The questions to ask to make the mentor or coach choice clear
Written by Ed Cook
The words coach and mentor are often used interchangeably making distinctions between them murky. This is unfortunate because the value of each can be tremendous for a person’s career, but where and how that value shows up is significant. Furthering the confusion, people call themselves a coach or a mentor without even defining what they mean. Some clarity is needed here.
“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.” --John Wooden
As the coach of UCLA’s incredibly successful basketball team, John Wooden certainly knew something about coaching. But is his coaching the same kind of coaching that we would want to see in business? The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole.” This definition puts the professional experience of the person receiving coaching at the center and then places the coach as a facilitator to enhance and grow the person based on that experience. In contrast, a sports coach, like John Wooden, would do that but also include his own experience as a guide to improving the performance of the athletes. Each approach can be valuable. This also gets at the first question to ask in terms of determining if a coach or a mentor is best.
Do I want help in developing who I am or help with a whole new view of who I can be?
A coach is going to start with who a person is today and then develop them from there. A mentor can provide a much broader perspective. Mentors rely on their experience to provide wisdom and insights that the mentee cannot see because they don’t have that experience. A mentor will do more “telling” while a coach will do more “questioning.” A typical business coaching experience has the coaching asking questions of the coachee in order to bring out what should be done in a particular situation. Done well, it can be an insight gaining process for not only the solution to a problem but also a process to solve future problems. Great coaches help build the mental muscles that allow those they coach to grow on their own.
Mentors will rely more on their personal experience and network as a way to provide a point of view that those they mentor could not achieve. This is a way to get a refreshed view of what is possible for life/career. It is not likely that the mentee will learn new skills, although new skills may be gained by watching the mentor communicate and interact with others. That kind of exposure can be valuable. Because of this, mentors are often better when they have experiences that are significantly beyond those of the mentee, while coaching is more of a skill where success is based on how adroit the coach is not on how experienced.
Do I want this relationship with my manager or with someone outside my group?
This question gets at what a boss can do effectively and what a boss cannot do effectively. Since managers have the responsibility to evaluate their employees, having an effective mentoring relationship is impossible. Mentors need to be able to deliver what may be hard messages, even a “kick-in-the-pants” to their mentees without the mentee having any fear of performance evaluation ramifications. A manager can never do that. Everything a manager does will be viewed by the employee as potentially evaluative. To be properly positioned to deliver these messages, mentors must not be responsible for the work the mentee does. To be sure, a good mentor will be emotionally invested in the life/career success of a mentee, but not in the actual work the mentee does. This is a crucial difference.
A coach, however, can be effective while also having the responsibility to evaluate who they are coaching. One subtlety here is that coaching is a leadership activity, not a management activity. There are skills required to be a great coach and those skills are beyond the core functions of a manager. For a deeper dive into the Manager-Leader distinction, read this. It is important to keep in mind when considering whether to engage with a coach or mentor. Leader as Coach is one of the defining attributes of a great leader. All of this leads to the assertion that a boss can be a coach but not a mentor. Mentors must come from outside the performance evaluation sphere of the mentee.
How should I choose the person to be my mentor or coach?
The first mentor was the character from Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor was an old man who was a friend of Odysseus. Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, appears in the guise of Mentor to impart a viewpoint to Odysseus that he never would have seen. So in picking a mentor, find someone with experience and wisdom to provide an insight that you would never have gotten on your own. Someone who has been where you are now but has had difficult experiences and overcome them. These are the people with the wisdom that you need. As a bonus, these are also the people likely to make introductions to others and expand your social network where you can find others that can help you and likely that you, in turn, can help.
Coach is a much newer word originating from the Hungarian town of Kocs where the horse-drawn coach was made. The use of coach as a person came in the 1860s from the University of Oxford where it was slang for a person that “carries” a student through an exam. Given that meaning, a great business coach would be someone who can not only encourage your ability so that you can pass the business “exam” but also has enough knowledge to do that with context. A great coach needs to be knowledgeable about the work you do, not just skilled in asking coaching questions.
"Get away from these two types of people: the ones who think you can only go as far as the situation you were born into; and the ones who think you can only go as far as the current situation you are in." --Dee Dee M. Scott
No matter if you are picking a mentor or a coach, you need someone who is looking to expand your ability to succeed. That may be with a new point of view (mentor) or through the development of who you are (coach), but it is always about how you are more powerful, more capable, more successful.
Leadership and management are distinct activities
The words leader and manager are often used interchangeably and with that, their individual meaning is lost. Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis are often quoted as saying:
“Management is doing the things right and Leadership is doing the right thing”
It’s pithy and points to deeper insights. Management is about making things happen. It is literally about manipulation. The words management and manipulation both come from the Latin word manus meaning hand. If done well, there are efficiencies gained and improvements made in every aspect of what the managers’ organization is doing but that success is circumscribed. Great managers are still working inside the confines of constraints that have been given to them. They can be awesome but only with what is given to them. Leadership is about seeing beyond the confines and setting a vision for something better. The origin of the word is very different. It comes from Proto-Germanic, laidjana meaning to go. Leaders take their teams somewhere else.
When should you lead and when should you manage?
There are three key questions to ask and if any of those are true then it’s time to move from being a manager to a leader.
1) Do we need to make a change in order to grow or even survive the future?
Amazing managers can optimize and improve, but if the situation requires a change then it's time to throw away the manual (another word that comes from the Latin, manus). A leader needs to show up. On January 15th, 2009 as US Airways Flight 1549 climbed over New York city it had the disaster of double engine failure from multiple bird strikes. Having quickly exhausted the procedures in the manual, there was no more managing left to do. Capt. Sullenberger made the decision to land in the Hudson River saving every person onboard the aircraft. Beyond being a remarkable feat of flying, it is an exemplary bit of leadership. Applying six-sigma, exercising management-by-walking -around, or even holding a brainstorming session, were not going to work. Only a Leader as Change Agent was going to save the day!
"In a battle between two ideas, the best one doesn't necessarily win. No, the idea that wins is the one with the most fearless heretic behind it." --Seth Godin
Since most of us will not need to apply leadership in life and death situations, a useful question to ask is “what is the best I can hope to achieve with management tools?” If it all was fully optimized and efficient and lean and all the other important terms of management, then where would you and the team be? This is a powerful question if truly applied. First, it means that to be successful as a manager you must master these tools so it is possible to answer the question. Second, you must develop a true honesty with yourself about the ability of you and your team to hit the maximum value with these tools. That is rare. Don’t bet on always being the best and hitting the near-impossible goal every time.
2) Are the people on my team able to drive change without me?
If you are the only one that can drive change, then again you and your team are limited by your abilities. It’s time to start coaching your team members to advance their own skills. Creating a high-performing jazz ensemble is a wonderful example. In this essay David Berger, a high-school music teacher gives a masterful example of management and leadership, particularly coaching. He talks about how jazz was traditionally learned from experienced players but in the high school setting, there is only one, the teacher. So he arranges the seating of the ensemble to allow them to better hear and learn from each other, management. He then goes on to describe how to help his bassist feel confident without an amplifier, coaching. And then further describes the changes that every other player can make now that the bassist is no longer amplified and drowning the other players out. It is a masterful example of Leader as Coach.
“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be." --Rosalynn Carter
A wonderful example offered by music performance is the difference between a symphony conductor and a jazz leader. A conductor needs to manage the performance all the way to the end. To be certain, conductors can be leaders, but on the stage, they manage. Note in jazz, the term “leader” is used not “conductor.” At the time of the performance, most of the management is done. The successful jazz leader has been coaching the ensemble so that they can now make decisions and adapt as the performance evolves. Done well, the result is a moving piece of art unmatched in other genres.
3) Do my people have meaning at work?
A great manager will have laid out what skills each person on the team needs to be successful. A great manager will carefully define the competencies required for each job and then match employees to those jobs. A great manager will give instructive feedback about how each person on the team is doing and how the team is doing as a whole so that action can be taken to continually improve. All of that work is wonderful, but done at the top-level of managerial performance with the subtle and impactful conversations, it will still not be a process Creating Meaning at Work. Only a leader can provide that meaning.
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea." --Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Whether it’s research from 15 years ago or more recent popular books, Creating Meaning at Work continues to elude so many. Why?
On the surface, creating meaning at work is in tension with business profitability. The business is about the service or goods it produces not about being a meaning generator for employees, right? In the moment-by-moment decision-making that is true for every manager, the pressure is to handle the solution to the immediate problem. Creating meaning for those on your team is great but you have a problem to solve now! This is another distinguishing characteristic between the leader and the manager.
Managers solve immediate problems. Leaders solve future problems
Creating meaning at work is a way to energize your team so that they drive the work without you. Much like a Leader as Coach or Leader as Change Agent, Creating Meaning at Work is an investment in the future and that’s what leaders are about.
How to lead change when you don't have a clear view of the future state.
Early in my change career, my boss, my colleagues, and I were learning the art and science of change work by absorbing everything we could get our hands on. We poured over books together to see what we could glean that was relevant to our current business problems and applied the concepts right away. We were learning like crazy. It was energizing because we knew we had to get it right. Our reputations depended on it. A lot of people were depending on us.
At the time, most of the advice we were taking in was about getting from current state to future state, point A to point B. The goal was to have a clear articulation of both, examine the difference, then dive in to close the gap. All great concepts, but we quickly ran into a brick wall.
My boss was spending a huge amount of energy and time to get our senior leaders to articulate "B". It was exasperating for her. Over and over again, she'd come back to the team feeling like she was no closer to understanding the future state. We were at a loss! How could we do our work without "B!"
Perhaps we took this idea too literally. Perhaps that was a reflection of our inexperience. Experience over decades and through a wide variety of change work helped me to let go of the need for a clear “B” future state and instead focus on the direction. In fact, I don’t believe there is a “B”, at least not the way I understood it then. It’s a phantom that can take a life of its own. Worse, it can be an excuse for not moving forward and a source of friction or even the cause of a rift between people.
Here’s what I’ve long believed since then: You need to have an idea of where you're going and why. It needs to rooted in your values and the drivers of your business. It needs to be compelling to you because it's going to get hard sometimes. And you need to be okay with what you don't know yet so much so that you'd be comfortable telling others what you don't know yet. You also need to be prepared to learn your way forward because as you embark on your change you will be actively learning and making adjustments to your implementation strategy or even the change goal itself!
Here's the difference: Rather than putting pressure on yourself to create a beautiful articulation of a future Nirvana, instead say where you want to go and why and what you're willing to do and learn to get there. Being that honest is something people can get behind and trust.
This is risky, I get it. What if you're wrong about the future you imagine? What if people constantly pepper you with questions you can't answer?
Here's some simple advice on that...
First, take care of yourself because that matters a lot to your decision-making and the way you interact with people. When an organization feels stress, people will pay attention and notice your energy and they will respond to it.
Second, set up a process to learn how the change is progressing:
This does not need to be complicated. What you're doing is setting up a learning process in an intentional way so you can make practical decisions. This is particularly useful when you need to lead change with your company's leaders and managers.
So what does this have to do with joy at work? Part of what people say joy at work means to them is finding connection to the mission of the company. When you communicate the direction you want to take and why, you start to involve the whole company in the process. They feel invited to participate and start to see how they can help make your vision happen. That kind of empowerment is meaningful to people. It's their contribution to creating something in the world. That's joy at work.
So, our advice is not to worry about "B." Just get clear about what you want, set yourself up to actively learn your way forward and engage trusted advisors to help you see. Focus on your goal and be open and flexible to the way you get there. By articulating where you want to go and why to the people that work for you, you’re on your way to achieving the future you have in mind.