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Gen Y Leaders, Boomer Coach

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Ethical considerations often arise in these client/coach dialogs and again represent some of the differences between past generations and Gen Y thinking. I remember having a casual conversation with a client about a tech company attorney who was disbarred for out-of-compliance activities. My client said that it might be fine for him since he had made more money than he would make in his entire career as an attorney. I realized that I had no idea how this multi-millionaire ex-attorney felt about his choices. I realized that his ethical framework was being structured through exposure to the rarified atmosphere of Silicon Valley. I’ve come to realize that these young people have yet to refine their own ethical framework. I’m often designing methodologies to surface beliefs and values or to improve understanding of impact of considered actions.

Facilitation can be used to surface and address issues that impede success. In one company I facilitated an executive team offsite with a goal of clarifying roles and optimizing working well together. The first theme to emerge was the chasm between the young founders and the recently hired executive members with more business experience. It was a clash of values pitting innovation against tradition; intelligence against experience.

Facilitated activities can be used to help polarized groups find common ground. One process that works well takes the client through the following steps: (1) Note their own beliefs about colleague(s); (2) Recall the specific experiences that generated the beliefs; (3) Note what they think colleagues believe about them; (4) Engage in dialog with each other to validate or revise their perspectives.

Sometimes members of competing viewpoints will use nearly the same words to describe their complaints, for example, “You don’t listen to me.” Becoming aware of common ground allows the team to bridge those gaps and begin working better together.

One other common challenge for young founders is managing multiple competing pressures around control, wealth and making a difference. The Founder’s Dilemma phenomenon is nicely explained in Wasserman’s (2008) Harvard Business Review article. He points out that founders often want to maintain control, generate wealth and pursue their world-changing vision. It’s tough to get all three.

How do people get money out of this company without giving up control either to funders, the SEC, or a seasoned CEO? The tension between experienced leaders and young innovators can be intense around this issue. The young are optimistic. I remember a heated debate in response to an offer to purchase the company. An experienced leader (mid-30s) said, “You don’t know how hard it is to make just one crummy million”. The founder’s response was, “I don’t care.”

Some discussions are at the boundary of consulting and coaching. An example that comes to mind is a conversation about how to structure the product management function. My client had no experience with the role of product management but knew something had to change from the current approach. We talked about what he wanted and what he wanted to avoid. I subsequently explained the principles and various structures other companies used. The client ultimately built a structure that differed considerably from that used by others who were managing this function—yet he infused his own structure with some of the best practices from other companies.

The coach needs to be a person whom the client can trust to hold his best interest at heart – someone who will honor the client’s perspective before giving advice. We need to manage our own impulse to share wisdom until invited by the client. We need to be willing to stand with the client when they have chosen their way and it doesn’t work out that well. As for the successes, they belong to the client.

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