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.


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