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Coaching for Development: An Essential Leadership Tool

Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH

Section Editor(s): Baker, Edward L. Column Editor

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: January/February 2012 - Volume 18 - Issue 1 - p 100–101
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0b013e31823bfa4e

This column discusses the use of formal executive coaching as a tool to increase awareness, modify behaviors, and improve performance to enhance the competency of public health leaders.

North Carolina Institute for Public Health, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, Chapel Hill.

Correspondence: Edward L. Baker, MD, MPH, North Carolina Institute for Public Health, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, Campus Box 8165, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 (

Disclosure: The author declares no conflict of interest.

Public health leaders are increasingly faced with unprecedented challenges as the public health system experiences economic stresses, political intervention, and the relentless march of health threats and emergencies. These and related challenges present situations for which many public health leaders are unprepared. Often, public health leaders find themselves in positions where their technical training in a health area is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for success. At times, a purely technical approach to a leadership challenge may even be counterproductive. Therefore, a need has existed for many years for formal approaches to leadership skill development that enhances the competency of public health leaders. One such approach is the use of formal executive coaching as a tool to increase awareness, modify behaviors, and improve performance.

The national Public Health Leadership Institute (PHLI), now ending its 20th year, has included a formal component of executive coaching managed by staff from the internationally recognized Center for Creative Leadership for many years. As part of the coaching process, PHLI scholars completed a 360° assessment and engaged in one-on-one executive coaching sessions with a certified and highly experienced executive coach. As part of our evaluation of the PHLI experience, we have regularly assessed the value and impact of executive coaching as an integral part of the yearlong PHLI program. Scholars have consistently rated the coaching experience as one of the most valuable if not the most valuable aspect of the PHLI program.1 Specific benefits included the following:

  • Enhanced self-awareness.
  • Enhanced awareness of how others perceive the leader.
  • Identification of areas of strength in leadership practice.
  • Identification of growth opportunities.

Many PHLI scholars have shared the results of the 360° evaluations and coaching experience with colleagues as part of their own development process as leaders. Scholars continued to connect with coaches after the end of the yearlong program. Others have developed in-house leadership development programs, which employ these individual assessment and coaching techniques.

In this context, the coach serves as a catalyst for professional development. As a consequence of the developmental experience, improved performance may occur.2* To accomplish the goal of leader development, the Center for Creative Leadership has developed and tested a framework for coaching having 3 components: assessment, challenge, and support. The framework is anchored in a strong commitment to relationship building between coach and coachee, with an emphasis on measurable results.2 Using this coaching framework in PHLI, individual scholars have demonstrated enhanced awareness and changes in their leadership practices.1 Drawing on these results, scholars have implemented initiatives to enhance effectiveness and efficiency of health programs.3

Unfortunately, public health leaders who have not been a part of an organized program of leadership development face real barriers in participating in a coaching experience. Cost is always a limitation and many find that barrier insurmountable. Others find it difficult to identify a skilled coach with an experience base, which is related to the work life of public health. Finally, public health, in contrast to some other fields, has not embraced a culture of leader development, such that coaching is seen as an integral aspect of public health workforce development.

Nevertheless, a few promising signs are emerging. Individuals who have experienced the benefits of individual leadership assessment and skilled executive coaching are committed to continuing to interact with their coaches. A significant number of current PHLI scholars, when surveyed in September 2011, indicated a commitment to use the knowledge and insights gained for their own continuing personal development. Furthermore, many are advocating the use of these tools within their own organizations. Since a fundamental leadership responsibility is to mentor or coach others, scholars have also benefited from the PHLI coaching experience through development of their own coaching skills. Application of these coaching skills by scholars has resulted in a “ripple effect,” such that many who have been coached become skilled coaching practitioners themselves.

As noted in previous Management Moment columns, a commitment to public health leadership development is central to efforts to strengthen our nation's public health system.4 Now, more than ever, public health leaders are faced with unprecedented challenges. In addressing these challenges, use of proven techniques of individual leadership skills assessment and executive coaching offers unique benefits of greater self-awareness, more effective leadership behaviors, and, ultimately, improved organizational performance.

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1. Umble KE, Baker EL, Woltring C. An evaluation of the National Public Health Leadership Institute—1991–2006: part I. Developing individual leaders. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2011;17:202–213.
2. Ting S, Riddle D. A framework for leadership development coaching. In: The CCL, Handbook of Coaching: A Guide for the Leader Coach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass; 2006:34–62.
3. Umble K, Baker EL, Diehl SJ, et al. An evaluation of the National Public Health Leadership Institute–1991–2006: part II. Strengthening public health leadership networks, systems, and infrastructure. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2011;17:214–224.
4. Baker EL. Investing in public health leadership. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2011;17:291–292.

* Further information on tools and use of the framework is available at
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