by Steven D. Axelrod, Ph.D.

Executive coaching is a powerful developmental activity that influences both work behavior and overall personal well-being. As such, the effectiveness of coaching can be enhanced if it is based on a model of adult development that encompasses both career and personal life. In the course of coaching executives in more than 20 organizations I have found that core concepts of adult psychological development provide such a model, informing my interventions and helping me better understand their impact.

This article discusses general principles of adult psychological development that have broad applicability to consulting work with executives will be summarized. I will focus on two developmental inflection points that drive and define effective functioning in senior management roles.

While senior management roles do not correlate perfectly with either age or level of psychological development, I will try to show that there is a developmental progression during adulthood that may be productively aligned with increased and broader responsibility in the organization. Some broader implications for organizational growth and development are also discussed.

In separate articles, illustrative case material shows how psychological competencies and leadership competencies can be interrelated by developmental stage, specifically the executive at midlife and executive at late midlife.

Adult Psychological Development

Development in adulthood is an ongoing dynamic process influenced by the childhood past, the adult past, and present-day experiences (Colarusso & Nemiroff, 1981). Although early experience is very important in forming the personality, the psychology of the adult cannot be reduced to childhood factors. Early conflicts and deficits can be reworked or rendered less disruptive by adult experience. Experiences in adulthood have their own imperatives that offer opportunities for personality growth. This is especially true of landmark events such as marriage, parenthood, illness, aging, and trauma. Work life is particularly important in providing experiences for growth and development of the personality in adulthood (Axelrod, 1999).

Erik Erikson (1950, 1958, 1968) pioneered the understanding of adult psychological development by describing how core psychological issues or tasks define the different epochs of adulthood. Erikson elaborated the psychosocial implications of Freud’s stages of childhood and extended them to adolescence and adulthood. He defined adult stages by the key psychological challenges posed and described the outcomes in terms of a polarity. Thus, most famously, “identity vs. identity diffusion” characterized the outcomes of adolescence. “Intimacy vs. isolation” described young adulthood; “generativity vs. stagnation” characterized adulthood; and “integrity vs. despair” was seen as the critical polarity in later adulthood

Other theorists have added to Erikson’s contribution, focusing on the psychological dynamics of the transition to midlife and of midlife itself. Jaques (1965) argued that confronting the death anxiety associated with the midlife transition can precipitate a restructuring of the personality with a strengthening of a sense of life’s continuity and a deepening of awareness, understanding, and self-realization. Modell (1989) noted that middle age brings with it a mourning of lost illusions which is actually a precondition for continuing psychic aliveness. Auchincloss and Michels (1989) suggested that one of the most important psychological tasks of middle age is the vigorous and conscious reexamination of life goals. Ideals and ambitions formed under the influence of childhood fantasy must be updated in the face of new, overriding realities.

Neugarten (1975) noted the growth of “interiority” during middle age, and further observed that men become more receptive to affiliative and nurturant promptings and women more responsive to and less guilty about aggressive and egocentric impulses. Overall she observed a decrease in personality complexity over time with an increased dedication to a central core of values and habit patterns. Gould (1972) agreed that in midlife, with resignation to the finite time of one’s life, there is a decrease in illusions about the self, increased self acceptance, and for men, especially, a mellowing and warming up of the personality.

Adult Development and Executive Coaching

The adult development framework is a “good fit” with executive coaching in that it furnishes a dynamic perspective on personality growth without privileging the childhood past. While the coach might have some understanding of an executive’s early life issues and conflicts, these phenomena become the backdrop against which the all-important struggles of adulthood play out. The coach is more likely to focus on issues of the adult past and to be aware of how landmark adult developmental tasks are being negotiated by the client. The coach then adds to the mix an understanding of how career progress, success and failure, goals and values, leadership style, interpersonal relationships, communication skills, self-management skills, etc., have affected the development of the personality in adulthood.

Coaching is guided by an understanding of how the imperatives of psychological development in adulthood play out in the here and now. Erikson’s (1950) stages, or any of the other important concepts identified by the adult developmentalists, provide broad psychological themes that can help the consultant better assess the developmental challenges facing a particular executive. The coach adds value by examining specific decisions and choice points in terms of their impact on the core psychological tasks of a particular stage. At the same time, awareness of the general thrust of development during adulthood can aid the coach in identifying emerging capabilities that are critical for job performance and personal growth.

Engaging “The Executive Self”

I believe the core issues of adult development can serve as a template for evaluating executive competencies and fostering both personal and professional growth. As consultants and executive coaches our interventions focus on leadership behavior, but we will be most effective if we incorporate an understanding of where our clients are on the curve of adult development. We need to be mindful of both what an executive is trying to accomplish in terms of his leadership and what he needs to accomplish more broadly as a person. We can be most helpful to the extent that we can bring the leadership role into alignment with the specific tasks of his stage of life, challenging him to grow in ways that are specific and personal.

Our interventions with an executive also become more powerful when we understand what the organization needs from him not only in terms of role responsibilities and hierarchical rank but also in terms of developmental level. These are expectations that go beyond the performance of individuals to encompass the factors that lend vitality to the enterprise as a whole.

Over the course of an executive’s career who he is as a person becomes as important as his technical and business knowledge in determining his effectiveness as a manager and leader. The “executive self” is in part a social role, but one that is a function of stable personality characteristics, developmental factors, and self-awareness. Executives move at varying rates and with different degrees of self-awareness along the adult developmental curve. Understanding the impact of broader adult developmental factors on the managerial role can be an effective tool for the executive himself to coach and lead others.

Finally, I believe that the model of executive growth put forward in this article is particularly germane in our post-September 11 world. The terrorist attacks were a signal event that heightened the awareness not only of our mortality but of the limits of our work lives. As consultants and coaches we are being challenged to respond to clients who are re-examining their relationship to their work and their commitment to their organizations. They may be less willing to do “high endurance” work, even if it is highly rewarded, in the absence of a sense of meaning and personal growth.

In underscoring our vulnerability and limitations, the September 11 attacks represent a traumatic version of more typical life events that propel movement along the developmental curve of midlife. We are being challenged by our clients to engage their efforts to restructure their “executive selves,” and to provide tools for the kinds of growth described in this article. Now more than ever there is a premium on mature leadership that is attuned to the imperatives of personal development.

Our most senior executives play a critical role in this regard for even during normal times their effectiveness draws on a deep understanding of the need for meaningfulness, an ability to distinguish between what is important and what isn’t over the long term, and an appreciation of the complexity and sometimes the tragedy of life’s journey.


More articles in this series:
Executive Growth Along The Adult Development Curve

Case Study – The Executive in Midlife: Sr. V.P.
Case Study – The Executive at Late Midlife: In the C-Suite

Executive Growth Along The Adult Development Curve was first published in Consulting Psychology Journal,57(2) 118-125, 2005