Oct 26th 2009
Mentors differ from executive coaches in that they need to have an overall appreciation of the job of the person that they are mentoring
Mentoring is a relationship between two people in which one of them offers advice and guidance to help the other develop in a particular area. This has occurred for centuries in the arts: musicians and painters have traditionally sat at the feet of a master, their mentor, to learn from him. Today, sports stars often have a personal trainer, an individual who looks after not only their physical fitness but also their mental preparedness.
Business executives have become the latest group to subscribe to the benefits of mentoring. Sometimes their mentor is another person inside their own organisation, but more often than not it is an outsider. Mentors differ from executive coaches in that they need to have an overall appreciation of the job of the person that they are mentoring. Coaches are only attempting to pass on specific skills.
Business’s enthusiasm for mentoring has been aroused by several things:
• An awareness that the pace of change itself is accelerating, and that to be successful they have to improve their understanding of its implications. Mentoring (by an outsider in particular) is seen as one way of helping them to view the wider context of change in which their businesses are operating.
• A shift in focus back to the importance of the individual. Business has bred its own stars, just like tennis or athletics (think of people like Sir Richard Branson, Jack Welch or Meg Whitman), and stars need others to help them retain their sparkle. Attending conferences and seminars is not enough for their development and training. They need to work one-on-one (individual to individual) with someone they can trust. These individuals do not have to be brilliant managers themselves, any more than a tennis star’s coach needs to be a brilliant tennis player. But they do need a certain level of knowledge and skill in order to have a proper appreciation of the technical and psychological issues facing the person they are mentoring.
• The awareness (or, more correctly, the expression of an awareness) that it is lonely at the top. It has become acceptable to admit that senior executives are, by necessity, cut off and restricted in whom they can talk to and what they can say. A mentor from outside can set problems in a wider context and talk about them in a disinterested, non-confrontational way.
Managers can be both mentored and a mentor at the same time, in the same way that an athletics star can be a mentor for an up-and-coming young athlete, even while the older person is still competing in the sport and being mentored.
Mentoring does not, however, happen by accident. It has to be formalised to some extent. Meetings have to be scheduled at regular intervals. But in these meetings there should be no fixed agenda—just a mutual interest, good communication skills and some available spare time.
Mentoring is widespread in the United States, in both corporations and not-for-profit organisations. In other countries few companies have made extensive use of it, but its popularity is growing fast—so fast that some worry about the undesirable characters that the business is attracting. Steven Berglas, a psychotherapist and professional mentor, has written that some of “the former athletes, lawyers, business academics and consultants” who have become executive coaches “do more harm than good”. They cannot, he says, “spot the difference between a problem executive and an executive with a problem”. The former needs training; the latter needs help of a different kind.