On October 18, 2018 I received the most frightening email of my professional leadership coaching career.
Maybe I should back up a little…
Just one month before receiving the aforementioned email, I led my first Executive Function Coach training for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Knowing that Executive Function, which involves planning, prioritizing, impulse control, and other high-level forms of cognition, is a key predictor of life success, for the past 12 years the Edge Foundation has gone into school districts around the country, training adults to coach young people to maximize their personal and professional potential. The 12-hour experiential training is made up of parents, teachers, staff and volunteers who are committed to improving the lives of young people who struggle with various conditions ranging from ADHD, Advance Childhood Experiences (ACES), various learning disabilities and issues of displacement from stable housing/food insecurities to name a few. As a result of this training, these staff/volunteers then coach at least one student every week, for 20 minutes.
And to say the impact is profound is an understatement.
Over the two days of training, I saw what I have now come to understand what is typical in this training environment: adults are overrun, stressed and running on fumes. In other words, they are not ok. While they themselves are there to learn how to coach, as their trainer, my main goals are for them to see how they can begin to take care of themselves through the coach training process, connect deeply with their colleagues, and recharge so they can be at their best.
I was initially nervous to deliver my first training. Thankfully, if my years as a professional opera singer taught me anything, it was that the feeling of nerves before getting on stage were an indication that what we were bringing to the audience was important and mattered. As long as I was prepared and connected to the message we were delivering, then all would be ok.
The training went off without a hitch. There were a lot of laughs, tears and by the end, a sense of rejuvenation from the group of 25 school community teachers and staff.
As a performer, once the show is over, the audience leaves. You may go out with your castmates to celebrate but eventually you go home to rest and get ready for the next day of performances. While you can pine over the experience, you often find yourself moving on to the next show, never really knowing how the performance may have impacted someone’s life. And in many ways, leading coach trainings for these amazing group of educators is the same.
Two weeks later, it was a surprise to get an email from one of the coaches from the LA training with the subject “Success”. Initially excited to read the email, only a few sentences in, my heart sank; my stomach in knots.
Edwin, I can’t believe it’s only been a few weeks from our training. Last night, a 6th grader who started coaching at the end of September, wrote a letter to their coach sharing their family problems and details of a runaway plan. They were able to connect the student with services and help them. They have been a student at the school for years and no one had any idea. The connection coaching has provided is powerful.
There are many parts of this email that broke my heart but the one that stung the most was “and no one had any idea”.
This is the part that chokes me up every time I tell this story.
As culture we still have this mentality that only “some” people “need” coaching. These “some” people are the people who show extroverted signs of “needing help”. And as this instance highlights, that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a result of these assumptions, we put more and more young people in the margins of being helped, supported and most importantly SEEN.
And while it would be great if every adult could complete this 12-hour coach training, what’s more important is that you adopt into these simple coaching skills that you can practice daily, to support the young people in your life.
Below are some STOPs and STARTs that can help you have a more deeply connected relationship with young people AND help them build their agency.
STOP Telling young people what to do
- No one likes to be told what to do (and I’m going to wager that you yourself don’t like to be told what to do). And while adults do need to provide safety and guardrails for the young people in our lives, it doesn’t mean we have to constantly berate them with orders. Every time we tell them what to do, we continually limit their agency potential. In those moments, we are sending them the message “You do not, and will never know what is best for you. The only way for you to know what is best for you, is for me to tell you.” Simply put, “you can’t trust yourself”. It’s no wonder so many people struggle with imposter syndrome.
- Asking them questions:
- What do they need?
- What do they want?
- What is the next step you want to take?
- What are you experiencing right now?
- What is one possible solution?
- What do you need?
- What does helpful help look like?
- What are you struggling with?
STOP Giving advice
STOP Assuming you know what’s best for young people
- Every time we offer what we think is best for them, we rob young people of the opportunity to grow as a leader. In those moments, we push them out of the centerstage-spotlight-of-their-life and take over their show, robbing them of their own life-creativity and the necessary experience to build their Leader Within. Though not a true generalization, as a culture, we often wonder why each new generation of young people “seems” more and more ill equipped to adjust to adult life. As adults mentoring/teaching/nurturing these young people, it is OUR RESPONSIBILITY to support them and help them build their Leader Within.
- Inviting them to come up with their own answer(s)
- Letting them fail
- Of course this comes with caveats. When we train our coaches, the biggest concern is that “we can’t let students do things that will harm themselves or others”. OF COURSE NOT!!!! In most cases, we are over-operating in how we help students. And in a world where we feel like there is no time, we treat helping young people like “fixing” them and rush to give advice thinking it will “save” them, when in the end all it does is promote them going externally for how they live their life. In letting them fail, we are talking about partnering with them (either as their coach or you being coach-like), both guiding and letting them explore the world through their own decision making with the mindset that every opportunity is a chance to learn and recalibrate. Remember, F.A.I.L. can also mean Fall And I Learn.
- Having someone who trusts them and will be there for them when they fall is what builds resiliency and the self-authority to create their life experience with agency and self-authority.
STOP Thinking there’s no hope
- This mindset is the dream killer of all dream killers. The struggle and weight of helping young people (whether through parenting, educating and supporting) is quite severe. So often, participants come to the coach training drained and disillusioned about students’ potential: that they need to be fixed, are broken, are _____________ (insert other labels you hear/believe). If we don’t/can’t connect to the brilliant potential of these young people, then we need to step back and get a tune-up.
- Taking care of yourself
- Time off, self-care routines, disconnecting after work hours, hobbies outside of work
- Seeking support (from a coach, therapist, and other professionals)
- Often, we feel responsible “for” students. Can you feel the weight and “truth” of that? Instead, can we switch to being responsible to students? It’s not your job to save/fix/rescue them. They are not broken. They are not just a student. They have dreams and hobbies outside of school. Despite the range of life experiences, they are more resilient than we give credit for. The more you can relieve the pressure and weight of your environment and role, the better you can serve these young people. Clearing this pathway may be the most critical thing you do so that you can continue to live out your life purpose of service and not feel depleted, day after day.
Thankfully there is a growing awareness of the power of coaching on young people and conditions; most recently the New York Times featured an article “Managing ADHD is hard. These Coaches Want to Help.” At the Edge Foundation our belief is that if the most talented and senior people like CEOs, Olympians have coaches to maximize their performance, why wouldn’t we offer this elixir to our young people.
Our young people.
I’m struck by those three words. Struck by the sense of responsibility to this population that is deeply alive in me. These amazing humans. They are mine. They are yours. They are ours. Today, tomorrow, and forever.
Edwin Vega is a certified Leadership Coach and Facilitator who is a fervent believer in the power of education, support and love. In addition to his work with corporate organizations in various sectors (Biopharmaceuticals, Finance, Tech, Non-profit), he is a staunch advocate for Equity in who receives coaching and gets access to coach training. In addition to his role as Faculty Member with the Co-Active Training Institute (CTI), he also serves as the track-holder for their Co-Active Scholarship Program. Edwin is Puerto Rican and a first-generation college graduate (three times over). Prior to his commitment to serving as a Leadership Development Coach, Edwin was a professional Opera Singer performing on stages across the United States and Europe. Edwin is a GRAMMY Award winner as a principal artist on the “Picker: Fantastic Mr. Fox” opera cast recording (2020). Edwin can be reached here on LinkedIn.