Business Corner

The Growing Need For Mentoring Senior Executives

By Ira Miller, Contributing Editor, | January 19, 2012

The second of a two-part series exploring the topic of mentoring.

In part one last month I shared three points:

1. Leaders are running so fast that there is less and less time to mentor underlings.
2. A checklist for screening outside mentors.
3. Two case stories of successful outside mentoring.

This article will provide some tools for you to decide how to best utilize outside mentors by:

• Distinguishing between mentoring programs and traditional executive coaching, and

• Contrasting three mentoring programs to help you better understand your choices.

My intention is to expose you to the elements behind world-class mentoring. I will be using my programs as examples to illustrate the above points. Feel free to use them when selecting a mentor for you or an associate.

The Difference Between Mentoring and Coaching

A business associate and I were wrestling with making this distinction a few years ago. We talked over a few days and had a lot of coffee. She then looked at me, wide-eyed, and said, “Ira, what you do is applied wisdom.”

Brilliant! Seriously, that is a great place to start to understand the difference between mentoring and executive coaching.

True outside mentors relate to the leader, their client, as a peer. The mentor probes, asks questions, screens answers against years or perhaps decades of experience, and interacts with the leader at a very practical level.

The critical skill is in knowing when to use Socratic questioning, tell stories, reveal business models, or just provide advice. Another absolute requirement is the ability to tell truth to power in a way that is constructive to the current situation. This is the definition of Applied Wisdom.

Executive coaches, on the other hand, ask questions. All the answers need to come from the leader, their client. This is because most executive coaches have a behavioral paradigm. They have PhDs in psychology. They use personality and behavioral assessments to “understand” the client. The assessments identify “weaknesses” in the leader’s behavior. The action plans are focused on improving those weaknesses. The leader is required to modify their personality or behavior.

By contrast, my approach is to identify the strengths of the leader and help him/her leverage those while mitigating their flat spots. I do this by assessing their leadership skills against those of the most successful business leaders, providing a leadership framework (model) and management tools (toolbox) that has proven to be successful over many decades with multiple leaders regardless of personality, and creating an environment for open, honest discussion on any subject.

Table 1 provides a contrast of these two approaches.

Ultimately, the qualified outside mentor brings together executive coaching, best practice models, and applicable experience.

Selecting a Mentoring Program

Most important is that the program addresses the leader’s goals and objectives. My approach is to have three different, standard programs with each customizable to the leader’s situation. I think you will find that most executive coaches and mentors will modify their standard programs when appropriate.

Table 2 lists the standard programs.

To generalize, these programs address the following situations:

• Initiate. Generally an individual who is now supervising/managing employees who were previously peers. The goal is to advance the leader from doing the work to creating envisioned improvements.

• Apprentice. Focuses on manager of managers. The leader has a “recommendation” role with his/her superiors.

• Wizard. The most advanced program is for policy makers. These leaders may not have anyone to turn to for discussions on difficult issues.

Shown in Table 3 is a comparison of the details within each program.

Now, It’s Up To You

My original premise is that not enough mentoring is going on inside companies. Large companies have cut back on formal training programs. Small- and medium-sized organizations are laser focused on executing their business, finding new customers and satisfying existing ones. Nothing I can say will change these realities. What can change is your understanding of how you can add to your leadership bench strength and improve the job satisfaction of your most critical management by using outside mentors.

To test if this is an urgent and important issue, ask yourself the following question. “What would happen to my business if I and/or my key managers were abducted by aliens tomorrow?”
Worried? Find a mentor.

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