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Coaching and Mentoring (using one)

Robin Chandler

Once you've been hired to do a job, particularly if it's a well paid and/or high-flying job, you're supposed to know everything, be able to handle everything with ease, deal with other people's problems and in general be super-person. Right? Well, not exactly.

There are loads of people who get hired for, or promoted to, really good jobs because of the skills and capabilities they have demonstrated. Yet six months later they are floundering and don't appear to be up to it all.

You may be one of those people.

It's not unusual for people, even at the beginning of their careers, to feel they are supposed to know more and be able to do more than they are currently able to. A common and recurrent nightmare is the feeling that somehow they will be 'found out' as not being up to the job and thrown out on their ear.

What can get left out when people are hired for a job -- wherever they are on the career ladder -- is that they will need some form of guidance and support along the way. Some companies know this and part of their employee care is to have a coaching and/or mentoring programme in place. Unfortunately, many do not.

For people who do work for such a company, it may feel uncomfortable or embarrassing asking for support internally, and so they go without. This is where the 'I should know it all already' belief kicks in, and the offers of coaching or mentoring go unheeded because:

"I'll look weak."
"I won't want people to know I've asked for help."
"My staff won't respect me if they know I'm seeing someone."
"It's counselling isn't it -- I don't need counselling."
"I think it's great our company has this terrific programme, I'll recommend it to my staff -- not my kind of thing really."
"If they thought I needed coaching I wouldn't have been hired in the first place."
"They must think I'm not doing so well if they think I need coaching."
And so on.

Let's take David Beckham (we know, we know, there's plenty of us who'd like to take David Beckham), who obviously got hired for his manifest talent but also his potential. He brought a lot of his innate ability with him, but what has developed his talent has been careful, consistent and constant coaching. This has been both for his skill as a footballer and his maturity as a human being. He didn't start out as England's Captain, but got there through his hard work and the hard work of many others. No embarrassment there in having coaching.

See, if you were a sports person, you'd know what to do: you'd have a coach who'd work with you on your fitness, your training and eating regimens, your attitude, your goals. You'd be supported by someone who had your best interests as a priority. You wouldn't even question that coaching was part of the deal; it would be integral to your development.

Coaches help us get better at what we already do.
All of us need guidance and motivation at different times in our lives: someone to 'coach' us into the corporate equivalent of swimming those extra laps or helping us make those crucial adjustments to our golf swing.

Good coaching is unbiased, objective support that sees and identifies the best of your qualities and abilities and helps you develop them; it sees and identifies which hurdles are hard to get over and finds ways to get over them or circumvent them when appropriate. Good coaching comes from someone on the sidelines who has your best interests as a priority.

A coach or mentor is a guide; an advisor, someone on your side; loyal, interested, trusted and most importantly, experienced in areas that you may not be.

This person can be someone senior to you or on an equal footing, but who helps steer your career through both the good and the difficult times. They provide motivation and inspiration and help you find ways to deal with immediate difficulties as well as helping you plan a long-term career strategy.

That all makes sense, doesn't it?

So why don't more people have coaches and mentors? Why don't people just see it as 'normal' and expected, rather than something out of the ordinary?

Indeed, many companies tend to call us in when someone is on their knees, gasping for breath and going down for the third time, to mix a few metaphors. Not at the beginning of their career, or when they've got promotion. No, only when they can't possibly hide for one minute more that they are in trouble, might they moot that a spot of help might possibly be OK.

What a shame.

It is possible for all that floundering to be avoided.

This is how it could work. When you go for a new job or get promotion ask for coaching up front, as part of your package. At the moment you've been given a new project or extra responsibilities, make sure you let people know that in turn you expect extra support. During your next appraisal, put coaching and mentoring support high on your agenda.

What you're looking to do with any of these suggestions is to normalise the idea of mentoring and coaching; almost to assume that 'of course coaching is part of the deal' not something you need only when there are no options left.

You see, all the 'big people' have someone around. Remember that old phrase: "Behind every successful man, you'll find a good woman"? The truth is, behind every successful person, you'll usually find a coach, mentor, counsellor/therapist, 'guru' or wise person. Why? Because the smart ones know that good support just makes life a whole lot easier.

Where do I begin?

First off, if you work for a company that doesn't have a coaching/mentoring programme, you're going to have to create one. Here's how you can go about doing that.

Look around for someone senior, who's doing what you'd like to be doing and cultivate them: ask their opinion and advice a lot; pay attention to the things they do and give them lots of acknowledgement for their successes; ask to pick their brain and don't be shy about letting them know you admire their work.

If it's genuine it won't come across as toadying!

Be up front about asking for formal and informal appraisals and feedback on your work from a number of people.

This person may not technically be called a coach, but that doesn't mean you can't use them as if they were.

Now, whether you're lucky enough to work for a company that has a coaching/mentoring programme, or you find you have to create one, here are some tips on how to make the relationship work well.

What to look for

Try not to get too hung up on hierarchy and where your prospective coach/mentor sits within the company. What you want is someone who:

* knows what they're doing
* has a broad experience and knows the ins and outs of the organisation
* has a good understanding of your role
* has good listening skills
* will make time to support you
* makes you feel as though you'll learn lots from them
* mentors other people


On top of all that you do need to like the person who's going to work with you. Some companies assign someone right at the outset, and others let the employee choose if possible. For the relationship to work you do need to get along with each other; otherwise it becomes a duty, a 'going through the motions', rather than a mutually enjoyable process.

Wisdom doesn't always come with age or seniority. Having said that, try not to be too intimidated if you do end up working with someone very senior. It might help to remember that mentoring is a two-way process and your coach/mentor will be getting a lot out of the relationship as well.

Set Boundaries

Set really clear parameters at the beginning. How often you'll meet, for how long. We recommend that in the initial stages you keep things relatively formal, in the sense of regularly scheduled meetings for at least 30 minutes each, or longer. After that you can negotiate whether to keep a formal structure or to make it more ad hoc, on a needs basis.

The point isn't the frequency, but what you want to get out of the sessions.

Identify Needs

That's the next crucial bit: what you want. It helps for you to be as clear as possible so your coach knows how best to support you. It's OK to have a long list of questions, concerns, issues, doubts, etc. The one thing you don't want to do is pretend you know more than you do. That would defeat the whole purpose, and yet we've seen this happen time and time again.

People don't want to appear too vulnerable or out of their depth, so they fake it -- even to their mentors. Not a good idea.

Where the clarity is important is in identifying what's making you feel out of your depth:

Are there additional skills you need?
Have you been given a new challenge that feels daunting and you don't know where to begin?
Are you avoiding conflict with someone so things remain unresolved?
Are you afraid to speak your mind for fear of appearing ignorant and humiliating yourself?
Does it feel as though you don't have enough time?
Are you, indeed, afraid of being 'found out'?

You know how some managers say, "Bring me solutions, not problems." With a coach you can bring them all the problems you've got! Then between the two of you, you can discover some solutions.

Own Up

It really is all right to make mistakes. You can't and won't know it all and you will screw up every once in a while -- everyone does. When you do, try not to make excuses, point the finger of blame at someone else, sweep it under the carpet and hope it will resolve itself on all its own or justify your own behaviour.

Humility and maturity go hand in hand. When something goes awry, take responsibility for what went wrong and use your coach/mentor to debrief. Let them offer suggestions as to what you might have done differently and what you could do now to get things back on course.

Constructive Complaining

One thing we don't think is a good idea is to ask, or expect, your coach/mentor to gossip or agree with you just how awful someone else is. Yes, their job may be to be on your side, but not to take sides. Don't look to them to encourage 'stirring' or 'colluding'. That simply doesn't help create solutions.

It's fine, of course, to have a good old moan, and to off-load some of your gripes and annoyances. Just don't expect lots of, "Well, everyone thinks so and so is a total waste of space, so you're not alone."

What both your aim needs to be, is to actively find ways to resolve any difficulties or differences you are having, not to feed the problem.

Dreams and Aspirations

Be bold! Don't necessarily wait for someone else to say, "You know, you'd probably make a good manager/director/team leader/etc." If that's something you want, one of the best uses of a coach is to let them know. It's thrilling to help someone plan an exciting and motivating strategy to develop their career and watch them achieve it.

Jo Ellen and Robin Chandler run Impact Factory a training company who provide Coaching and Mentoring, Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Communications Training, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching for Individuals.

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