Mentor, Jump In and Rescue, or Coach?
How to manage when there’s a struggle or stumble
This morning I was curious what results if you Google “should I mentor, coach, direct.” I pictured a manager faced with a team member who is struggling or has recently stumbled, and she’s trying to decide what to say or do.
In most such scenarios, there is a right answer, and that is to coach. I was hoping that would come through in the results. Alas, it doesn’t, at least not with crystal clarity.
Why shouldn’t she mentor?
Mentorship is at its best when it’s forged over time by the mentee, who asks questions of someone who typically is wise and experienced but not his boss. The wisdom tends to be conveyed in a spontaneous way, in organic conversation. Such relationships are rarely formal, and the transfer to knowledge is not structured nor predictable.
A manager can mentor, too, but it’s a trickier affair because it can land more like specific direction or criticism. Even if the boss can avoid activating defenses, the guidance is less likely than career feedback from a sage ally to be received with open ears.
Sure, “mentoring” by the manager can work in the immediate term. On average, people will do what their boss tells them. But it does nothing to help them become more self-directed or more confident in their own brainpower. It’s not really mentoring. It’s managing or directing.
(As an aside, there are convincing-sounding writings that present “mentorship” and “coaching” as almost the same thing, or interchangeable. They’re not. But before we get into coaching…)
Why not jump in and rescue?
Oh, this temptation. “I don’t have time to teach this person how to do this,” the manager might think. “And why is it my job, anyway? If I just do it myself this time, I can stop worrying about it. Maybe he’ll learn by watching me, so it should be fine.”
If a manager gives in to the urge to step in, the responsibility will be handled, but at a cumulative cost. The manager will teach her staffer that, when things get tough, she swoops in. By and by, the staffer will feel relieved of the responsibility to push all the way through tough situations.
The manager will find herself in a self-perpetuating cycle of playing last-minute fixer. Ultimately, she will chase off her best people because she sends the signal that she doesn’t trust them to be great in the big moments.
At points in my career, I have indulged in “jump in and rescue” — it has been my personal leadership struggle. The honest truth is, stepping in when one of my future stars is struggling is little more than me jumping at a chance to remind them and myself of how smart I am. Letting my insecurities shape my actions rarely results in wanted outcomes.
Coach it out
In professional settings, when a person on a manager’s team is struggling, the answer is to coach. Unless the person is a complete mismatch for the role and needs to be separated from the organization, it is to coach.
Here in contemporary times, when businesses face immediate and crushing challenges, the answer is always to coach. And that’s because, by and large, people don’t really like advice, and they struggle to follow it. And no one likes being bossed around.
Coaching is the anti-advice. It uses techniques like motivational interviewing and active listening to help someone unlock their inner capacity to solve problems. In practice, it’s asking lots of open-ended questions, listening, withholding judgment, reflecting back what you hear, and then asking more questions until insight is gained.
Last summer I urged senior leaders of people to stop talking so much in the form of giving direction, start asking their staffs more questions about what solutions they believe would be best, then giving their staffs the space to run with what they come up with. There is a body of empirical data that suggests the approach really works.
The approach looks like this:
Staffer: “The project is off deadline, yesterday’s plot twist is going to require unexpected budget, and now I have something else competing for my time that’s making this really difficult to juggle.”
Manager: “And? Go on please…”
Staffer: “Well, what do you think I should do?”
Manager: “I’d like to hear what YOU think we should do.”
Staffer: “I don’t know. Like I said, I’m stumped. Nothing is going as planned. It’s really frustrating.”
Manager: “Imagine yourself a month from now, looking back, having successfully maneuvered this moment. What do you observe?”
Even a single coaching conversation
I never cease to be amazed at what a difference a single coaching conversation can make. People tend to reserve their real enthusiasm and commitment for approaches that are of their own making. So the next time one of your key players faces a challenge, set aside your pride in your own ideas, and set aside 45 minutes or an hour for them.
Coach them into unlocking their own ingenuity. Don’t add value by building on or refining their ideas. Let them have their moment, authorize them to get moving on what they come up with, then watch them fly.
Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.