How One District Leader Is Strengthening Her Leadership
“I practice and model vulnerability,” explains Gina Sudaria, superintendent of Ravenswood City School District in California. “I intentionally share that I have an executive coach because I want to model that everyone needs a thought partner—no matter the level you are at. Everyone needs to continue to reflect. Everyone needs support with problem solving.”
Located in East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park, Ravenswood serves a diverse, primarily Latino student population across three elementary schools and one middle school. More than half of the students are multilingual learners. Ravenswood’s theory of action identifies six priorities, among them: engaging all students with relevant, rigorous, standards-aligned instruction, engaging with families, and providing safe, joyful, and productive learning environments.
Executive coaching is designed to meet the unique needs of a school system, and often to provide support in implementing the strategic plan. Coaching also offers confidential thought partnership and feedback that enable senior leaders to examine and reflect on their leadership moves. The focus of leadership coaching, according to Maria Esponda-Medina, Sudaria’s coach, is driven by the senior leader. Then together, during the coaching session, they zero in on a problem of practice, decision-making processes, adaptive leadership, and more. Esponda-Medina is a former principal and district administrator. She currently serves as National Senior Executive Director, Exemplar Sites Model at New Leaders.
“I practice and model vulnerability. I intentionally share that I have an executive coach because I want to model that everyone needs a thought partner—no matter the level you are at."
For Sudaria, executive coaching “allows me to stand in confidence in my leadership.” For Esponda-Medina, coaching is both inquiry and advocacy. “I always ask: How do you find the balance between being on the ‘balcony’—looking at the systems and structures you’ve put in place in the district—and getting out on the ‘dance floor’ to see the footprints of that work reaching your students?”
To that end, Sudaria prioritized shifting her role from being a manager to coaching her district leadership team. Here is how executive leadership coaching is benefiting Sudaria and the Ravenswood community.
Building an effective team
“I wanted to understand how I can really galvanize and motivate everyone to build collective efficacy,” reflects Sudaria. “I’m only one person.” Executive coaching shows her how to be more intentional around her facilitation, the questions she asks, and the expectation she sets for her team. “Now I am modeling processes that my team members can use with their own teams to help them be more effective in their leadership and their decision-making.”
Prioritizing effective decision-making
As superintendent, Sudaria wants her decisions, and those of her team, to trickle down to the “dance floor” and impact students and the goals set forth in the strategic plan. The bottom line, she explains, is always the return on investment: measurable student success. “Executive coaching helps me to prioritize where to start, how to identify my next steps, how to look for evidence of progress, and how to keep the focus of our decisions centered on student learning.”
A turning point for Sudaria was realizing her work went beyond the daily demands of the role to more transformational change. “I am changing mindsets,” she observes. One example she cites is Ravenswood’s continued focus on social justice. “To do this work, we have to really understand people. We have to exhibit care and empathy. My coach does that. She helps me to connect with my team on the human level. That is what we need to really make an impact.”
“Executive coaching helps me to prioritize where to start, how to identify my next steps, how to look for evidence of progress, and how to keep the focus of our decisions centered on student learning.”
An added, and often hidden, benefit of executive leadership coaching is the space for confidentiality. “It’s great to have an objective lens,” notes Sudaria. “And, it helps to have someone who is familiar with our community, deeply knowledgeable of other districts across the country, and someone I can speak frankly to about my areas of growth and receive the truth.” That space to be vulnerable and authentic is especially valuable for executive leaders who are often in the public eye.
Coaching, be it at the executive level or in the classroom, is rooted in adult learning theory. Leadership is not developed overnight, but rather through continuous and authentic practice. “The coaching I receive is catered to me, guiding our district, as unique as it is, with best practices and strategies. I truly appreciate how New Leaders adapted to the needs of Ravenswood.”
Sudaria’s advice to leaders right now:
“Trust your leadership. It becomes easier to trust your leadership when you work on yourself to outwork your self doubt. You have to be honest with yourself in order to make an impact in how you lead. Get someone to help you think through challenges and problem solve. Find your person to bounce ideas off of and more importantly who you trust to hold up that ‘mirror’ for you to reflect. You can’t do it alone. You can’t think you have all the answers.”