The Highlands Company Blog

Using Natural Abilities in Coaching Training – The GSSA Program

The Georgia School Superintendents Association (GSSA) serves 180 school districts as the chief advocate for Georgia’s public school students. GSSA provides leadership and representation on public education issues at the state and national levels, and provides professional development opportunities to school superintendents (CEOs of school systems). For the past 11 years, Highlands affiliate Dori Stiles, Ph.D. has partnered with GSSA’s Debra Harden, Ed.D. to provide workshops throughout GSSA’s 2-year Superintendents Professional Development Program for aspiring superintendents, their District Office Professional Development Program for the district office leadership that supports the superintendent, and their Executive Coaching Program. A key tool she uses is the Highlands Ability Battery, Leadership report.

This first article focuses on the application of the HAB in the Executive Coaching Program.

The GSSA Executive Coach Program began in 2001 as the Association sought to create a new service for first-year superintendents. In addition to the New Superintendent Orientation already in place, this new program offers a Coach to every first year school superintendent in the state of Georgia. Program goals included helping new superintendents learn about the superintendency, plugging them into a network of support, and ultimately providing a customized professional learning program tailored to each new superintendent. The program has grown over the past 10 years to be a successful member service.

Successful veteran and recently retired superintendents serve as GSSA coaches. All coaches participate in 16 hours of assessment and training. Prior to attending a 1.5-day workshop, Coaches take the Highlands Ability Battery, a 3.5 hour, objective assessment of natural talents applied to leadership tendencies.

The first 3 hours of the workshop is devoted to working with the HAB information. Using the Leadership Report, the group debrief heightens Coaches’ awareness of their natural talents, blind spots and leadership patterns. During this part of the debrief, participants focus on examples of how they use their natural abilities in their job as a superintendent and how they work with their staff. Once seen in themselves, coaches find it easier to spot talents, blind spots and patterns in their coachees, whether they are similar or dissimilar to their own.

For example, after reviewing the two spatial relations abilities, a superintendent-coach realized why he needed to include more concrete examples when communicating ideas with his staff and board of education. His natural tendency to remain at an abstract level (low SRV, mid-SRT) sometimes resulted in his proposals being overlooked because he did not provide the concrete information to make them real to stakeholders. Now, he would also easily spot this in others he coached.

Another superintendent-coach experienced an ah-ha moment when she realized her relentless pursuit to know as much as the experts in all areas of her job (a mid-range specialist-generalist) was rendering her exhausted. While already relying on her capable team, she understood why she had to be selective in the areas she would allow herself to become immersed. Understanding “why” allowed her to frame her approach in a positive manner. In addition, she now understood why some of her staff were less inclined to know or seek out details and why others seemed narrowly focused and less concerned with the big picture. Now she would be able to spot these tendencies in her coachee.


A highlight of working with the HAB information is creating the awareness of how natural abilities influence coaching skills. For example, one key coaching skill is listening deeply. While many abilities influence listening deeply, Dr. Stiles pays special attention to measures of specialist-generalist, introversion-extroversion, classification, concept organization, idea productivity and of course, tonal memory.

For example, an experiential extroverted generalist with brain storming tendencies who has low tonal memory would have the natural inclination to talk about his own experiences, share lots of new ideas and may unknowingly assert influence on the coachee. Without awareness, this Coach could slip into talking rather than listening deeply.

A focused, consultative introverted specialist with mid-range tonal memory would have the natural inclination to internally “see” solutions to a coachee’s challenges and may not listen deeply to the coachee’s decision-making process or alternatives generated. Without awareness, the coach may unwittingly guide the coachee to the solution she believes to be best.

Throughout the workshop superintendent-coaches experience ah-ha moments as they relate their HAB profiles to other coaching skills such as questioning, messaging, feedback, acknowledging, forwarding action, any others.

The remainder of the highly interactive workshop is a customized version of CCUI’s Coaching Conversations during which Coaches learn a 5-step model for holding coaching conversations as well as 4 key coaching skills. Approximately 60% of the time is devoted to practicing the concepts introduced during the workshop and reflecting back to how natural abilities impact the ease or difficulty of learning how to conduct a coaching conversation.


While the intent of using the HAB with superintendent-coaches is to help them be the best possible GSSA coach to first year school superintendents, the impact is far more expansive. Participants leave the workshop equipped with a new lens to view differences as talents and a new lexicon to objectively describe those differences. They have additional confirmation of their talents and are able to consciously make adjustments in their leadership styles to be even more effective.


Consistently listed as one of the most valuable aspects of the workshop in formal evaluations, superintendents have this to say about the HAB as part of their GSSA Coach training:

“Review of the Highlands Ability Battery was very beneficial. Self-awareness is crucial to success.”

“The information from tHAB made it relevant and was therefore very helpful.”

“The Highlands debrief was a necessary part of understanding this coaching model, the fit was great.”