As a coach who works with millennials, I recently interviewed over 20 high-potential millennial leaders via LinkedIn to figure out what kept them up at night and how coaching might help. I spoke to young CEOs, UN Youth Ambassadors and TED Fellows. There were activists and owners, authors and bloggers, bankers and technologists. Many incredible technologists.
This was a diverse group of our future leaders — people who often buck the stereotypes of Gen Y — and they have valuable insight for us all if we are prepared to listen.
Is Coaching Really Mainstream?
Coaching seems to be all the rage nowadays. There are life coaches, leadership coaches, executive coaches and business coaches. There are writing coaches, speech coaches, comparison coaches and health coaches. Coaching magazine Choice even recently highlighted the growing work of divorce coaches and recovery coaches for substance abusers.
All this is to say that the word “coaching” is thrown around a lot and there seems to be serious momentum building around a global movement. But what do millennials know about coaching? Do they understand what it entails? Do they even need it or want it? What I discovered may surprise you.
The Idea Of Coaching Was Not Widely Known
The majority of the incredibly accomplished young leaders I interviewed told me they had never really heard of or understood professional coaching before I came along, and only four (less than 20%) had worked with a coach before.
Karim Abouelnaga, who leads a summer learning experience for low-income youth, got his coaching fix through the SupporTED program and a prior Global Good Fund Fellowship. Digital marketing consultant Lacey Heels received coaching from a savvy coach-mentor in short bursts over coffee or an informal meal. Lukas Pesa, a deep thinker in the HR space, enjoyed the perks of working at a major consulting firm where everyone is assigned a coach. And Francisco Lopez received coaching through the prestigious Professional Development Program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Though all four found the experience to be incredibly valuable, they also all notably had coaching “thrust upon them” and received it for free.
Others that I spoke to had a vague sense of coaching and might have run across the work of public figures like Tony Robbins or the like, but most admitted that they did not understand it or see its relevance to them beyond having a sports coach.
The Real Tradeoffs
I enjoyed an opportunity to offer free coaching sessions to at least half of the interviewees, not including those mentioned in this article, and we worked through the full-range of “typical coaching issues:” goal-setting, perspective-shifting, work-life balance, authenticity, passion, purpose and many other topics in between.
To my relief, none of these young leaders told me that coaching was a waste of their time. On the contrary, every single person had something positive to say about it.
So why had less than 20% of these young super-performers actually ever been in a coaching relationship? What I kept hearing was that if these high-potentials learned about coaching and found a way to afford it, coaching would suddenly become a no-brainer.
Now that they knew about it, these same people said they might look for a coach when their endeavors became more profitable or when they had a legitimate need for that kind of targeted help.
This “I’ll get to it later” mentality didn’t really add up for me. After all, these were some high-achievers who understood the value of taking risks and investing in themselves. Why wasn’t this life hack worth pursuing right away?
To one interviewee, Vivekan Jeyagaran, the answer was about vulnerability, because “hiring or enlisting the help of a coach (free or not) requires the coachee to put themselves in an exposed position, as they are required to confront the truth about themselves, their work and lives, skills (or lack thereof), insecurities, weaknesses, strengths and everything in between.” Writing in from Malawi, where Vivekan was volunteering as a business management advisor, he couldn’t think of many people who would be willing to put themselves in such vulnerable positions.
Making Space For Coaching
This vulnerability argument makes a lot of sense in the context of the millennial generation, so I will conclude with some ways to promote a more comfortable and inviting coaching space for young leaders:
• Leverage sample sessions. Many coaches will give a free session so you can get a feel for style and fit, so take advantage of this opportunity.
• Model good behavior by getting a coach before selling someone else on it. If your prospective coach does not have a coach themselves, that should be a flag.
• Make it clear that coaching is a benefit that has been proven to make good people even better, as opposed to a remedial or punitive measure.
• Reinforce confidentiality. Except in very limited circumstances (like the immediate risk of personal harm), no one else has a right to know what happens in a coaching conversation.
• Analyze the costs and benefits through quantitative and qualitative measures. I’m not here to tell you that coaching is working — your friends, family and colleagues are better judges of that. People who put in the work will start to hear interesting feedback from the people around them.