Developing Leaders Who Coach

by Dr. Mike Armour

(Part 1 of 3)

Part 2   Part 3

This interview originally appeared as a chapter in No Winner Ever Got There without a Coach, an anthology of in-depth conversations with top leadership experts in 2010 and first published in 2013 by Insight Publishing.


Mike, you've taught Executive MBA courses on coaching and mentoring skills for managers. Is coaching and mentoring becoming more important as a leadership skill?


Yes, most definitely. Companies are increasingly explicit about their coaching and mentoring expectations for management. And I'm approached regularly by businesses wanting to develop internal mentoring programs, something which few thought about a decade ago.

This trend is also impacting business education. Enrollment for my EMBA classes on coaching and mentoring is usually at capacity, even though it's an elective course. This indicates the level of interest in the subject among mid-level managers who make up the class. Yet a few years ago this topic was virtually unknown in schools of management.


What brought this about?


There are several factors at play. One is the expanding emphasis on team-building. In today's hypercompetitive market place, perceptive leaders know that to be winners themselves, they must surround themselves with a winning team. And for the team to win, leaders must develop and utilize the full potential of every team member. As a result, leaders increasingly picture themselves as player-coaches on a winning team.

Then there's the fact that in most companies the single greatest asset today is the people. This is true wherever you have a knowledge-based economy.

Historically we have defined investment in infrastructure along physical lines — upgraded facilities, new communications systems, expanded data centers, etc. For companies which thrive in a knowledge-based economy, however, their most important infrastructure investment is in people. Coaching them to develop their expertise and enhance their performance is part of this investment.

But companies have always needed to develop their people. What accounts for this relatively new expectation that leaders should be directly involved in coaching and mentoring?

This development is simply another step in the natural evolution of coaching itself. In the first stage of the evolution companies used executive coaches in large measure to rescue managers with struggling careers. By its very nature, this kind of coaching was remedial.

Next came developmental coaching, where the company provided coaches for solid performers — the so-called high-potential players — who were ready to step up their game. Developmental coaching proved so successful that it became a widespread practice.

Then, as more and more executives benefited from coaching firsthand, they became intrigued with the idea of generalizing the benefit across the entire organization. But the potential cost of giving every manager an external coach was problematic, if not prohibitive. Leaders therefore began to ask, "Why do we have to rely entirely on outside professionals to coach our people? Why can't we be coaches and mentors ourselves?"

This question launched the third stage in the evolution of corporate coaching. In this stage the coaching emphasis remains developmental. But now coaching is no longer the sole province of outside specialists. It's also the province of leadership across the entire organization. Today corporate initiatives are underway everywhere to equip leaders and managers with coaching skills.


With companies internalizing more coaching capability, is executive coaching, as a profession, at risk of disappearing?


Oh, not at all. If anything, the broader emphasis on coaching has helped companies attach even greater value to the contribution and special expertise of external coaches. Many coaching scenarios are far better served by an outside professional coach than by an in-house manager-coach.

Take the case of men and women in upper levels of management. Their position constantly requires them to look beyond the boundaries of their immediate organization. They need to understand the broader themes at work in their industry, in their competitive landscape, and in the world at large.

Their ideal coach is someone conversant with these broader realities, someone who brings to the coaching moment a thorough knowledge of best practices in a variety of industries and institutions.

It's also advantageous to these executives to have an outside party with whom they can speak openly and confidentially. The frequently wrestle with pivotal decisions whose very sensitivity makes it unwise to seek counsel within their own organization. In this situation an external coach or mentor provides an informed outside perspective and serves as a perfect confidant.

Therefore companies typically take a two-pronged approach to coaching. They structure formal coaching or mentoring programs around talent within the company, but continue to rely on external coaches, as well.


Should companies train specific people in their organization to be coaches? Or is the goal to create a coaching culture that permeates the organization?


That's not an either/or question. You ultimately want to do both. But the first step is to create a cadre of effective leader-coaches, especially at upper levels of the organization. A coaching culture will never take root unless top management supports it openly and demonstrates its support through active, personal involvement as coaches and mentors.

The goal is to keep growing this cadre until coaching and mentoring skills are broadly diffused in the organization. At this point a coaching culture begins to unfold. This culture will give rise to two types of coaching and mentoring conversations. Some will be formal, where a specific coach is paired with a specific employee for a structured, multi-week series of meetings. Others will be ad hoc, with managers and supervisors using coaching and mentoring techniques in their day-to-day interaction with direct reports.


For these formal, structured relationships, how do you determine which employees to coach or mentor?


Formal coaching and mentoring is normally reserved for those in management or supervisory positions and those preparing for such roles. For these people certain career transitions are natural "coachable moments." These include:

  • initial promotion to management or supervision
  • the transition from being a manager to being a manager of managers
  • moving from a staff role to an operational role (or vice versa)
  • horizontal transitions to a different functional or operational area
  • implementation of a matrix management structure
  • geographic relocations
  • transfers to new divisions/companies within the larger organization
  • promotion to senior management

Of these transitions, the two most critical "coachable moments" are 1) the initial promotion to management or supervision and 2) the transition from being a manager to being a manager of managers. More careers flounder at this point than anywhere else. These moments deserve special priority for training, coaching, or mentoring.


You keep using the term "coach" and "mentor" as though they are two different things. Yet many people use the terms interchangeably. Do you distinguish between the two?


Yes, I do. And I believe that it's a worthwhile distinction. Although coaching and mentoring share many points of overlap, and while they both draw from the same reservoir of communication skills, they differ notably in their end purpose and their underlying methodology. They also differ from related functions such as consulting, advising, and one-on-one training.

Because we've not maintained these distinctions consistently, much of what passes for coaching today is in fact something else. It's some type of indiscriminate mixture of mentoring, consulting, advising, and training, all lumped together and called "coaching."

At the outset of my MBA courses I ask how many of the students already coach their employees. About twenty hands go up in a room of three dozen people. Then I give the class some reading assignments on coaching. Three weeks later I pose the question again. This time only two or three hands are raised.

The reading has opened their eyes to what they are really doing, and it turns out not to be coaching. Usually it's some type of one-on-one training with a little mentoring tossed in on the side.


So how do you delineate between coaching and mentoring?


Let's start by looking at mentoring. Whereas coaching is a very modern concept, mentoring is quite ancient. In fact, medicine and mentoring are probably the world's oldest helping professions. The word itself derives from the name Mentor in Homer's Odyssey, written three thousand years ago. Mentor was the close friend to whom Odysseus entrusted the rearing of his son Telemachus as Odysseus left to fight in the Trojan War.

In 1669 Francois Fenelon wrote a book entitled Les Aventures de Telemaque. As the title suggests, Telemachus figured prominently in this work. Here, for the first time, the word "mentor" was used to describe someone who guides the development of another, just as Mentor did with Telemachus.

Such people had long been admired in history and literature. Perhaps the most renowned mentor-mentee pairing in the ancient world was Aristotle and Alexander the Great. Later the lore of the Middle Ages gave us another mentor-mentee duo in the mythical persons of Merlin and King Arthur.

If you've seen the film or stage version of Camelot, you will recall scenes in which Arthur pines for Merlin's counsel. Through Arthur's words we glimpse the essence of mentoring. In one scene he describes Merlin's techniques for helping him think things through more clearly. And he fondly recalls gems of wisdom which Merlin gave him along the way.

This then suggests the following definition for mentoring:

Mentoring is a paired relationship whose aim is to transfer wisdom and insight from someone with veteran experience (the mentor) to another person with more limited experience (the mentee) in a setting of collegial dialogue.

In short, a mentor is someone who "shows you the ropes." Where this phrase originated, we're uncertain. Some believe that it came from the era of massive sailing ships, where the set of the sails was controlled by dozens of ropes. Others trace its origin to the theater and the ropes to raise and lower scenery.

In either event, the person who "shows you the ropes" is the one who taught you to deploy the ropes to maximum advantage. That's a pretty good metaphor for what mentors do.


Then let's turn to coaching. How does it differ from mentoring?


Whereas mentoring is largely about imparting wisdom, perspective, and counsel, it does not necessarily tie itself to achieving a specific, targeted outcome. For example, the mentoring which we received from our parents was meant to make us better persons. But it generally was not aimed at helping us attain a specific, tangible goal.

Coaching, by contrast, is always outcome oriented. The word "coach" appeared in the English language for the first time in 1556 as the name for a horse-drawn conveyance to move a person from a starting point to a desired destination. In the 19th century the term attached itself to sports to denote a person who took athletes to a desired destination, that is, from one level of performance to a higher one.

"Coaching" retains this same basic meaning in personal and executive coaching. Thus, when asked to define coaching, I offer this description:

Coaching is a paired dialogue in which a facilitator (the coach) uses questions, feedback, and encouragement to help the other party reach a desired goal through mastery of new skills, deeper self-understanding, improved effectiveness, and accelerated achievement.

Notice how this definition is more action-oriented than the one for mentoring. Coaching aims at improved performance, mentoring at increased wisdom and deeper understanding. Both may lead to new skills and capability. But mentoring generally addresses longer-term issues and looks at a relatively broad landscape. Coaching, by contrast, tends to be narrower in its scope and near-term in its focus, zeroing in on immediate challenges.

To illustrate the difference with still another example from sports, professional athletes have coaches to help them maintain peak performance. But they also have mentors who offer counsel on how to manage the pressure of being in the public spotlight, how to make sound investments, and how to prepare for a career after sports.

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