Mentor? Coach? I just want someone to talk to!

Written by Peter Ward, 3 August 2022


Is it fair to ask our captains of industry to navigate the complexity of the corporate world without a ‘pilot’?


Watching an increasing number of cruise ships coming into Southampton, I wonder at the extent of the captain’s knowledge of all the harbours in the world that enables her to sail effortlessly into this particular port.


But, of course, they don’t have such encyclopaedic knowledge; they have a pilot. They have all the skills and the experience to manoeuvre their ship across the world’s oceans, but when it comes to Southampton, they have access to someone who has guided many ships over many years in these specific waters.


My thoughts turn to our captains of industry and whether it is fair to expect these folk to be able to navigate all the complexities of the corporate world and further, whether there is a pilot equivalent to help them with specific events and circumstances.


‘Ah!’, I hear the voices clamouring for attention, ‘that’s why we think coaching is an essential element in the support available to our leaders.’


In my search for a definition of coaching I find the following:


Coaching is a form of development in which an experienced person, called a coach, supports a learner or client in achieving a specific personal or professional goal by providing training and guidance.


A very valuable service is provided by an increasing number of coaches, all appropriately qualified, experienced and monitored to assure their quality. But do we need a coach if we don’t have a specific personal or professional goal, but just want someone to talk through an issue? An issue that they have not come across before and may never experience again?


That voice again, ‘I think you are talking about mentoring’, so back to my search for a definition:


A person who gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school.


Plus, the helpful addition of ‘detached and disinterested, can hold up a mirror to us’.


Hold on. Younger? Less experienced? I know my way around most situations, but there are times when it is helpful to bounce off a few ideas, without being judged. And there are times when I want to borrow someone else’s experience as a check on my own sanity! It is not about youth or inexperience. It is support available when I need it.


Which takes me back to the ship’s pilot. Is there someone out there that can help me to navigate challenging situations when they arise? I will still be in control of my ‘ship’, the company, but is there a ‘pilot’ that can help me navigate a particular challenge?


Some years back, we ran a programme on strategic selling and it caused us to reflect on the corporate lives of senior executives, in particular the Chief Executive Officer and the Chief Financial Officer. Practically everyone with whom they come into contact will want something: approval, permission, personal advancement or a contract! Who is available for them to talk to, to share their concerns or to bounce ideas? ‘Yes, the Chair and the rest of the board will have a role, but can I really share my vulnerabilities (or my perception of my vulnerabilities) with them?’


Over the years, there have been individuals for whom I have provided ‘spot guidance’ and there are occasions when the title ‘mentor’ has been ascribed after the event. But in truth, the interventions have come in the moment for people I have known for years. A bit like ‘Enquire within upon everything’ but applied to corporate issues rather than the domestic world of 1856.


What sort of issues? Often, people related dealing with questions such as: Have I got the right team for the future? What do I do with [talented individual] who needs to alter their behaviour? How can I make sure I am developing my successor at the right pace? How can we help the Chair to evolve the board for the future?


Or they can be more personal, but with an impact on the company, such as: Am I the right person for the company at this point in its evolution? How can I raise my future plans with the Chair without causing alarm? I know I have to develop these skills/behaviours, where can I get help? Am I doing the right thing? Difficult to know who to bounce off these ideas as they might raise doubts about commitment, whereas the reverse is true.


Or they might be event-driven: Responding to a welcome/unwelcome advance from another organisation; approaching a takeover target; integrating an acquisition; settling remuneration issues for key people; managing cost reduction; setting a new strategy and transforming the business.


Of course, there are expert sources: lawyers, accountants, investment bankers, and HR professionals that can provide inputs, but what if it is just shaping early thoughts, or an event that can’t easily be shared without showing weakness (I recall the impact of a rather aggressive organisation as ‘when swimming with the sharks, be careful not to bleed’)? I know that in our modern, well-run organisations, we should be able to show our vulnerabilities, but sadly this is not always the case.


Are we talking about coaching? Mentoring? Or that other loosely defined ‘trusted advisor’? I struggle with a role with ‘trust’ in the title as I do with ‘guide, philosopher and friend’. I rather think these are outcomes as a result of a successful engagement over time.


Rather than focusing on the definition of yet another role, how about creating the sort of relationship that, over time, becomes a trusted source of objective advice and, as a result, is able to hold up that mirror to equip a leader to navigate the challenges that the modern corporate world throws up.


A bit of structure will be needed, so the role might require an initial consultation to define the role and establish the rules and an initial research phase to understand the context. Thereafter, regular check-in meetings and availability whenever needed to deal with ‘events’. And if it is to deliver real value, it probably needs to cover multiple periods. I suspect three years will be optimal.


And if we don’t define the role and ‘tag’ it, it won’t add to the confusion of terms used to describe personal support services! It stands a chance of remaining a discreet service that our corporate captains can access when they are navigating their particular waters.


And provide ‘someone to talk to’ at times of greatest importance.


What an individual chooses to call it? Well, it’s up to them.


How about creating the sort of relationship that, over time, becomes a trusted source of objective advice?


Image courtesy of: www.maritimemanual.com/merchant-navy-officer-ranks