Coaching High Potential Managers for Growth – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOLbusiness leadership writer

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” – Abraham Maslow

I’m often asked, what’s the best way to coach high potential growth leaders. A very important point to be made before beginning a coaching program with potential “growth” leaders, an interesting distinction must be made between high potentials and high performers. The main difference between them is that the high potential growth leader has the desire, the drive, and the ability to assume leadership roles, a significant point to consider prior to investing in any growth or development program. While high performers produce excellent work, they often lack the drive, aspirations, and “street smarts” to mature into successful leaders. Using the International Coaching Federation’s Core Competencies as a baseline, several important factors need to be considered in coaching true growth leaders.

  1. Engaging in active listening which is an ICF Core Competency. Active engagement with the growth client converts unproductive, trivial conversations into dynamic thinking and learning opportunities. With active listening, reframing and reflection, the client receives high quality, positive feedback, which then stimulates more thinking and idea generation.

In this scenario, the coach does not sit back just waiting to speak but is fully engaged in the client’s conversation. The coach must allow for periods of silence, when no speaking goes on at all, because the client will eventually fill the gaps with his/her own thoughts and ideas.

  • Challenge the Status Quo: To achieve growth, the high potential client needs to be challenged in his/her current thinking. It’s the coach’s job to move the client beyond relying on “best practices” and remaining in the comfort zone of “this is the way we’ve always done it” or “NIH” Not Invented Here. Good questions to ask in this scenario are “What comes next?” and “How can a solution be innovated?” When faced with big challenges, the client should be encouraged to tap into their own creativity and look for a undiscovered solution, rather than defer to existing policies, processes, and procedures. High potentials need that stimulation to realize their efforts are moving the company and their careers forward. I like to play the devil’s advocate with high potential clients to further encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Also, these clients need to be prepared to deal with divergent and disagreeing views.

Also, where appropriate, a devil’s advocate position can promote more thinking outside the box. The goal is to nurture thoughtful consideration of opposing perspectives, leading to potentially new solutions which grow and enhance the company’s bottom line as well as the career trajectory of the client.

  • Suggest Other Learning Opportunities: Growth leaders need to continue to grow. I challenge my clients to explore additional skill enhancements such as additional degrees, certifications, rotational assignments, and stretch assignments.  Developing expertise and expanding experience not only improves the value of the growth leader to the organization, but it also improves the organization as an entirety.
  • Provide Value-Added Constructive Feedback and “Feedforward”: Constructive feedback challenges the client to self-examine to seek self-improvement. High potential clients need to embrace the fact that they are talented, but not perfect and that there is always room for continuous growth and development. I offer concrete suggestions about how they could improve. This way, the client can focus on specific outcomes as they continuously challenge themselves to advance to new and larger roles. Fresh perspectives test their ability to rely solely on their talent and drive for creative innovation. I also encourage clients with “Feedforward”, which is future based. The question that arises from feedforward is “What could I do better as a leader?” The future focused approach removes any negative connotations from past experience and targets new learnings from any previous situations.
  • Customize Methodology: Every client has different wants and needs and it’s a mistake to paint clients with a broad brush. When coaching high potential managers, challenging them, and stimulating innovative thinking and a growth mindset is the basis of coaching. The idea behind encouraging top talent is to move them beyond where they are today with a vision of their future as well as the future of the organizations they serve.

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”Ralph Waldo Emerson


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

Get Mary’s New Book: The Leader You Don’t Want to Be: Transform Your Leadership Style from Command and Control to Transformational Visionary