Organizational Coaching Across Generations: A Way to Integrate a Culture of Development

By Debora S. Humphreys

The Aerospace Corporation began internal coaching to prepare Director-level managers for consideration in Principle Director positions.   Our coach team is part of the Department of Succession and Performance Management within the Human Resources area.  While our key focus has been on leadership coaching for high potential leaders primarily from Generation X, we also serve the needs of other key managers and leaders representing other generations that support national security space missions.  As leaders move up to greater responsibility they require changes in their behaviors, in the way they see themselves and in what they value (Charan, Drotter, & Noel 2001)

Individuals who choose to work at Aerospace are mission driven, technically expert, and tend to stay a long time.   The majority are from the Boomer generation (born 1945 - 1965) and Generation X  (born 1966 -1980).  Traditionally, Aerospace only hired older experienced engineers and scientists, but faced with the reality of shortages of engineers, our more recent focus has been recruiting and hiring "fresh outs" or Millennials (born 1980 - 2000).  Once on board, the challenge is to sustain their interest and keep them stimulated as they move toward becoming world-class rocket scientists.   Orchestrating knowledge transfer between the Traditionalists and Millennials rests in large part with Boomer managers.  Coaching has become a catalyst to bridge these relationships by contributing to a stronger learning community that values and acts intentionally to develop others.   

 There are five coaching lessons that have contributed to bridging the generations within the Aerospace Corporation: 

1. Align coaching and leadership development to the corporate vision, values, and strategy.

The connection to corporate vision, values, and strategy is the bedrock that unites all generations.  While divisions, subdivisions, and their members are each unique with respect to subcultures, age, experience, values, and interests, the larger picture of what we are all about pulls folks together in a belief that we are dedicated to and making a difference in national security space.  The Succession and Performance Management Department within which coaching services fall has its own strategic plan and has intentionally and visibly linked all of our services to the larger strategy.    For our coaches, having these links keeps us on track as we grow.

2. Educate top management about the value of coaching across generational boundaries.

Because the concept of leadership development coaching is new to highly technical organizations where the perception is that one is an expert and does not necessarily need help with development, coaches cannot assume that their top leaders and direct reports understand what coaching is all about.  Development professionals have the opportunity to educate leaders about the value of coaching to prevent problems and accelerate learning during rapid change.  At Aerospace, our top leaders learned by experiencing coaching first hand as well as through the experiences of their direct reports.  

3. View organizational coaching from a systems perspective 

By recognizing that the success of coaching one population, such as high-potential leaders, depends on and can impact others within the organization, coaches can better appreciate the opportunity to influence larger-system change.   Coaching is a partnership among the coach, coachee, the coachee's manager, and key stakeholders.    Some of our coachees have at least five stakeholders follow their progress to give feedback and what Goldsmith (2006) calls "feedforward" suggestions for improvement. 

4. Use certified, experienced coaches that also have expertise in organization and human development. 

Aerospace is not alone in expecting highly experienced International Coaching Federation certified coaches with graduate credentials. Our coach team has Ph.D.s. in psychology and organizational behavior and each member has over twenty-five years experience in coaching, career development, and organization development.  That background allows us to expand our coaching services to also include organization development.     

5. Adjust coaching style and focus to fit generational differences.

Serving different generations requires flexibility in coaching style and focus.  Some traditionalists who have extended their work career due to unexpected economic conditions may need help in re-shaping a personal end-of-career vision.  Coaches can draw on the expertise and wisdom of traditionalists to help them with this challenge. The natural need of some traditionalists to sponsor others can also work well as a resource.

A great number of Boomers are competing for a limited number of leadership positions.  Helping some redefine success can be of value.  They face mid-career issues and recognize that retirement may be further off than expected.  By going deep with self-awareness Boomers can rediscover ways to keep active, continue to grow and keep stimulated to stretch in new ways.   Coaches can help them re-define self and work.

Gen Xers are fiercely independent, skeptical, and resourceful.  Those who aspire to be higher level managers or top leaders are generally open to leadership development coaching.  They place a high value on professional development and like self-assessment, feedback, and development plans when they are focused on advancement.  

While our coaching focus at Aerospace has primarily been with high potential Gen X managers, we have learned that we can help sustain motivation for Gen Y Millennials who are on a fast track and need ways to express their leadership while developing expertise over the longer term.  We have provided short-term coaching for some to build leadership competencies and gain greater corporate visibility.  We have used development assignments to allow a proving ground for leadership.   


Coaching across generations can be the link that demonstrates the value placed on development.    With each person that is coached, others are impacted. The manager, direct reports, stakeholders, and others in the management chain become more aware of the importance of building self-awareness, narrowing down development objectives, and the personal commitment to take action to stretch and improve.    When generational differences are bridged through development as the common ground, organizations grow and become more prepared for future challenges.  


Charan, R., Noel, J., & Drotter, S. (2001). The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-powered Company. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Daly, P. & Watkins, M.  (2006). The First 90 Days in Government: Critical Success Strategies for New Public Managers at All Levels. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Dychtwald, K., Erickson, T., & Morison, R. (2006). Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Goldsmith, M. & Lyons, L. (2006) Coaching for Leadership. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.


Debora Humphreys, Ph.D. is a leadership and organization development specialist at The Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, California.  She helped develop and deliver The Aerospace Corporation's first internal and external coaching service for high-potential leaders.  This service has now expanded to include on-boarding and off-boarding coaching.   Building on a foundation of career psychology and career counseling, Deb expanded her opportunities to work within organizations by earning a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Case Western Reserve University, post-graduate certification in group process from the Gestalt Institute, and Certified Professional Coaching certification from The College of Executive Coaching.   She can be reached at debora.s.humphreys@aero.org.

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