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Coaching Accomplished People

Some different approaches may be required.

NASA, Public Domain
Source: NASA, Public Domain

I had an unusual entrance into my career as a career coach. I had written a book, How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University, which led some college presidents to consult with me on how to improve their institution's undergraduate experience.

In the privacy of our discussions, some of the presidents revealed that, despite their lofty job title, they had career issues and appreciated having someone to talk with about it. A few asked if, after the consultancy, I’d continue to work with them on their career issues.

Highly accomplished people tend to befriend each other, so some of those college presidents recommended other senior executives, scientists, physicians, psychologists, attorneys, and even musicians and athletes, to me for career coaching.

Much has been written about coaching in general but far less on coaching highly accomplished people. So, here I offer three things I've found effective in working with such clients. Perhaps you'll find them useful in working with colleagues, friends, or clients, or for yourself.

1. I’ve found, paradoxically, that the more intelligent the client, the more open s/he is to suggestions. Originally, I would have thought, "Well, they’re so smart that my job is mainly to be a facilitator, to ask them questions that would help them generate their own solutions. After all, not only are they intelligent, but like all people, they likely know themselves better than a coach would." 

But I’ve found the opposite to be generally true. Most of my high-achieving clients like getting suggestions as long as they're couched as mere hypotheses for the client to accept, reject, or revise, and if I make clear that they needn't agree with those ideas--My goal is only that they end up with a plan they practically and psychologically embrace.

2.  My high-achiever clients tend to like that I interrupt when I’ve gotten their point without their finishing. They know that helps us get more accomplished during our session. Other clients are more likely to care more about politeness and the respect for their opinion implied by my not interrupting them.

3. My high-achieving clients feel little need to grieve or "process" bad events. If they got embarrassed at a board meeting, got fired, even lost their spouse, they’re usually eager to move onto identifying their next goal and the baby steps toward achieving it. They tend to believe that each moment of wallowing is more likely to sink them deeper into the quicksand of self-pity.

Here are two additional differences I've found when coaching highly accomplished people.

High achievers tend to need career help in special areas: communicating effectively with typical employees, responding to spousal pressure to work less, public speaking that inspires behavior change, and dealing with employees or the media trying to destroy them.

Highly accomplished people may make the same mistakes as do other people but for different reasons. So to help them, different advice may be necessary. For example, two people may present an idea ineffectively but the average person may fail because s/he doesn’t present it in a logical, crisp way, whereas the highly intelligent person is more likely to fail because s/he assumes that some intermediate links in the logical chain are self-evident while many in the audience need those links spelled out.

Of course, this is but one career coach's experience with one unusual clientele. As the commercials say, your experience may vary. But perhaps one or more of these ideas will help a friend, colleague, someone in your clientele, or you.

The 2nd edition of The Best of Marty Nemko is now available. You can reach career coach Marty Nemko at