Leaders as Coaches and Mentors

coaching mentoring

Early in my career, I reported to a manager who was as accomplished and driven as they come. She had a Ph.D. from Berkeley, had done ground-breaking research in her field, and at a fairly young age, was one of the top technologists in the R&D division of one of the largest companies in the world. One day, in a quiet moment over lunch, I asked her what her most outstanding career achievement was up until that point. There were any number of things she could have said, but I was not prepared for what came out of her mouth next. Her answer was simple and powerful, and I have never forgotten it: “My greatest career accomplishment is the success of the people I have managed, coached and mentored.” I knew she meant every word of it because she was always direct and forthright. Not only that, but thinking back about her managerial traits in hindsight, I realized that she had indeed demonstrated that principle through her actions. Although she was a demanding manager, always impatient for results, and one who did not suffer fools gladly, she never passed up an opportunity to let her team shine. She didn’t hesitate to let us try and fail. And she always listened thoughtfully to our ideas even if she didn’t always agree with them.

Fast forward to a much later point in my career – I was the head of the supply chain for the specialty care product portfolio at a large pharmaceutical company. I enjoyed what I did, had a passion for the products I was responsible for, and felt motivated to come into work every day. But I felt there was something missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. The specialty care operating unit was facing some significant challenges at the time — technical, operational and financial. At our quarterly leadership team meeting, one of our operating unit leaders gave a talk on how our response to the challenges would define our character as a team, and how that shared sense of purpose could empower us to overcome those challenges. Something in those words flipped a switch in my head. Back at the hotel that night, I was finally able put a name to the vague misgivings I’d been having. Simply put, it was a “development vacuum.” Enjoying your job and having a sense of accomplishment is different from personal growth and development, and I realized that I had lost track of that important facet of my working life due to my narrow focus on getting things done. Listening to the words of an accomplished leader reminded me that I had a responsibility to further develop my own leadership skills and shape my career arc.

What I did next was a critical stepping stone in my leadership development – much more so than my on-going participation in the development programs my company had set up for nurturing leaders. I reached out to the operating unit leader who had triggered my introspection, and asked him to be my mentor. He readily agreed, and we set up a series of discussions that took place over the next few months. The first thing he asked me to consider doing was a “blank sheet exercise” – essentially starting with a blank sheet of paper to try to articulate my strengths and areas for improvement, my career aspirations in terms of specific types of roles, and the kinds of experiences and development opportunities I would need in order to be ready to fill those roles when they became available. He encouraged me to think of this as a living document, one that I would add to, maintain and change as I made progress, and as the environment and circumstances changed. The underlying thought process was to have clarity on where I wanted to be and how to get there, and for me to take charge of steering that ship. Looking back on my sessions with my mentor, what strikes me is how engaged he was, without driving the process one bit. It was very clear from Day One who was in charge of charting the course, navigating and steering to the destination – that was going to be all me. But my mentor was with me every step of the way, making me ask myself the right questions, so I could discover the answers and take action.

What can we learn from these two real-life stories? Others have spoken eloquently about the critical attributes of good coaches and mentors (here’s one example I shared recently). And there are important differences in what coaches and mentors do (here’s one perspective). But leaders who are good at being coaches and mentors do share some common attributes – and my own personal stories illustrate at least 3 of them:

It’s not about you
Good leaders put the person being coached or mentored at the center of the process. That person’s success and that person’s development is what the process is all about. The leader’s sense of accomplishment derives entirely from the success of the individuals they work with, not from how knowledgeable and experienced they themselves are. That means giving the individuals they coach or mentor a “safe space” in which to develop themselves, find out what works and doesn’t, and learn from the process.

Be a good listener
Leaders listen actively. They give the individuals they work with the room to think, to ask the right questions, and to discover the answers for themselves. Active listening is all about building mutual understanding, being attentive, probing, and provoking thought – but not directing, or prescribing. It builds trust, and provides a channel for the best ideas to be heard, regardless of where they come from. Teams trust and follow coaches who are invested in the collective outcome, not in having their plays followed blindly. Mentees are better able to take ownership and accountability for their career development if their mentors help them find what works best at a personal level.

Be present and be engaged
This is probably the most vital element, and a little bit of this runs through everything else that good leaders do well. Both the stories I shared were about leaders who made the time, and were actively engaged in developing talent. My manager took deliberate actions to give her team the exposure they needed to become better at what they did, and to learn how to do new things. The operating unit leader made the time to mentor me, and made it evident that he was ready for the long haul. In our sessions, he was right there, engaging, asking for clarification, and being my “career conscience” in a manner of speaking.

So think about your own leadership journey and the people you have coached or mentored. Or if you haven’t embarked on the journey yet, find a mentor who exhibits these characteristics and start the journey. Either way, think about these stories and lessons, and ask yourself if they ring true.

The Large and Small of Effective Organizational Communication

effective communication 4In my career in industry, I have worked in both small and large companies – all the way from a 10-person organization to one that had over 100,000 employees. There is a common perception that large organizations are full of impenetrable silos and systemic communication barriers, while small ones, by virtue of their size and intimacy, somehow automatically foster better communication and alignment. I have found out the hard way that neither of these perceptions is necessarily true, in particular the latter. Even more pernicious is the myth that George Bernard Shaw so crisply exposed: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Why is any of this important? Because for organizations to fulfill their purpose, their constituents need to have a sense of commitment to that purpose, and a means for translating that into meaningful, tangible tasks that they can act upon towards the fulfillment of that purpose. And communication is one of the most important keys to creating that sense of shared purpose and the ability to execute against it.

Fortunately for all of us, there are many experienced leaders and management gurus who have learned and lived valuable lessons in effective organizational communication, and have been able to share them much more articulately than I can. So, I have an easy task – all I have to do is to provide you with a road map to the wisdom that already exists, rather than try to rehash it in my own words. And the ideal way to lay out the road map is to address the why, the what, and the how, in the words of those that know it best.

Connect the Dots
effective communication 1First, the why, and it’s important to always start with that. We live in an age of increasing data overload and shrinking bandwidth to handle it. It can be overwhelming to internalize and make something meaningful and actionable out of the barrage of mission, vision, values, strategies, goals and objectives that are intended to provide structure and purpose, but often create confusion instead. Employees need ways of connecting the dots in ways that resonate personally with them. Noted management guru, Ram Charan, sums it up as follows (1): “The aim of organizational communication is to ensure that everyone understands the external and internal issues facing the organization and what individuals must do to contribute to the organization’s success. Communication should be a core competency of the organization, not just a function.” The italics are mine, but the statement is inarguable. That’s the why, period, full stop. Ram Charan goes on to say that the main reason that many organizations fail to achieve their aims is not a lack of vision, a lack of ambition or even a lack of desire. Rather, the reason is a lack of execution. And his research found that of the top 10 reasons for failure, 4 are related to communication.

Clear, Frequent and Meaningful
effective communication 2Next, the what. And the short answer is: whatever is needed to address the why. That includes all of the elements that, taken together, might potentially muddle the heads of employees and render them ineffective: mission, vision, values, strategies, goals and objectives. The trick is how the message is communicated. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the what and move right onto the how. The message is undoubtedly important, but how it’s conveyed is what makes it trustworthy and credible, and ultimately what makes it stick. So to put it another way, the what can be understood by describing the attributes of an effective message. Here’s how Forbes magazine puts it, in a nutshell. The message should be authentic, personal, and specific. It should have a narrative that resonates and inspires. And it should be credible – the person communicating the message should know what she or he is talking about, backed by sound business rationale.

Early and Often
effective communication 5And finally, the how. I already touched on this a little, but this aspect of communication is probably where the well of existing knowledge is both broad and deep. Again, I see my task here as helping you navigate that thicket of wisdom. Let’s start with my friend and serial entrepreneur, Srikrishna. In his blog, Design of Business, he says: “When in doubt, communicate early and often.” Avoid surprises. Make sure your constituents and stakeholders don’t hear about important issues facing your company from someone on the outside. Michael Hyatt echoes this concern as well, and goes on to provide a set of guidelines on how to do it well, to ensure alignment. The essence of his advice is: make sure there’s frequent contact, provide a clear sense of what to expect, and connect with each individual in a way that resonates personally with them. Just as importantly, much of the advice that’s out there regarding the “how” emphasizes two-way communication. The feedback loop is just as important as the message. Listen as much as you speak. And as CK Prahalad, another notes management guru, emphasizes, “Never accept silence as agreement because you will regret it later.”

And that’s the large and small of effective organizational communication. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a 10-person company or a giant corporation with 100,000 employees. The vision may be large, but it needs to be translated into the little nuggets that make the message stick and resonate on a personal level. It’s that type of communication that ultimately can be pivotal in making organizations successful. And it is a fundamental leadership responsibility.

© Tharuvai Ramesh
(1) As quoted in Curt Howes’ book, Organizational Performance: The Key to Success in the 21st Century