing them to behave and react in certain ways.


What is your personal approach to coaching?

I approach coaching at two different levels. The first is to consider and discuss immediate issues. We always start with a general check-in, and that usually brings up several things we can look at together. There is a balance that needs to be discovered with each individual to do with pace and creating a sense of exploration. Equally, we are there to address specific issues. My coaching is solutions-oriented: together we look at what needs to be addressed and explore how best to address it.

Then there is a deeper level, beyond the pragmatic. I am observing and sensing what is not being said. I am looking carefully at the whole person and how they are presenting their situation: Are there patterns? When did they start? What is being said here that connects to a different conversation in a past session?

This will bring up personal issues, and while this is coaching, and not counselling, we are addressing a person’s professional response to the role they are in. Many of us can sense, but not fully understand the impact, of the culture and history of an organisation on our behaviours. How this affects an individual’s ability to operate in the way they would find most effective is the basis of our work.


Should a coach be from the same sector as you? 

The current approach with a coach, as opposed to a mentor, which often comes from your sector, is that there is value in working with an individual in which you feel comfortable, to the point you will accept challenge and different perspectives. The deeper question, when meeting a prospective coach is: Do they seem to understand me and my situation? Do they have empathy for what I am doing and how I have come to be doing it in this way?

Fundamentally, a coach should strike a sense of resonance in the person seeking a coach. If there is a ‘meh’ feeling after an initial meeting with a coach – definitely keep looking.

At that point the value of someone coming from outside your sector means widening the scope of ideas, approaches and examples of how things might be done. There can be benefit with an outside-the-sector coach, as long as the coach can make the lateral connections between their experience and your complex issues.

Specifically in Education the coach needs to recognise that the job of developing human beings is about as extraordinary as it gets. It’s also a highly regulated system, which affects behaviours. The coach therefore should understand that money per se is not the motivation for being in the profession. The balance of supporting students and staff, while responding to the pressures of parents, regulators and government requires a specific kind of individual.


What benefits can coaching and mentoring bring to leaders? 

I have come to realise that coaching is too often offered rather late in a person’s career, when they’ve reached sufficient seniority. By this time, we all have fairly engrained behaviours, which we rely on as having got us to our leadership roles, without much of a chance to pause and look carefully at why we operate in the way we do and, is what we’ve always done the most effective response to a new institution or role.

I would like to see organisations invest in their up-and-coming leaders earlier in their career. I think coaching has often assumed to be prohibitively expensive as well as time consuming, and something only the commercial world can afford. Ironically, perhaps, the justification in the commercial world is to support that person to be more effective, and that often means working less hours but in a more focused way, to preserve energy and motivation. School leaders are under extraordinary pressure, running a complex business with many challenges, including large estates and a broad HR remit in addition to developing and nurturing the next generation.


What is your top line view of the education sector?

The overwhelming thing that strikes me at this point is the exhaustion within the Education sector – across Schools and Higher Education. There is a despondency and anxiety amongst students and they look to the institution of the school or university to relieve this, but those organisations are under tremendous pressure, too, with restrictions and mandates they cannot control.

There are going to be some challenges ahead. There has been a collective feeling of ‘getting through’ the pandemic, but there will be the fall-out from those who believe their lives would have developed differently if they had had the provision without it. They will be asking difficult questions about what they are owed due to what they have missed. This will create uncomfortable times ahead for senior leaders across the interdependent sectors of Education and Higher Education, but in the short-term, the pressure is on those in the secondary sector to express judgements on matriculating students which will inevitably cause controversy for all involved. Not where anyone would wish to be.

I hope that it will be remembered and recognised that the teaching profession has not only been a front-line service during the pandemic, but also that we as a society have come to a better understanding that when all is stripped away, the fundamental need for education remains paramount.

Leadership Coaching

Designed with the individual leader front of mind, our coaching provides a reflective, challenging, nurturing – and safe – space. It is an opportunity to chat about what is on their mind; share insights; think the unthinkable; come up with alternatives and rehearse their next steps.

To find out more, please contact our team


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