Refining our coaching practice to help young professionals survive and thrive

Refining our coaching practice to help young professionals survive and thrive

photo of a young group overlooking the sea

Gary Buxton MBE is an Executive Coach based in Manchester. Gary has held both director and CEO roles over the last 12 years in both non-profit and commercial organisations. Following his extensive career in designing and delivering services for young people, we invited Gary to reflect on his journey, and then more specifically on how he thinks coaching younger professionals differs from those who are more established in their career.

The journey so far

I wasn’t always an executive coach. It's taken me a while to come full circle back round to arguably something I set out to do 20 years ago. I felt like I needed to live a little, learn a lot, and gain some wisdom about how things work in the world of business.

As a psychology graduate specialising in organisational psychology, I started my career in helping adults to realise their potential. Firstly, I worked as a practitioner, before moving into management roles. I worked primarily helping people navigate complex bumps in the road that had thrown them off course. It was during these years that I recognised that all too frequently, the moment of someone choosing either a constructive or destructive behaviour was when they were young. Trying to unravel very deep and complex beliefs and behaviours after 10 years or more of habituating them was a lengthy and often difficult process.

In my moments of reflecting, what I wanted more than anything else was to invent a time machine that would take me back to that crossroads moment, and to help them make a different choice. This led me to start volunteering with young people. Making sure that someone has the right support at the right age would set them up for life!

So, why do I tell you this? Over the last decade, I’ve maintained an ambition for helping young people and young professionals to achieve. In addition to my leadership roles, I’ve worked to make sure young people get the best start in life. I’ve employed thousands of young adults; I’ve coached many young professionals; I’m Non-Exec Director of the University of Manchester, and in 2014 I was awarded an MBE for Services to the Young People of England. During all these experiences, I’ve been taking notice of what the next generation of employees and managers need to be effective; what they want from their employers, and how the fast-changing world impacts on how our younger colleagues make decisions.

Before diving into the context, it's important for me to establish that young professionals are not a homogenous group. They are of course as diverse as any other part of our society, but as years of generational theory would suggest, there are often things which unite diverse people as being different from the previous generation. Their life outlook has been forged in the furnace of modern day living, and as such, they have a shared experience during their formative years.

Changes in technology, politics, environment, legislation and societal attitudes have all accelerated in recent decades. All this change inevitably influences young professionals who have never really known anything different. Looking at how quickly a product can go from launch to ubiquity is just a small indication of how things have changed in our world. In a recent phenomenon, Pokémon GO achieved 50 million users in just 19 days!

table showing the number of years products took to gain 50 million users

It's not just the way we connect, entertain ourselves or pay for things that is changing. The skills we need in the workplace are fundamentally changing. The World Economic Forum recently published the 2022 Skills Outlook, detailing which skills are in decline and which are growing. In a world where increasing automation and artificial intelligence helps us to work, the skills that become increasingly important are uniquely human. That’s good news for coaches, but potentially bad news for young professionals who are products of an education system that is slow to adapt.

table showing growing and declining skills and values

When considering this even more deeply, we can look at the changes across wide ranging sectors and skill sets. In 2018, McKinsey's Global Institute published a paper, Skill Shift: Automation and the Future of the Workforce, highlighting the profound changes that are forthcoming across multiple sectors.

diagram showing how the automation of AI will accelerate skill shifts

diagram showing how social and emotional skills will grow rapidly

So, why does all this context matter? It's because we as a coaching community can't rest on our laurels thinking that we can keep doing things the same whilst the world around us changes. There are ways we need to refine our practice and enhance our awareness in order to serve younger professionals effectively. We need to think about what this new generation needs and expects from coaching professionals so that they can survive and thrive in a world where the ability to adapt is often the most crucial skill.

Tips and tricks

Coaching young professionals has many parallels with coaching someone from any other age group, but in my experience, there are some notable patterns which occur more frequently with younger colleagues that might indicate a generational difference and inform our coaching practice.

Engagement – Let's start with the simple stuff. Engagement needs to be different, and will keep changing. Increasingly people will be more comfortable with a blended approach to coaching. Responsive online/face-to-face coaching will become the norm as people become more conscious of the environmental impact of travelling and increasingly working from home. Face-to-face coaching will continue to exist because we're all human, and being with someone helps us to make a connection. But if we don't develop the skills to make that connection online, then our service breadth will marginalise younger professionals who may appreciate knowing you can achieve similar outcomes regardless of the platform.

Flexibility – Younger professionals in some industries have less control and flexibility than more established colleagues, and in other industries, notably the tech world, flexibility is a core principle of productivity. Having a diverse client base therefore means that we as coaches need to be flexible. Working at hours to suit the client, or by being open to moving sessions by mutual agreement.

Transparency – Consistently, when I’m coaching young professionals, they've already done their research on me. They've seen my site, my twitter and seen what google has to offer. I am definitely not suggesting that you share every last detail about your personal life, but increasingly, young professionals expect to see a digital footprint. They want to get a sense of who you are, that you're a real human being and that your digital identity is congruent with the person they are meeting.

Job changes – Young professionals will have more jobs over their lifetime, coaching therefore will more frequently be about horizon scanning. How secure is the current role? What is the next job? How will they get it? What are their transferable skills? We all know how difficult it is over the first few months in a new role, and this increases the likelihood of a young professional feeling less rooted or confident. Keeping an awareness of this can help you to serve your client well.

Values – Younger professionals have become less trusting of traditional institutions. According to a House of Common’s Library Report from October 2019, the 18-34 year old cohort is the least likely to have participated in political activities to influence decisions, laws or policies, than any other age group, but this is not an indication of apathy. Young people live their politics by volunteering, choosing the type of organisation they want to work for and through their purchasing power. They crave and seek out individual credibility, authenticity and values in order to establish a connection and place their trust. Relational Leadership is becoming increasingly important for this generation and they expect nothing less from their coach. Being clear about your values, working with integrity and holding yourself accountable will not just be an expectation, but something that will make or break the coaching opportunity.

Fun – In a 2017 study by the NCS Trust (Welcome to Our World) young people were far more likely to desire a job they enjoyed than they're adult counterparts (19% of young people cited this as their top life goal as compared to just 7% of adults). As such, we may be seeing a new generation of professionals coming through who value joy. Coaching can be fun and creative. By using humour, playful curiosity, thought experiments and creative techniques, we can unlock higher-level problem-solving skills in our younger clients.

Change – In addition to changing jobs, we have to recognise that organisations are changing too. Every day there's a new initiative, a new technology, an unexpected disruption. Whilst this of course will affect everyone in the workplace, I would suggest that it will likely affect younger and older professionals differently. Young professionals may be more used to change, but they may feel they have less of a voice which may lead to frustration or reduced agency. If they're newer, less established, perhaps they'll feel less confident or less able to make mistakes. Recognising this in the coaching relationship is important. Their need for reassurance during change might be higher. Coaching questions like: 'What would you do if you were 10 times braver?' might help to unlock a more open mind to the situations they find themselves in.

Mental health – The destigmatising of mental health is no doubt a good thing, but in the NCS Trust's 2017 report, 37% of young adults had experienced a mental health problem. With mental health services stretched, it is not unlikely that these support needs come up more frequently during coaching sessions. This is of course not unique to any one age group, but having a clear mind on how and where coaching vs types of support will be more beneficial is essential. Brushing up on coaching techniques that enhance resilience is definitely something that young professionals will appreciate.

Skills – In being more aware of how social and emotional skills will drive our economy, our responsibility to work intensively with young professionals to enhance their emotional intelligence as early as possible is going to be paramount to their future success. Creating a space for our younger clients to explore their own thinking and emotions will make them better employees. Enabling them to recognise patterns of behaviour in others, will make them better leaders.

These reflections are of course not an exhaustive list, nor are they exclusively the preserve of the under 35s, but in appreciating how coaching young professionals might be different, we can offer something that is more resonant and effective.

Ultimately, working to be flexible, digital, empathic and keeping a sense of fun in your coaching style will help you to respond effectively to the needs of our next generation of people managers and leaders. Best of all, in my experience, young professionals are always hungry to learn, appreciative and ambitious for the future. It makes being a coach one of the best jobs in the world!

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash