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Coaching the Young Client

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Young high potential employees are often risk-takers. They like to leap over the cliff, and are confident about their own ability to fly when leaping over that cliff. They set the bar high and find flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008) by progressively moving the bar upward. This also means that these clients sometimes take the wrong risk and not only crash themselves, but also bring other employees down with them. Alternatively, they may often expect their co-workers to be risk-takers or make great demands on other employees in order to tackle unrealistic goals. The high potentials often do not pay sufficient attention to reality—and when they leap off the cliff, they do so without knowing how far they will fall or the size of their parachute (or even if they have a parachute!).

Under these conditions, the coach can be very helpful by encouraging and guiding the client in the identification of and planning for a responsible and reasonable risk. This often means that the coach helps the client set up one or more possibilities for “experiments”—pilot testing a new idea, running demonstration projects, creating a “sanctuary” in which new ideas can be moved to action in a manner that allows for “safe risks” and encourages organizational learning (Argyris & Schon, 1978; Senge, 2006). The coach might ask: “Where can you safely test out this idea?” or “What are some ways in which you can learn much more about the feasibility/practicality of this idea?”

Career Planning

One of the greatest challenges we see with young, high potential employees is managing expectations.  When an early career high potential completes a one or two year program, what’s next?  Many are asking, “When will I be promoted and what is my new compensation package?” Expectations of a rapid and vertical career trajectory are common and create dilemmas for the high potential, the organization and the coach.  We know that organization hierarchy has shifted to wider spans of control creating flatter organizations and limiting talent mobility. There is an additional factor that compounds this challenge: as we noted earlier in this article, older employees are staying in place and working into their 70s. This is wonderful for the older employees (unless they are working longer because of economic insecurity). For the younger workers, these extended careers are talent blockers.

For these reasons, we have found that coaching in early career is most successful when an element of career coaching is included. For example, coaches can help their young clients understand the importance of perception and managing their reputation. We have found in our work with this population that very often they do not seek out feedback nor realize the importance of doing so. In addition, because individual coaching is limited at this level, it’s almost a necessity in their early career to build their own “board of advisors” for mentoring, introductions, and increasing visibility within the organization and within their professional network.

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