RESEARCH MATTERS – COACHING TALENT: THE CHALLENGE OF HIGH POTENTIALS

What are the challenges for coaches in talent development coaching? Dr Alison Rose and Professor Tatiana Bachkirova discuss the result of Alison’s doctoral study conducted at the International Centre for Coaching and Mentoring Studies at Oxford Brookes University

 

On the face of it, coaching ‘high potentials’ is a perfect assignment for coaches. These talented clients are understood to be keen and ready for further development, valued by their organisations and already moving up the career ladder. However, the process is not always as positive and satisfying as we might assume, as indepth investigation shows (Rose, 2015).

This study focused on the rarely heard voices of people designated as ‘high potential’ and the coaches who work with them. It aimed to contribute to an evidence base for the talent management debate with insight into what it’s like to be identified as ‘talent’ and what it’s like to coach people so identified.

Indepth interviews were conducted with six people designated as ‘high potential’ and six coaches. Clients worked in senior positions in household name organisations.

Coaches all had several years’ experience of coaching and worked with a variety of different approaches. The results of the study show that there is no single, shared construction of talent coaching or of talent management as a practice, but a multiplicity of perspectives and perceptions. Here we focus on two key issues, which emerged.

 

The problematic glamour of being ‘high potential’

People who are identified as ‘high potential’ are often shadowy figures in corporate discourse. They feature as the object of assessments and development strategies, they’re names in a nine-box grid and they constitute a ‘pipeline’ or a ‘flight risk’. Frequently, the assumption is that what’s good for the organisation is good for them.

But the voice of the individual ‘talent’ is seldom heard, and contrary to typical assumptions, being considered a high potential is not always experienced as an unmitigated good.

There are risks of many kinds as well as opportunities: risk of ‘relegation’, for example, and the pressure to make sacrifices, which may become less palatable as ambition fluctuates. These risks can be keenly felt.

Coaches recognise that being designated high potential can be potentially problematic at a psychological level. One respondent says, “When people are being fast-tracked or being singled out, it can be hugely motivating for them, but it can also be quite anxiety-making given that a lot of them have ‘be perfect’ drivers. So part of what makes them high potentials is their drive, but also potentially that can become an Achilles’ heel because it can interfere with their ability to bear and tolerate moments of not knowing.”

Perhaps as a result of the risks involved, reputation management can be highly important to those who wish to be considered high potential. High potentials are careful about what they allow to be known about their aspirations and, like others impacted by organisational decision-making, may resort to manipulative and gaming behaviour to create the right impression (Baruch & Vardi, 2015): “You have to play the game, and whether anyone likes it or not, it is
a game.”

Participating in coaching may be another such game: a low risk commitment that keeps the individual in the programme, without making too many demands. This can create a dilemma for coaches, where they see themselves as employed by the organisation to further the aims of a talent management programme,
and/or where they see good work as dependent on the client’s commitment to growth and development.

Coaches working in this field may need to be prepared to accept that receptivity to coaching does not always mean receptivity for such learning and change.

 

The challenges of being in the ‘talent management machine’

Coaches were ambivalent about talent management as a process, being concerned about the potential for negative impact on and risk to their clients. Where there is poor communication about how such designations are reached and a failure to engage in a mature dialogue, there is the potential for personal hurt and confusion.

Coaches empathised with their clients where they were treated clumsily: “I feel bad for the individual, you know, I feel the organisation’s failing them a bit here. I would prefer people to be more honest… because one or two of them were clearly not high potential, but no one’s had the guts to say they’re not.”

Coaches also felt that talent management programmes were sometimes sub-optimally designed for leveraging the benefits of coaching as a developmental medium.

“There’s a kind of pressure to get some places fast, and when one of the developmental movements is around changing one’s internal mental constructs, mindset, identity, these things don’t necessarily happen quickly or at the pace that the structure of the programme might insist upon.”

Working as part of talent management programmes also highlighted some typical dilemmas for coaches that are not easy to resolve, and which are recognisable from other kinds of assignments.

While high-potential programmes were seen as essentially based on the promotion of the organisation’s agenda, coaches focused primarily on the client, rather than organisational purposes. This created concerns around collusion and divergent interests, which are difficult to reconcile. At the same time coaches thought that furthering organisational interests was a legitimate endeavour. “And so I think you know, as a coach and as an organisation we might sometimes be at odds with each other in that I respect the organisation’s reason for being there and what it wants to do with people, but I can’t quite support that in the moment in a coaching session because I am not the organisation, and I have a broader interest in that human being who is in front of me.”

When coaching ‘talent’, coaches may wish to consider how this particular context might affect the expectations of various stakeholders, how their practice disciplines may help them to balance potential tensions between organisational and coaching clients’ goals and how they could explore ethical challenges (Cox et al., 2014).

Similarly, they may wish to reflect on their own definition of successful coaching – especially if it has an element of commitment to growth and learning – and how it might differ from that of the client and of the organisation.

 

About the authors

  • Dr Alison Rose is director, HR Strategy and Planning, at RSA and consultant and executive coach at Alison Rose Consulting
  • Tatiana Bachkirova is professor of Coaching Psychology and director of the International Centre for Coaching and Mentoring Studies at Oxford Brookes University, UK

 

References and further information

  • Y Baruch and Y Vardi, ‘A fresh look at the dark side of contemporary careers: Toward a realistic discourse’, in British Journal of Management, pp1-18, 2015
  • E Cox, T Bachkirova and D Clutterbuck, ‘Theoretical traditions and coaching genres: Mapping the territory’, in Advances in Developing Human Resources, 16(2), pp139-160, 2014
  • A Rose, High Potential Coaching: The Experiences of Participants and Coaches, doctoral thesis, Oxford Brookes University, 2015
  • See more on this research at: http://bit.ly/2GrHA5L
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