Don’t lip service coaching and mentoring

Coaching and mentoring

There are a few managers here and there who are good at coaching and mentoring, but by and large I’d say most are not. (Definitely not most I’ve worked with.) When you say a term like “coaching and mentoring” to an average manager, here’s what I think it conjures up for them:

  • “That’s fluffy stuff and I do real work”
  • “Isn’t coaching and mentoring the stuff people do webinars about and then constantly e-mail me?”
  • “I’m trying to get productivity out of these peons; I don’t have time to sit through some HR training”
  • “Coaching and mentoring? I made my own way!”

This is all pretty logical. Management isn’t intuitive. You get there by blasting targets for the levels above you — and making them look good. So you become a manager and think, “Oh, I need to make sure everyone blasts targets for me.” Nope. That would make you a micromanager, which is an awful thing to be. In reality, even though it sounds fluffy, a manager manages the energy of their team. Over time, that makes you more money — and if you learn how to delegate properly, that will make you even more.

There’s a certain sexiness (especially among males) to the Type-A, target-bashing, hard-charging workaholic — even though there’s no evidence these people are more productive than anyone else. A lot of hard-chargers running companies — i.e. you love promoting assholes — isn’t great for coaching and mentoring.

But why is this stuff relevant? Why shouldn’t we lip service coaching and mentoring?

Coaching and mentoring: Some research

This is some cool new research from Stanford on “the power of realistic expectations.” (God, we could all use that in our lives, right?) Here’s the set-up:

In a series of experiments involving nearly 10,000 incoming college freshmen, a group of researchers that included Rob Urstein, managing director of Global Innovation Programs and lecturer in management at Stanford Graduate School of Business, found a powerful way to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds weather the transition to college life.

So, this is about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and how they can better “on-board” into college environments. If you’re a Type-A hard-charger described above, you’d look at this research and scoff. “Not my deal! I pulled in $120K last quarter!” There are guys in the world who’d say that with a straight face, by the way. Many of ’em.

As you’d probably guess, the most powerful way to shepherd these kids into college was through coaching and mentoring. Real, effective, no-bullshit coaching and mentoring strategies and approaches. The study authors even saw the relevant connection back to work:

Think about starting a new job. You’re trying to figure out the landscape. It was a really competitive search. You feel fortunate to have gotten the job, but then you’re really worried about whether you’re going to fit in. What happens if you stumble? We all make mistakes on the job, and most of us learn from them and do better the next time. But if you’re not approaching that as being normal, you may start to question whether you’re qualified for the job instead of seeing it as a normal part of how we learn and grow.

Coaching and mentoring: What’s the opposite?

Most high-level executives honestly barely pay attention to their middle managers, which is part of the reason middle managers are crippling our economy. They’re essentially allowed to run around creating fires and sucking salary up like an industrial vacuum, oftentimes unchecked. A glorious time to be a white-collar worker!

So go to a bunch of high-level executives and say “Hey, what are your front-line managers doing?” They’d say back “Coaching and mentoring our people! Pleasing the customer!” In reality, here’s what they are doing and what passes for management at most places these days:

  • Micromanaging
  • Tossing themselves on the cross about how busy they are
  • Inventing work
  • Creating deliverables
  • Ignoring their employees
  • Hiding behind e-mail
  • Taking 4-hour lunches and not telling a soul where they went
  • Calling meetings

That’s about how it really goes down. None of those are coaching and mentoring at all.

The two problems coaching and mentoring are battling

I’d say the first problem is a totally extrinsic motivational one. At most companies, two things happen:

  1. You can only make more money if you agree to manage other people.
  2. But at the same time, you don’t have any aspect of your bonus tied to management — just productivity/performance of those under you.

As a result, people who want to make more money — who are probably less empathetic in general — end up with 10-12 direct reports. They could care less about the “energy” or “needs” of these people; they’re farm animals who need to hit targets, because that makes the boss’ salary fatter. This is the reality of most workplaces. It’s not about people. It’s about productivity. While that should inspire more coaching and mentoring, it never does. There’s no time!


The second problem is that, right now, many of the company models we have are being run by engineers or people from similar backgrounds. Those who should manage aren’t becoming managers. Engineers have a specific worldview. That’s kind of how we got to human “resources.” Everything is a puzzle piece to be maximized and fit in properly. When guys like that run companies, there’s no room for real people stuff like coaching and mentoring.

So, those are the two problems. Can we fix ’em?

Fixing coaching and mentoring

We can. But it’s a seismic shift. Here’s a few things I’d say.

  • Move ownership of coaching and mentoring away from HR: No one with power or influence cares about HR. They view it as a secretarial pool, a compliance department, or the office cop. If they own things like “training” and “how we maximize our people,” by definition you are lip-servicing those concepts. Honestly, it would be better for the sales department to handle coaching and mentoring — because then executives would sit up and take notice.
  • Stop falling for snake oil: You want to know what the biggest industry in the world is? “Technology,” you bellow. Nope. It’s duping stupid people out of their money. The coaching and mentoring industry has some awesome people in it — I’ve worked with some! — but there’s a ton of hucksters out there chasing the cheddar. They sell you a webinar and some seminar/class. You buy it for your organization and in a year, you’re out tons of money. Your managers are still awful and whiffing on every target. Why? Because they sat in a coaching and mentoring session that accomplished nothing.
  • Care: If all you want is human farm animals hitting targets and updating Excels, then run your business like that. If you care about people, then care about coaching and mentoring them. It’s important.
  • Design the modules differently: In coaching and mentoring, the focus needs to be more about organically working with direct reports. There needs to be content around dealing with troublesome employees, or pulling up crappy performers. Too much of this stuff comes from a place of utopia, and a lot of managers don’t manage from that place. Because they lack real solutions via coaching and mentoring, they flip out when they confront a problem or failure. That basically explains the whole model for Performance Improvement Plans.

That’s just a few. And now, one more thing.

The employee-side case for coaching and mentoring

I think this is important to understand. A lot of times, when a company hires a new person or opens a new job or whatever, it’s not what you really think it is. You’d hope that the hiring manager really needs someone to do a specific set of tasks, potentially even with some strategy. That would imply the hiring manager cares, and may even do some coaching and mentoring of this new hire.


The reality in most cases is this:

  • The hiring manager’s boss is on his ass about numbers from his silo
  • As a result, the hiring manager assumes “more people = less problems”
  • He bellows and gets headcount eventually
  • This new hire represents nothing more and nothing less than “Hopefully this will get my own boss off my ass”

This has happened to virtually everyone I know at one time or another. In this situation, your actual boss is not a coach or a mentor. He’s basically just a manager. Nothing more, nothing less. So if you end up liking the place and wanting to advance, you need “sherpas” or “rabbis” or whatever. You need coaching and mentoring. Assigned mentorship is dead at most companies, so we need a new plan.

What else you got on coaching and mentoring?

Ted Bauer

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