Eric, 35, was elated to be selected for executive coaching. A high potential, this told him that he was being groomed for ascendance. He used the coaching well. He learned to delegate deeply and communicate motivating messages to his team. He still had the more fundamental issue of perfectionism, however, that he did not address, even though it could hold him back in the long run.
Why? That was the question we set out to answer.
Following hundreds of coaching engagements in our practice, we suspected subtle differences depending on the age of the client, and wanted to explore it empirically, especially as organizations increasingly put a premium on early talent identification and development. In our practice, Leadership Excellence Consulting, we deliver services in executive coaching, assessment, and team alignment. Lois is a Developmental Psychologist and Laura is an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist.
In our research study, published in this month’s Consulting Psychology Journal1, we took a deep dive into 72 executive coaching engagements and divided that sample into the age decades 30s, 40s, and 50s. The population consisted of primarily senior executives from a range of sectors, including financial services, media, and pharma. Reviewing each engagement in accord with well-defined behavioral definitions, we coded the degree of Responsiveness, Introspection, Defensiveness and Change the executives demonstrated. Two significant outcomes emerged: (1) 30 year olds evidenced less Introspection than 40 and 50 year olds; and (2) 30 year olds demonstrated less transformational Change than 40 and 50 year olds.
Interestingly, age decades do not map onto generational categories: Millenials, GenXers, and Baby Boomers. Our statistical analyses indicate that the differences we found aligned with the decade divides, not generational ones. This suggests that the findings are developmental, which is consistent with the scientific literature.
30 year olds indeed seize the opportunity to grow their executive repertoire. Yet as enthusiastic as they are, they unknowingly hold themselves back. Reasons for this include rock solid idealism about how things should be, and adherence to newly acquired rules that define their profession; they are less comfortable and conversant with the inherent ambiguity embedded in human behavior. Additionally, executives in this age group who are nominated for coaching are an elite, high potential population. So they think they are getting it right.
In our practice, we find two ways to reach this population, which involve meeting them at their stage of adult development. The first is to orchestrate a “moment of truth” that confronts the executive with problematic behavior and its consequences. The experience, which may precede or be part of the coaching engagement, can range in intensity from acknowledging inadequate leadership (e.g., a failed project) to the possibility of career derailment (e.g., a missed promotion). The operative principle is to grab their attention. This promotes a desire to dig themselves out by questioning airtight assumptions and pushing themselves to do something differently. The second approach entails framing insight and development in concrete, formulaic “if-then” scenarios. For example, “if you let go of this battle, you are more likely to build an advantageous relationship with X.” It has the look and feel of advanced “rules” for executive success, which resonates with the rule-abiding 30s age group.
In conclusion, executives in their 30s are motivated and enthusiastic about developing their skills. They do not differ significantly from the other age groups on Responsiveness to the coaching opportunity, nor are they outwardly Defensive. They just don’t dig deep and are unlikely to do so without the prompting one or both of these methods afford.
1Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research is a peer-reviewed journal that publishes scientifically-supported articles that advance the practice of providing psychologically-based services to improve organizations and the people who work in them. CPJ is unique is that it publishes papers that meet scientific standards, but that also are readable, practical, and actionable. It is the home of evidence-based practice in the human side of organizational consulting.