Coach or mentor? It depends …

Learning & Development Magazine

Help with the CEO's role, task and style comes in different forms, says Stephen Schneider

It was often said of John McEnroe that he had a world-class coach, but lacked a mentor. In the world of executive development, identifying whether mentoring or coaching is the appropriate route depends on the nature of the problem to be tackled.

Senior executives come to CPS with a wide variety of leadership issues that can be grouped under three interconnected headings: person, role and task.

With person-centred issues, mentoring helps individuals gain insights into their own behaviour and interaction with others. The client 'does the work', with the mentor playing a 'passive' role, challenging the client’s thinking, to allow his/her own solutions to emerge.

A good illustration of this occurred when the chairman of a traditional organisation decided that a new style chief executive was required to shake things up. He hired a tough, abrasive Antipodean to tackle what he saw as a 'fuddy-duddy' mentality in the business. The new CEO quickly gained respect for his knowledge of the industry, but not for his leadership. The chairman recognised there were serious person centred issues that needed working on.

Through a programme of mentoring we encouraged him to reflect on his behaviours and, crucially, how others might be experiencing his style of leadership. As he came to recognise the issues he learnt to temper his style and people in the business began to follow where he was leading.

Where the focus of the work is role and/or task-oriented, coaching may be more appropriate, with the coach sometimes offering specific advice and guidance.

Another of our clients was a successful financial director at a leading FTSE 100 company who was fast-tracked to the top job when the CEO was fired. A man in the right place at the right time, but lacking any experience of managing thousands of people. He soon found himself facing all sorts of difficulties, particularly in developing the ability to exercise authority and power. Like many extremely bright people, he assumed that most things could be tackled by brainpower. The difficulties he experienced seriously undermined his self-confidence.

Working with us, he came to understand that he had mistaken the role he had taken on. He thought his job as chief executive was to solve problems, as he had done so successfully as financial director. What he realised over time was that the CEO role was less about his own performance and more about creating the space and place for others to perform.

A second example involved a young CEO who had arrived at a major financial institution, full of ideas and anxious to make his mark. His task was to save an ailing company. Moving swiftly, he laid down plans to bring in fresh blood – and missed the risk that introducing many new people so quickly could lead to 'tissue rejection'.

Through a programme of coaching he started to recognise that he had misunderstood the task. He had assumed that radical surgery was required. However, on reflection, our CEO came to realise that his plans ignored the possibility of good in the organisation. when he took the time to explore existing talent, he found there were many people in the business who had a lot more to offer under the right kind of leadership. The successful blend of this previously unrecognised element within the business, together with one or two new additions, helped drive its future success. The aim of mentoring and coaching relationships is to heighten the client’s awareness of what is expected of them in their leadership role, help them explore what issues need to be overcome to deliver in that role – and to provide the necessary support to ensure success, for the individual, their teams and the organisation as a whole.

Just think what John McEnroe could have achieved had he had a great mentor as well as a great coach.