Career coaching is crucial for recent college graduates and young people entering the workforce. Though many have scant experience, they’re making choices that will affect their lives long into the future. Research has shown that first jobs are an optimal time for workers to gain transferable skills that follow them through their careers. The first three years in the workforce, in particular, have a significant impact on employees’ growth and confidence. Managers who coach their team members can help them think strategically, chart their courses, and navigate the ups and downs along the way.
When I founded Coach in a Box, a global organization later acquired by the consulting firm BTS, my goal was to bring this knowledge and skill to everyone. Over the course of our work, my colleagues and I gathered records of more than 100,000 coaching conversations to uncover the kind of guidance young employees need most. We studied conversations focused on the issues that employees struggle with most, and discovered four knowledge gaps that arise time and again:
- How to build resilience: the ability to bounce back from setbacks, such as an early project gone wrong or a bombed presentation
- How to influence others: the ability to win others’ trust and respect in order to more effectively execute a role
- How to job craft: the ability to determine what constitutes a meaningful job and engineer a career for greater fulfillment
- How to break out of a mental rut: the ability to challenge personal patterns of thinking in order to identify and solve problems through a different lens
Though all of these skills are vital, each requires a slightly different conversation. When fully and distinctly addressed, the skills can produce outcomes that refine short-term success, as well as long-term career satisfaction. The worker-manager relationship accounts for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. This means that managers who invest time in addressing these issues not only increase employee retention but also build connections that keep their teams inspired, innovative, and doing their best work.
Conversation #1: How to build resilience
When young employees have a negative experience, they tend to beat themselves up. Their self-criticism is often loud, tanking their confidence and maybe their job performance too. This conversation, then, is about allowing employees to voice this negative self-talk — but not dwell on it. It’s about helping them figure out how to balance their thinking, drop their judgments, and focus on the one or two positive choices they can make to learn and move on.
In this conversation, ask questions that will help you figure out what your employee is experiencing:
- How did you feel when your colleague said that?
- What were you telling yourself in that moment?
- What do you think this means about you?
Listen and repeat back what you hear. Once you gain an understanding of where your employee is coming from, follow up with questions that will help them get out of their head and reflect on what really happened. If an employee feels that they cannot make mistakes without losing credibility, for example, you might invite them to reconnect with a moment when they felt good, and ask questions like, “Is it true that a single mistake will cause people to write you off?” Stating aloud the employee’s internal story often will help them see that it is, most likely, fiction.
The last step is to help your employee figure out what choices they can make to navigate future situations differently. Be sure your tone is considerate but free of both emotion (positive or negative) and judgment throughout. Your job isn’t to solve their problem or sympathize, nor to build them up with encouraging feedback. Rather, your goal is to ask questions that will help them learn and become more resilient.
Conversation #2: How to influence others
When an employee struggles with a relationship, a great career coach helps them see the situation from the other person’s perspective and find new ways to engage or build the relationship. An analysis of our data with Singapore Management University uncovered that 39% of coaching conversations with junior employees focused on helping them influence people, build networks, and create desired impacts.
One recent graduate we coached, for example, was dealing with a director he found distant and indifferent. During their coaching conversation, his manager pushed him to put himself in the director’s shoes. When the employee considered the scope of the director’s responsibilities, he realized that what he saw as indifference could be preoccupation. He also became more aware of how his own role contributed to the company’s success. As a result, his initial defensiveness was replaced with curiosity, empathy, and confidence. By changing his approach, he was able to forge a completely different relationship with the director, who ultimately became a career-long mentor to him.
In this conversation, ask your employee to think from the other person’s perspective: What would it take to ensure the other person feels heard before you speak? Ask the employee how, with this new insight, they can communicate better in order to build trust. Try to avoid sympathizing (“Oh yes, that director is always like that”) or offering your own solutions. The key is to help the employee discover how to relate differently to this individual on their own.
Conversation #3: How to job craft
The point of this conversation is to help your employee reflect on what’s most important to them, so that they can shape a compelling vision for their future. Doing meaningful work matters to most people. Those who do not feel a sense of purpose tend to burn out more easily.
Consider the case of one high-flying employee we examined. She worked long hours on a project for her team. Though it was ultimately successful, she was so exhausted by the end that she told her manager she might not be able to commit to her role over the long term. The manager took this opportunity to help her remember why she originally joined his team. He asked her questions to help her regain clarity on what she wanted and what she would need to change to achieve it. She left feeling inspired and excited to forge on.
To inspire your team members in the same way, ask what’s important to them and hone in on what they want:
- What is going on right now?
- How would you like it to be different?
- What is one thing you could do to move toward this vision?
Avoid questions about what others think or expect, and try not to share your personal experiences. Instead, focus on helping your employee identify the situation they are currently in, the situation they want to be in, and what steps they need to take to get there. If they don’t know what they want yet, try to help them find ways to explore avenues they are curious about.
Conversation #4: How to break out of a mental rut
Sometimes an employee just gets stuck when trying to solve a problem. They try once and, when it doesn’t work, they either give up or try again using the same method. Managers can help their team members spot these “rivers of thinking” and paddle their way out.
One recent graduate we coached was struggling to understand why the training events she organized were poorly attended. She kept trying new, creative methods to motivate attendance, and kept failing. Her manager helped her think about it in a different way. He pushed her to get curious about what kind of events people would attend, as opposed to mulling over strategies on how to get people to attend her current trainings.
This new thought process led her to realize that her events were superfluous — all of the information she offered could be found online. What her colleagues wanted was the chance to get advice and support from peers. With that in mind, she launched a highly successful lunchtime networking club.
Use this conversation to help your employee identify their stuck thinking and seek out new avenues of inquiry. Start by asking:
- What problem are you trying to solve?
- What feelings do you notice about it?
- What are you most concerned about?
- What do you observe other people feeling frustrated about?
Your goal is to get them to identify what problem they are actually trying to solve and why their efforts may not be working. Repeat their answers back to them. Once they seem to understand that their current plan of action is flawed, encourage them to think about alternative solutions by considering all of the information they have gathered.
Remember, your role is not to provide solutions. It is to help employees clarify the questions they’re trying to answer, push them to gather perspectives from diverse sources, and reflect on what they’ve learned in order to come up with a new and better strategy.
Building up employees into future leaders requires you to help them adopt mindsets that will shift their attitudes. If they can master those mindsets, they can find satisfaction, stay engaged, and fulfill their long-term potential. The first step is figuring out what your employees need from you so that you can have the right conversations.
Jerry Connor is head of the coaching practice at BTS, an organization that works with leaders at all levels to help them make better decisions, convert those decisions to actions, and deliver results. With more than 26 years of experience in change management and leadership development, Jerry has extensive experience working with a variety of top global organizations as well as in the public sector.