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The Five Don’ts that Destroy Coaching & Mentoring

*A version of this article appeared in Forbes.

How many of you have ever had a truly great manager or leader?

Someone who was dedicated in coaching and mentoring you? A person who saw the best in you at a time when you didn’t see it in yourself? A person who invested in you and helped you grow? Someone who made a profound difference in who you have become? 

I have asked this question in groups for more than two decades now. At this stage, to tens of thousands of people. Amazingly the response is always the same from group to group, industry to industry and country to country. Only about ten percent of people will have had someone who made such a profound difference in them that they feel compelled to speak about that person. Only ten percent have ever had a great coach and mentor.

Yet, for those fortunate ten percent, they always talk about the coach, the mentor who believed in them. Someone who challenged them and pushed them outside of their comfort zones. Someone who empowered them and delegated things that required them to stretch and grow their skills and abilities. Someone who they knew always had their back when they made a mistake, so they felt safe in trying new things. Someone they trusted had their best interest at heart, so they were willing to listen, open their mind and take a risk.

These great coaches and mentors forever changed those people. They shifted the belief systems of those they coached and mentored and as a result, those fortunate ten percenters gave themselves permission to try new things, to learn, to succeed. Decades later, these ten percenters still felt an undying loyalty to their coach, their mentor.

Most people want to be more successful, they want to be able to capture opportunities and achieve more. Most people would love to have someone by their side helping them to get out of their own way, coaching them, mentoring them.

Yet it is so hard to find someone worthy and willing to be a coach, to be a mentor. Why does it seem like there is a coaching and mentoring vacuum that few are willing to fill?

These are powerful questions that have vexed corporate leaders for decades. They know they need to grow the talent base in their organization. Let’s face it, the primary reason we promote strong performers into management roles is because we hope they will duplicate themselves, teaching their new team to also become strong performers. Unfortunately, more often than not, it simply doesn’t happen. Why?

There are five primary reasons why managers consistently fail to become great coaches and mentors for their people.

They don’t know what made them successful

How can a manager replicate in others what they can’t quantify within themselves? Sure, they were a star performer. Sure they were recognized, rewarded and ultimately, promoted to lead others. But, why exactly?

Was it simply because they drove the metrics better, delivered stronger numbers, completed projects on time and under budget? Was this why they succeeded and were promoted? Or was it something more fundamental that drove their success?

Perhaps they thought differently. They possessed a different mindset. One that caused them to have a better perspective, a more productive attitude, a different way of looking at themselves, the world around them and the opportunities that abound.

When you distill success down to its most primary aspects, you quickly discover that dominant thoughts and beliefs always drive the actions that we take. And the laws of cause and effect dictate that the actions we take always drive the results that we get.

So it is our dominate thoughts and beliefs that really drive our success. Great coaches and mentors understand this and it becomes the most fundamental aspect of what they teach others.

They don’t believe they can make a difference

People become lawyers because they think about becoming a lawyer. People become great parents because they think about becoming a great parent. People become entrepreneurs because they think about starting a business. We become what we focus on. We become what we think about most often.

Yet, how many people really think of themselves becoming a great coach, a great mentor? How many people really believe that they can make a lasting difference in the life of another person? How many people truly have given themselves permission to willingly and genuinely invest in the success of another?

If someone truly believes in something, they will act and move in ways that are consistent with that belief. You will see them invest time and energy in what they feel is most important and impactful.

People who are great coaches and mentors believe that there is nothing that they will do today that is more important than developing their people. They believe in their ability to have impact. They believe that the time and energy they invest today will make a difference tomorrow. So they look for those windows of opportunity to teach in every interaction they have.

They Don’t know how

Our comfort zones are defined by our current level of experience and our belief in our potential. When asked to step beyond either, people inherently feel uncertain, trepidatious and therefore, reluctant to move forward. Most people will tend to gravitate to the known and away from the unknown.

So how does one become a great coach and mentor of others if they have no frame of reference of what great coaching and mentoring looks like? It is an unknown. Remember, only ten percent of people have had a coaching/mentoring role model.

Would we ask someone to perform open heart surgery who has never seen the procedure done? Would we ask someone to pilot a plane who has never sat behind the controls? Of course not, yet organizations expect their managers to be coaches and mentors without any frame of reference as to how to actually do it. It is little wonder that managers find other activities to invest their energy into.

To become a great coach and mentor, a person must first be given the tools required. They must be shown how to use those coaching and mentoring tools. More importantly, they must be a product of those tools. Without the right reference points, the unknowns of coaching and mentoring will always fall victim to the knowns of meetings, reporting and the firefighting of the never ending problems.

They don’t know what to focus on

Most are familiar with the terms coaching and mentoring. They certainly are bantered around frequently enough. However, what really is the difference?

When we think of coaches, oftentimes our reference point comes from sports. Standing on the sideline, there is the coach, calling in plays and cheering for their players. You see them clapping, yelling and cajoling their team. It is not hard to conjure this image in our mind.

In the business setting, the role of the coach is much the same. They recognize and acknowledge the successes of their team. They encourage and champion their people. However, the biggest thing that coaches focus on is developing the skills and abilities of their people. Great coaches understand what skills have the biggest impact on the performance metrics and this is what they consistently focus on developing within their people.

Conversely, the role of the mentor is oftentimes not nearly as easy to quantify. Is a mentor a person above you in the organization? Is it important for you to report to them or is it better if you don’t? In reality, being a mentor is less about reporting relationships and more about what that person does.

Whereas coaches focus on developing skills, mentors focus on developing mindset. Mentors change the way people think of themselves. Great mentors understand the mental “mind” fields and help their people to safely navigate past their personal self-doubts, insecurities and self-limiting beliefs.

They don’t have time

Perhaps the single most common excuse managers give for not coaching and mentoring their people is their lack of time. There are just too many pressing meetings, reports, emails and other “stuff” that gets in the way. As if to suggest, if they could just offload all of those other responsibilities they would dedicate their time and energy to doing nothing but developing a high performing team.

The reality is far too many managers spend inordinate amounts of time on two tasks, fighting fires and fixing problems. Reacting to these pressing issues creates a sense of self-importance and feeds into many managers greatest weakness – at one stage of their career they were a great doer. And as we all know, if you want something done right, you should do it yourself.

The challenge is, most managers aren’t paid to do anymore. Rather, they are paid to think, to strategize and to teach others to do. Their comfort zone is to do it themselves, however, their value is in teaching others to do it. This is a quintessential conundrum that every great coach and mentor must work through.

Those who have become great coaches and mentors see business problems as an opportunity to teach rather than an opportunity to jump in and fix things. Every time a situation arises, they ask questions rather than doling out answers. They get their people to think, to reflect, to learn and to adapt.

So why don’t we have more coaches and mentors in the business world? The answer is quite simple, these five “don’ts” get in the way. Any successful development program designed to teach people to become better coaches and mentors must focus on more than the fundamental skills of coaching. Without first changing the mindset of those being taught, nothing will change.

Each of us has within us the ability to become a great coach, a great mentor. We have the ability to forever change those around us. To shape their perspective, their mindset, the lens through which they see themselves and the world around them.

However, first we must decide: who do we really want to be?

One more of the thundering herd of mediocre managers that people have had in the past? Or the great coach and mentor who forever changes how our people see themselves in their future?

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