Updated: May 10, 2021
The days of leadership cruising through their careers unchecked by their subordinates are grinding to a halt. Individuals in leadership positions not only have to answer to shareholders and customers, but to the very community in which they are leading. In today’s corporate leadership framework, a dialogue between upper management and their employees is commonplace and a vital component of company culture. This theoretically lends itself to a more balanced and cooperative work environment. But what happens if the employee providing feedback is significantly more experienced than their boss?
In the coaching world, you can expect a number of your clients to be more experienced than you in their field of choice. This may feel intimidating, especially if you’re a newer coach, and you may even ask yourself, “How can I help them if they already know everything?”
Remember, they’re not coming to you to glean specific industry knowledge; they’re coming to you to gain a new perspective. A coach’s main objectives are to shift the client’s mindset, help them seek out alternative solutions to complex issues, and teach them how to implement those solutions. As a coach, you are helping your client to focus on the trajectory of their career. You will be hashing out their goals and finding what it will take for them to remain with their company to achieve what they want.
It is practically irrelevant if your clients are more experienced than you. Don’t let their having a longer résumé than you be intimidating. You are not there to tell them what to do; you are there to facilitate change. Here are a few ways you can do that.
Set the Stage for the Future
It’s all well and fine to discuss things they want to change or improve upon, but there’s no need to do a complete post-mortem on the past. When you are coaching someone more experienced than you, you don’t want them to feel like you’re conducting a performance review. Keep the focus on the road ahead, what they need to do to reach their destination, and what that success will look like for them.
Don’t Be Critical
Coaching requires careful language. Avoid anything that could be misinterpreted as criticism. Choose your words wisely, and always maintain an upbeat and positive tone. If your client perceives your approach to be critical, they will feel the need to be defensive, and you risk losing their trust.
Ask Permission to Give Feedback (and Reframe)
In the discovery process—when you are observing them in their place of work or they are telling you about their management style—make note of any glaringly obvious issues, but don’t comment on them right away. Move on to the next phase (asking questions) and then circle back to the issues. Share your observations with them, and ask them if they would be open to feedback. Frame it in a way that demonstrates that this particular behavior or process is not personally negative, but might hinder any progress they want to make in their career.
Ask Thought-Provoking Questions
Yes or no questions won’t tell you much about where they are. And you don’t want them to feel like you’re asking questions that have right or wrong answers. Show them you’re invested by getting them to think deeply about who they are, what they represent, and how they want to improve themselves to become a better leader. This discovery phase will help you learn more about their leadership culture and how they can create goals that will help them facilitate stronger connections with their staff.
Amplify Their Thoughts & Ideas
A good coach is a good listener, but an exceptional coach is laser focused not only on what their client is saying, but what they’re trying to say or sort through. It’s up to you to take those thoughts, streams of conscious, and ideas, amplify them, soften the noise, and extrapolate clear and concise goals. You function both as a support and hype person. Your enthusiasm for their ideas will help build and maintain the momentum they need to achieve what they want.
Remember, it doesn’t matter if your client has twenty-some-odd years in their current position and you’ve only been in yours for five. You are not there to teach them how to do their job, you are coaching them on how to grow in their career, take on a winning mindset, and come up with creative solutions so they can put those skills into practice throughout their journey up the career ladder.
Chantal McCulligh is a business coach, author, and marketing influencer who works with growing companies via content development and social media. She has dedicated more than a decade to helping motivated bloggers, aspiring freelancers, large businesses, and entrepreneurs turn their dreams into lucrative careers. Her coach-related writing can be found on Life Coach Path, an online educational resource for students looking to become life coaches.