Kerry Wallaert: Applying Strengths in the Coaching Circle and PhD Exams

As a certified Strengths Coach speaker-trainer, within her first week on campus Kerry Wallaert immediately connected with ETD Director Dr. Mary Lynn Realff. Wallaert has been working with CliftonStrengths since 2007 (at Southeast Missouri State and Georgia State before she came to Georgia Tech in 2016). As a member of the ETD Initiative’s leadership team as well as the Educational Outreach Manager in the School of Materials Science & Engineering, Wallaert has applied her expertise in Strengths by leading workshops at staff meetings, facilitating undergraduate teamwork training, and mentoring students one-on-one.

When Wallaert wants to take time to reflect on her own Strengths, she turns to the ETD Coaching Circle, where she serves as a coach and also has her own coach. With one-on-one as well as group sessions, the program supports coaches – who spend most of their time supporting others – with a space to focus on their own Strengths. For instance, Wallaert might reflect on how she brings her best self to a team by drawing on her #3 Empathy and #1 Input Strengths to make sure everyone has a voice and feels included. She might consider how she loves making lists, and communicates this to her co-workers as part of her #4 Achiever strength. Or she might receive affirmation from her peers that because Ideation is her #6 Strength, she is constantly generating new ideas.

Members of the Coaching Circle share their own experiences and receive suggestions from their peers tailored to their unique context. They might be encouraged to draw on one of their Strengths to approach a situation a different way, or to explore a new project. Wallaert says she loves the Coaching Circle, and she’s brought a couple of her close friends and colleagues from other areas on campus into the group. “I think it’s very beneficial to be able to continue to have conversations about our own Strengths and our own development. It gives us space to really stop and think about what we’re doing. How are we using our Strengths, or how are we not, and what is hindering us?”

Wallaert appreciates how the Coaching Circle allows her to connect her personal growth and professional development: “I have been able to talk about the things going on in my personal life and my academic life, and bring them into my work life, and I’m getting some feedback on both of those, which has been wonderful. You’re not always thinking about that when you’re in the day-to-day grind, so it gives you that pause to reflect on where those strengths are showing up.” For instance, she received Strengths coaching to prepare her for her PhD comprehensive exams. She and her coach identified what could be a hindrance, and what would be helpful. “It definitely has been helpful to pause, and then reset, and make adjustments.”

As a PhD student in Educational Policies Studies, Wallaert draws on her #1 Input, #2 Learner, and #5 Intellection Strengths for her research process, while her #4 Achiever Strength helps her move from input (reading) to output (writing). She worked with her coach to devise strategies to effectively balance these strengths throughout the PhD exam process. “Because I have Input, Learner, and Intellection in my top five, sometimes I spend too much time gathering information,” she explains. “And so we talked about how to balance that with my Achiever, so I would be getting something done. She gave me some really great tips.” Based on her coach’s advice, Wallaert was able to stop herself from “going down the research rabbit hole” and make sure she was writing at regular intervals. And because her #7 Strength is Maximizer, when she was done writing her PhD exams she thoroughly reviewed and edited her work to keep improving it. She reflects that her conversations with her coach helped her become “more aware of how my strengths were both hindering and helping me through that process.”

She has also made a point to openly discuss her Strengths with her dissertation committee, so they can more intentionally support her research and writing process. For instance, her advisor was able to help her move past perfectionism during the PhD exam process: “I’m a high achiever, so I like things to be really on point, and it’s very difficult for me to turn in something that’s not 100% perfect. And my advisor knows that even though I was mentally drained, I was constantly worrying about whether it was good enough, and she said, ‘just stop, turn it all off, dial down the Achiever. You are fine. Just stop worrying.’”

Based on her own positive experience applying Strengths language to the PhD process, Wallaert would love to get more PhD committees talking about Strengths – the grad students’ as well as the professors’ – to improve the interpersonal dynamics. “In a dissertation committee, wouldn’t it be awesome if everybody was on the same page? Like this faculty member is going to take a long time to read through materials because they are Deliberative, or because they are Restorative and they want to make sure you have every single piece in place – wouldn’t that be helpful?”

This is the second article in a two-part series about Kerry Wallaert. Learn about her empowering approach to student advising here.

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