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Coaching the coach

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The objective of a recent survey of human resource professionals was to identify the potential skills gaps that might occur as younger and older workers enter and exit the workforce. It was interesting to learn that 52 per cent of the HR professionals say their most serious concern is the lack of professionalism and work ethic.

On the other hand, only 27 per cent of HR professionals said younger workers were lacking in the critical thinking and the type of problem solving skills needed to be successful in the workplace. Other gaps such as written communications, self-direction and leadership were not considered a weakness among the younger, new entry workforce.

While issues such as a lack of professionalism and work ethic can indeed create havoc in an organization, it is also interesting to see the other side of the equation. What do the younger workers say about a skills gap? In many of the recent encounters with younger frustrated workers, I see a couple of issues arising.

First, several of the frustrated young workers I've met recently do indeed have experience gaps, but more importantly, they seem to have a broad set of natural generalist thinking skills that complement their academic education. These skills often place them 10 years ahead of their peers with respect to how they can more rapidly contribute to an organization.

Therefore, one of the key complaints expressed by these highly talented individuals is that employers focus too much attention on the lack of experience versus a young person's actual talent and abilities. This not only hinders their opportunity to enter the work world at a level that matches their talent, but often hinders their progression once they do start work.

The problem for organizations is that they might miss the opportunity to hire a strong, highly intelligent young professional who could learn and grow quickly in their organization. And, if they do hire someone with talent, employers can in turn quickly squelch any enthusiasm by failing to provide support, encouragement and professional development. The result is a high turnover of young professionals who will leave looking for better and more supportive work environments.

So what can be done about this situation? Part of the challenge is that baby boomers are often caught in a personal conflict. For instance, they may not be quite ready to retire from a psychological perspective, yet they may be threatened by an up-and-coming talented professional with more education, but less experience. Many also don't know how to set career plans for younger workers and don't know how to go about coaching these individuals. And to be honest, managers also face that all consuming time crunch and let's face it, coaching and development take time.

Two solutions come to mind, both of a coaching nature. First, managers must learn how to coach, begin coaching those who report directly to them more effectively and play a key role in creating, maintaining and sustaining a coaching culture. Coaching should also be part of management performance reviews because without this type of professional development, the organization will be left with large skills gaps when a baby boomer manager leaves.

Let's first talk about teaching managers on how to effectively coach their employees. First of all, managers must be guided toward understanding the business case for coaching. Research points to significant personal and corporate performance improvement for those organizations that implement coaching effectively.

Next, managers need to understand their role and responsibilities as a coach. They must be helped to understand the basic assumptions of coaching and the fact it is a discipline with a specific, designed process. They need to learn and practise the various steps of the coaching process and be guided to implementing this effectively.

Young, talented new-entry workers, on the other hand, need to be open to listening to their coach, asking for clarification and good, practical examples. They need to be open to taking on stretch assignments and to asking for specific technical advice when they run into problems. They need to be open to feedback and constructive comment without taking offence or being fearful.

They need to focus some attention on understanding the culture of an organization, the various power dynamics within it and the behaviours required to be successful. Many young people encounter difficulty because they rebel against the culture, trying to change it before they understand it. They need to ask questions about how to be successful, where career paths lead and what behaviour is most valued in an organization. Finally, they need to engage in healthy push back and challenge their coaches and mentors rather than becoming defensive and then frustrated.

Coaching younger workers has the specific goal of helping them to understand the way things work and how to be successful within the dynamics of the organization. Coaches need to listen carefully to their questions and frustrations and provide continuous challenge and professional development opportunities. Coaching is the manager's opportunity to assess talent, develop skills, mould behaviour and/or improve performance.

Scheduling coaching sessions is also important. If coaching isn't built into the regular timetable, it will not be viewed as part of a manager's responsibility and more than likely, appointments will be cancelled and soon forgotten. When this happens, your talented young workers will begin to look for opportunities elsewhere.

Finally, evaluation is an important part of the coaching process. With some of the highly talented workers, especially those generalists, you'll find they will develop quickly and be thirsty for new and increasingly more complex responsibilities. In this case, provide unique stretch assignments, assign them to company projects, or lend them out to other departments where they can continue building skills for the organization and not just your department.

Evaluation is critical in identifying those individuals who need more assistance and those who will require more in-depth training and experience before mastery is attained. While these individuals may not progress at an equally rapid rate, coaching and professional development will create a loyal and dedicated employee who is a steady performer.

Baby boomers will be steadily exiting the workplace and younger workers sincerely want to be there to fill the vacancies. Yet, if these individuals feel blocked right at the entry door, both the employer and potential employee will miss an opportunity. Those who do get a job but face a lack of support for professional development will leave for more favourable opportunities. Training your managers to understand the value of coaching and to engage in the coaching process is the best way to build and sustain a coaching culture.

Source: Manager as Coach, Career Partners International, 2012, SHRM/AARP Strategic Workforce Planning,


Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, is president of Legacy Bowes Group, talent management specialists. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 H1

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