“I need a mentor,” I thought to myself this morning while pouring my first coffee of the day and thinking about the day ahead. I actually have incredible mentors (who I’m very thankful for), so for me it’s not actually needing to find one but rather that I need to ask for, and carve out, some time with them. Many people ask about the difference between coaching and mentoring (which I’ll get to) but actually there’s a lot of power in a combination of them both, and I’m thankful that my mentors also coach me, and that I have the opportunity to do the same for others.
A greater ability to deal with change, increased leadership self-efficacy and resilience, decrease in depression, increased goal attainment and enhanced solution-focused thinking - these are just some of the positive impacts found in research to result from coaching of executives and managers in studies on organisational change.[i] In today’s turbulent business environment, many leaders need coaching and mentoring now more than ever. Here’s a few reasons why.
1. The rush is real, yet leaders need to “go to the helicopter.”
I was getting feedback from a Chairman for a CEO I am coaching. The Chairman said, “She’s great at executing, getting things done, the team is going well, but she’s not going to the helicopter.” Everyone familiar with strategy teaching will know the concept of the helicopter or balcony view – the call for leaders to step back from the day-to-day to look at the big picture. The demands on leaders to change or pivot their businesses in the current climate adds new layers of complexity and challenge. In a competition for a leader’s time, the busyness of actions that comes with those changes can win over the fundamental and primary need to ensure clarity and reflection at a strategic level. Coaches and mentors encourage leaders to create that space, get them to the helicopter and take the seat next to them.
2. Trust fuels our ability to cope with psychological stress.
Trust can be defined as the willingness of others to be vulnerable with you. With the huge pressures in life now (at societal, organisational, team, personal levels) we need relationships built on trust and empathy. A study of over two hundred employees in Japan assessed the impact of a leader demonstrating active listening on their team members. The researchers found those people who experienced others actively listening reported a more favourable reaction to psychological stress.[ii] Active listening involves listening and responding to another person in a way that improves mutual understanding, empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard.
In a business environment where competitiveness and pressure can certainly lead to some negative interpersonal dynamics, we can’t underestimate the impact of relationships built on trust and empathy, grounded in active listening for professionals’ psychological strength and well-being. Whether internal or external, coaches and mentors have a powerful part to play.
3. We need wisdom, and we want to be happy.
Sadly, “power stress” is alive and well, and a risk for anyone carrying the responsibilities that come with leadership. Chronic power stress can mean that a person loses some ability to adapt, learn, and stay healthy, meaning they have “difficulty sustaining the mental, emotional, perceptual, and behavioral processes that enabled them to be effective.”[iii] So how can leaders proactively manage power stress in a healthy way? Anyone who has been a leader for more than five minutes knows they need wisdom to lead well, particularly in seasons of change, complexity and a great deal of the unknown. Wisdom can be quite an intangible concept. One key dimension of wisdom is the “reflective dimension”.[iv]
This refers to the willingness and ability to invest in self-examination and to look at things from various perspectives. A Dutch study of over 7,000 people noted that reflectivity tends to reduce self-centeredness, which in turn leads to a deeper understanding of one’s own motives and behaviour and others’.[v] They found a positive relationship between wisdom and happiness. Coaches and mentors have the privilege of fuelling the reflective process, thereby fostering wisdom and potentially happiness of the leaders and teams they work with.
Of course, there’s a difference between coaching and mentoring. Coaching in its purest form is facilitating, questioning, challenging, encouraging reflective thinking and goal setting – you can coach someone whose journey is vastly different to your own. Mentoring has many similarities to coaching, yet involves sharing experience, being a sounding board, drawing on one’s own journey to encourage and equip another on theirs. There are benefits to both coaching and mentoring (which is why many people now choose to apply both and offer a blended approach). Both coaching and mentoring, whether internal or external, are powerful ways of addressing the issues above and are needed in business today.
Here’s a few things to consider if you’re seeking coaching or mentoring (and areas to be mindful of if you want to coach or mentor others)
Get clarity about how you engage. The coaching and mentoring dynamics can look very different depending on who you’re working with. All good coaches and mentors are facilitators who ask powerful questions, use different techniques to facilitate your thinking and help you set goals to move forward. But they’re not all the same. For example, some also offer advice and share their expertise within the dynamic of the coaching or mentoring relationship and others don’t. What’s important is that the coach or mentor is transparent with their style and expertise, that you’re aware of their philosophy and methodology and that it aligns with what you’re after in a coach or mentor. If you’re wanting to coach or mentor others, consider what approach you would want to take and offer clarity to the people you’re going to work with about your style and philosophy to make sure it’s a good fit. Share what they can expect from you, ask how they would prefer to work together, and see if you can find alignment.
Know the boundaries of confidentiality – particularly if you’re looking at an in-house coaching or mentoring relationship. For external coaches and mentors, confidentiality should be part of the agreement up front (whether paid or unpaid). When you’re seeking a coach or mentor internally, there are other relationship dynamics and responsibilities at play. The most important thing is to have a conversation at the start of the relationship so that you both are clear about what will and what won’t be shared with other people. As someone who wants to coach and mentor others internally, don’t overpromise in terms of blanket confidentiality if that’s not realistic – be clear about what you can and will keep confidential, and especially clear if there are things you need to involve others in and why. There should be no surprises.
Decide your goals in advance, and hold them loosely. Coaching and mentoring are goal-oriented in the sense that they provide an opportunity to help move you forward (in no way excluding reflection and looking back, but certainly the focus is on how you move forward). Building psychological strength, increasing resilience and identifying your next steps can involve strategies such as re-evaluating, reframing and refocusing – all of which are part of good coaching and mentoring.[vi] In seeking to move forward and achieve goals, these processes can result in professional / team / organisational goals actually changing along the way. So have clarity before starting around what you would like from the coaching and mentoring but be open to “re-contracting” along the way – that is, the focus and what you’re trying to achieve might shift and be discuss it openly if it does. As a coach and mentor, ensure you’re clear what your coachee/ mentee wants to get out of the interactions before starting and what their goals are. It’s a different dynamic to that which many experienced professionals are used to as coaching and mentoring are driven by the other person’s goals; they set the agenda. Being a coach or mentor can be a new and powerful experience. Incredibly, coaching with compassion has been identified as a means of mitigating the psycho-physiological effects of power stress in the person who is providing the coaching. So, it’s not just that so many leaders and professionals need coaches and mentors right now, it’s also a positive experience for you, should you choose to coach and mentor others.
When we pause from the busyness that so many of us find ourselves in now, think about the bigger picture and who we need to be as leaders in this season, an important missing piece of the puzzle can be making space for coaching and mentoring - whether that’s finding it for ourselves, choosing to be someone who steps into the need to coach and mentor others, or – ideally – making space for both.