Should age matter in coaching relationships?

How much should age issues matterin coaching? Well, it all depends onthe context and the purpose.

Six months after the implementation of age discrimination legislation, age is still a sensitive issue in the workplace, and organisations are under increasing pressure to prove they and their people initiatives are ‘age neutral’.

Coaching, with its power to get to the nub of people’s behaviour, could make a difference, but coaches are also mindful that if the coaching relationship is mishandled it could exacerbate the prejudice.

“Ageism undoubtedly still exists,” says Trudi Ryan, founder of the DRC executive coaching consultancy. “A lot of clients have expressed their fears that, as they approach their early 50s, they will miss promotion because of their age.”

She believes coaches can work to change these perceptions.

“Coaches can challenge these ideas either in the mind of the client or in the organisation. A coach can support clients to recognise the advantage their experience affords them, and to ensure they continually grow and develop throughout their career.”

Age matching

But to what extent should the organisation be sensitive to age-matching the coach and client? US comedian Billie Burke famously said that “age only matters if you’re a cheese”. Maybe, but does it matter if you’re a coach?

Despite the need to be politically correct and legally blame-free, it seems that age does matter, says Ryan.

“What is really important is whether you feel you can relate to your coach,” she says. “But the reality is that age can be a factor. Any client will want to have confidence that their coach can see things from their perspective.”

Ryan says that a 50-year-old senior executive might find it difficult to believe a 30-year-old coach could truly appreciate the issues he is confronting. “Likewise, a young executive in fashion or media may not feel as confident in a coach who they see as older, and perhaps ‘staid’.”

But beware the temptation to allow employees to seek a twin of themselves, says Amanda Cox, colleague relations manager at Asda.

“We run our coaching and mentoring programmes to develop our people and we actively encourage them not to choose a mirror image of themselves.”

Cox says that with mentoring in particular it is important to choose a mentor who may have strengths that the client doesn’t have – the whole point of the development programme is fill in the gaps, not replicate them.

Robin Linnecar, managing director of executive coaching company Praesta, says age should be regarded as irrelevant. He argues that matching coach and client should be based on professionalism, credibility and experience.

“So a coach would be professional enough to understand exactly how senior people’s minds tick, and have credibility because they have worked in the same areas and have gathered enough relevant and helpful experience,” he says.

“It’s not age per se that’s important, but what the client requires. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Linnecar emphasises credibility and says this can come from a coach younger than the client. “There are certain areas, such as IT, which older coachees might not be comfortable with, where younger coaches can be helpful. But the relationship hinges on the coach asking the right questions.”

Image conscious

Gladeana McMahon, vice president of the Association for Coaching, says a lot of clients have an image of what a coach will look like and that they almost always expect a coach to look older than them.

“Society has a sense of respect for someone who looks older and experienced, so the idea of ‘being silver’ can be respected. This is often seen in the therapeutic world,” she says.

But McMahon warns that as employers are fighting to overcome workplace stereotypes, they have to be aware of some employees’ cliched views.

“Now that we are seeing coaching initiatives carried across the board, and with coaching no longer the preserve of executives, younger and creative people are receiving coaching. Coaches need to tread carefully so that these people feel they are talking the same language.”

However, the idea of a coach trying to be hip and trendy will not do at all, as Sheila Medici, head of education and welfare and children’s services officer at Fulham FC, points out. She coaches young people up to their early 20s as well as other players and staff.

“The most important criteria is to be open-minded,” she says. “You have to be non-judgemental – age is irrelevant.”

Medici advises anyone coaching younger age groups to steer clear of phrases such as ‘in my experience’. “Phrases like that make you sound set in your ways,” she says. “We can learn a lot from young people.”

She says it is up to a coach to see each client as unique. “You might not be of the same generation, but be in the moment with that person.”

With examples of prejudice such as those unearthed by the University of Surrey and the British Psychological Society that HR managers regard employees over the age of 50 as “poor investments”, coaching should be playing a major role in helping workplaces overcome their prejudices, says McMahon.

“Because coaching is about one-to-one conversations, it can help people tackle their insecurities or root out the blocks to diversity,” she says.

McMahon worries that older workers still feel sensitive about the lack of development opportunities partly because some organisations are over-reacting on some issues while ignoring others.

The Employers Forum on Age (EFA) reports that some employers have outlawed birthday cards and celebrations in the workplace, while turning a blind eye to the equal treatment and development of employees. “In our experience, the older you get, the less likely you are to be trained,” says EFA director Sam Mercer.

This results in a negative spiral – the lack of opportunities for more mature staff deprives them and their employers of the chance to improve performance. And what a missed opportunity that could be.

Pressure to conform

Research last year of 1,000 private and public sector staff, by personal and work development specialist Springboard Consultancy, indicates that older participants in development training and coaching report greater improvements in performance than younger colleagues.

It found that older workers were enthusiastic and committed to their work and reported greater self-confidence than they’d had earlier in their working lives, having escaped the pressure to conform.

“Too often, however, they are passed over for promotion even though they may have another 10- to 15-years’ service to offer. They say employers and younger colleagues ‘write them off’ because they are over 50, something which is, of course, now specifically outlawed,” said Liz Willis, a director of the consultancy.

Springboard designed and launched the ‘Fresh Steps’ programme specifically for older staff to enable them to reassess their lives and set new goals.

So far the programme has been taken up by the public sector and further education, with early feedback that participants welcome the opportunity to take stock of their lives.

by Stephanie Sparrow

Case study: Asda

Age is not taken into consideration in any coaching schemes at Asda, says colleague relations manager Amanda Cox.

“Training and developing people is about being inclusive,” she says. “And great learning comes through integration and not treating people differently.”

Asda runs a variety of one-to-one development initiatives, particularly for new starters, both on the shopfloor, with learning buddies, and in management positions at one of Asda’s Stores of Learning.

Cox says matching by age group would entrench the differences between people and that it is far better for individual learners and the business if people take the approach that age doesn’t matter. And that all age ranges can learn from each other – the current legislation makes it foolish not to, she says.

“We have people who work for us who are beyond the conventional retirement age,” she says. “We focus on the skills not the attitudes that people can learn from each other.”

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