In this post Richard Spilg draws parallels between executive coaching and sports training and in doing so asks a crucial question - are we investing enough in our emerging talent?
In the gym recently, trying to maintain dignity while struggling to regain my breath, I noticed something about the way the (relatively) young and (relatively) old go about their training. When I was young, I don’t remember having to worry that my glutes had stopped working. Fast forward some 30 years and I learn that these “stabilisers” had slipped into premature retirement somewhere along the line. Therefore, the focus of my training (with the help of a very patient personal trainer) is to get these muscles working again so that I can at least try to rediscover my passion for a sport, like tennis, that I loved playing as a youngster.
By contrast, the younger crowd - in their 20’s and 30’s – seem to focus on building the specific muscle strength they’ll need to realise their potential in their chosen sport. Their trainers push them to the point of exhaustion through repetition, so that the required physical action is hardwired into their systems. Roger Federer doesn’t have time to tell his body what to do when trying to hit a crosscourt winner off a 250 km/h Milos Raonic serve.
This got me thinking about the parallels with executive coaching. Substitute the mental for the physical, and the role of an executive coach is akin to that of a personal trainer. About helping a client rediscover his/her passion for something, or helping a client realise his/her full potential in their chosen career. However, the very term “executive coaching” steers our thinking to working with people who are already operating at senior levels in an organisation – CEO, CFO, Executive Director, Partner, etc. As a general rule, given cost considerations, organisations thinking about an investment in executive coaching tend to focus on their most senior employees, typically those in the over 40 age bracket. But what about those younger stars who are likely to be key to the future success of business?
There are a host of reasons why coaching works for senior leaders - and achieving potential remains one of the key coaching outcomes for this category of client. However, in a lot of cases, it’s more about clients rediscovering what they were once passionate about, and how they re-integrate that passion into their future plans. Just like the older crowd at the gym – except they are rediscovering how to use their minds as opposed to their bodies.
So here’s the conundrum – by definition, the younger set have more unrealised potential than those who have already “made it”. If a key aspect of coaching is to help people realise their true potential, surely it is as important for organisations to make the investment in their younger stars? Executive coaching is one of the most effective tools for creating sustainable behavioural change – due to the focus on aligning values with objectives. By contrast, while motivational seminars, workshops, and the like can help re-energise participants (and provide good networking opportunities), the effects are often short-lived. A couple of days back at work and that injection of enthusiasm has dissipated.
A friend was telling me about a colleague in his mid-30’s who is clearly an over-achiever. Brilliant at what he does, working all hours, and yet finding time to run sub 3-hour marathons. Surely on the path to success with his current (or future) employer? Well, maybe – as long as all the energy he’s putting into his work is aligned to his values and he’s working as hard as he is for the right reasons. If not, burn-out and disillusion are equally possible outcomes. So, why not invest properly in this young person’s future at this stage of his career?
The perceived expense and time commitment attached to executive coaching can also deter people who will need to self-fund. Like a young entrepreneur who has set up a successful business, but is now having to figure out what next in terms of organisational development and business expansion. Or a successful woman who has taken (or feels the need to take) a long career break to raise kids and would prefer to start her own business in an area that plays to her strengths and interests.
One solution is to offer those younger leaders programs that are shorter than the traditional 6-12 months, but with a sharper focus. Young leaders with it all ahead of them could think of it as a “stitch in time” – an opportunity to get into the Leading Self piece before too much pressure is imposed around Leading Others. And one of the key focus areas would be to help them establish a leadership style that is authentic to their own values and beliefs.
The need for effective leadership is becoming increasingly important in those sectors that are most exposed to digital disruption, where younger managers are being promoted to positions of leadership because they “get” technology. Not only are these new leaders having to deal with a rapidly changing competitive landscape, they also need the skills to effectively deal with the consequential organisational challenges – such as high staff turnover, an evolving corporate culture, managing multi-generational teams, managing remote teams, etc.
As coaching is self-directed, the life-long learnings provide a sustainable platform for future development. It also provides those that will go on to become senior leaders with an understanding of coaching, and the well documented benefits of developing a coaching style of leadership in their own organisations.