Who should be a mentor or coach?

This is a leadership lesson of what not to do rather than what to do. There is a huge surge towards “mentoring” and “coaching” programs in organizations. Two reasons why this is probably happening, people are moving into senior management and leadership roles at a young age, so they need a coach to provide the experience that they lack; two, the CEO factories like General Electric and Unilever speak highly about the “mentoring” programs that help them churn out high quality leaders. The trend is very welcome and as with any new trend, everyone wants to get onto the new gravy train. Let’s look at two examples of the type of person who shouldn’t get onto this gravy train and one who should.

In the run up to the general elections, Mr. Modi was nominated to lead the BJP’s election campaign in June 2013. Mr. Advani went into a blue funk that he is yet to get out of, even after nearly 3 years !! And this man was Mr. Modi’s mentor and someone who stood by his side when the infamous riots took place in 2002. He did a great job as a mentor till that point in time. Not just ModiJi, there are a plethora of young leaders, the second rung of leadership in BJP was pretty much developed by Mr. Advani, so why the angst ? The angst is because he fears irrelevance, and being reduced to a footnote in India’s political history. But just imagine if PV Sindhu’s coach, Gopichand thought that way – she would never have won an Olympic silver. When his protege wins, the coach or mentor should be the first one to rejoice.

There is a difference between coaching and mentoring. While coaching assumes peership, mentoring assumes a hierarchy. A mentor in an organization can and should intervene on behalf of his mentee, but a coach would not. There is one big similarity between both coaching and mentoring, they both are meant to help a person reach his/her potential and the unspoken quality that a mentor or a coach needs is the ability to “give”. Give freely of his/her time, of his/her knowledge and keep thinking of giving. The payback is when the coachee or mentee reaches beyond his/her potential. Anyone aspiring to be a coach or mentor needs to have a “giving” heart, otherwise this relationship will end up doing no good. It’s not a “job” :).

Lets see what Pullela Gopichand, former All England champion, did with PV Sindhu. His All England title had come 15 years ago, and after a disastrous Olympics campaign for him. He had been at his peak in 2000 — game-wise and physically — but had lacked crucial support at the Sydney Olympics 2000. The national coach hadn’t bothered to recce his opponent’s game, and in the third round, Gopichand went down to Indonesian H Hendrawan. He was requiring ready inputs, strategy and support while on court and there was no one to offer him that. He decided then to setup the badminton academy and he is now feeding his athletes what he had been starved off: ready inputs, strategy, an on-court Pentium processor, knowledge and an incredible mind off court. More importantly, he ensured that all the focus was on Sindhu and not him when she won the Silver medal. What an incredible coach !!

Unfortunately in the corporate world we have more of the “Advani” type coaches and less of the “Gopichand” type. They like being called a coach, but don’t have a framework of how to develop the colleague, don’t have the time or inclination to really get to know the colleague and most of all, they are keen to put this on their CV as a “good” thing they did. When you see the word mentor or coach, probe some more – did their coachee, mentee move ahead in the organization, did they develop new skills, did they expand their comfort zone or shrink it and how many hours did this person spend in the role of the coach/mentor. The new concept making the rounds is of reverse mentoring that some organizations are implementing, where you get a young new hire to mentor a senior manager/leader so that the generational divide can be overcome. Great idea, but first the senior manager/leader has to be coached to be a good listener and to have an open, non-judgemental mindset, otherwise this would not work. I don’t want to talk of ego, but that’s a big roadblock too.

Just replay the scenes from June 2013, and imagine how revered Mr. Advani would have been if only he had personally announced the elevation of Mr. Modi as the leader for their election campaign or later for the PM’s role and even later not making the snide remarks. Millions would have become his fans. Making way for the new is a sign if maturity and wisdom. There are thousands of people in the corporate world who admire Mr. Kamath for his role as a mentor to many women leaders. Everytime one speaks of Ms. Chanda Kocchar, you remember Mr. Kamath as well, just as you speak about Gopichand every time you speak of Sindhu’s silver medal. That’s the opportunity Mr. Advani missed and missed by several miles.

So if you fancy yourself as a coach or mentor – “give” freely and rejoice in your mentee/coachee’s success, that’s your success. Don’t worry about irrelevance and your place in history – you live on in your coachee/mentee’s success.

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