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What’s On Your Mind – Mentoring Or Schmoozing?

What’s on Your Mind – Mentoring or Schmoozing?

I was perusing a recent (#83) weekly edition of the excellent Tech People Leadership newsletter by the impressive Joe Dunn ( when I came across a referenced piece on “7 essential questions all great managers ask their employees” by Michael Bungay Stanier. Apart from shilling his new book he made the assertion that there are only seven questions a busy manager needs to ask to “raise their leadership game”.

The questions were “what’s on your mind?”, “and what else?”, “what’s the real challenge here for you?”, “what do you want?”, “how can I help?”, “if you’re saying ‘yes’ to this what are you saying ‘no’ to?”, and finally “what was most useful for you?”.

Now I hate lists as much as the next independently thinking individual, but this list resonated with me – not because I found the list poignant but because it raised the thorny issue of how to implement coaching and mentoring within an organisation. Providing mentoring support for a team member if you are their line manager is very different from delivering the same experience to someone else’s direct report, a cross-organisation mentoring practise that many companies rightly encourage. Let me explain.

Mentoring within an organisation generally focuses on organisational issues and personal development beyond the current role. Mentoring in leadership is a different animal. In a line manager role you generally mentor to prepare someone for promotion or to correct behaviours that aren’t supporting the business of the team. Styles of management vary widely, but your objective shouldn’t be to cultivate popularity in an “all mates in it together” collegiate relationship but to challenge team members to be- and give of- their best, to grow in the role and be “the CEO of their job function”, as Nickhil Jakatdar of Vuclip puts it. Mentoring has to reflect the goal of looking for opportunities to enable greater performance and perhaps sensible risk taking, owning problems and sketching out solutions to challenge themselves.

If you are in a line mentoring situation you are addressing specific issues, and although mentoring should be somewhat open in terms of the frank exchange of views, asking only open-ended questions creates a different nurturing relationship that can present unintended challenges for you and your team member, leaving both sides frustrated and issues unresolved. As a busy manager (The opening assumption) you need to respect yours and your team members time as well as the challenges of the role, so get to the point.

Management always has to have a directional element and that spills over in mentoring. Most people underestimate their capabilities and your skill as a manager is to recognise those holding back from those unable to cope. There are real empathetic skills needed to assess people – all of whom are complex and in many ways unknowable – yet the role of a manager isn’t to fix but enable. That can be done through guidance, training and re-assignment. In my experience cross functional mentors are often much better placed to deal with personal issues relating to organisational fit, personality clashes, unmet expectations, personal brand development and exit planning that can be tough to explore with your line manager.

Managers certainly have to deal with the role and its fit to the team member. Assuming your fit is good, and you are dealing with poor performance, then your first goal is to state clearly what the issue is, without prejudging and as neutrally as possible. Get consensus that the problem is recognised by the team member and don’t explore its causes at this stage. Clear problem identification leads to constructive solutions and avoids defensive posturing, but you need to be on the same page first.

As Joe himself commented, the next stage is to be very, very curious about what’s going on with the person. This is an “accusation free” situation and you should encourage open disclosure but not counselling. Focus on their business relationship and the problem(s) in hand. From this position we should have a mutually agreed situation and an opportunity to explain context and focus on a clear way forward. It’s now possible to ask the “what do you see as your options?” question, leading to a contract for improved performance. “How can I help” is a “no-no” question as it shifts the emphasis from them to you. Training and development needs should also be resolved here.

The question “what’s on your mind” for me is way too general and might drag in a range of issues that you aren’t able or equipped to deal with at that moment. It can also be a little jarring for you team member, wondering where you are going and if you’re priming a bear trap for them to wander into. It’s an unsettling question for both sides and doesn’t help the focus of the session.

Never ask a question you don’t have a plan for, so “what do you want?” is another bear trap that you are both setting and triggering. Exactly what kind of answer will you be able to supply a positive response against here? It’s an offer to meet an expressed need and so is a classic venue for disappointment and conflict. Stay closer to the topic is my advice.

The final question isn’t helpful at all I think. Feedback is always useful but asking “what was most useful for you?” once again reverses roles and places you as manager in a performance review position that you may not have intended. This is the point for agreement on actions and review and not for you to act like management is a training exercise for you or you wont be leading anymore.

In summary, mentoring and coaching as a manager is distinct from coaching across an organisation which is why many companies encourage the latter. The kind of mentoring in that case is much more focused on the individuals place in the organisation and their personal goals, and not on role performance per se. Non-reporting line mentoring can be very powerful, more confidential and provides a different perspective on one’s personal challenges. Don’t confuse the two!

With small companies and startups the opportunity should be explored for using some of the outside mentoring resources now available if you don’t have that resource or experience internally, should employees require the kind of support that would typically be offered cross-functionally. It will pay dividends in the end and could be a better investment than free snacks or Friday afternoon beer pong!

Do you mentor within your organisation and do you recognise the conflict I have explored as something you have faced from either side of the mentoring relationship?

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