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Learning from the Black Caps

I was interested in the recent media discussion about the (lack of) performance of the Black Caps in the recent series with Bangladesh. One thing that caught my attention was the fact that the Black Caps had adopted a mentoring approach, and in particular the comments about the reluctance of certain members of the team to fully open up to their ‘mentor’.  It struck me that a similar issue may be faced by leaders in organisations who are keen to embrace a coaching/mentoring style of leadership, but find that their people don’t necessarily have the same level of enthusiasm for the process.

In the Black Caps’ case apparently, certain players were reluctant to open up to their mentor about performance issues or areas of development – for fear of this knowledge affecting the likelihood of their being selected for the team.  It seemed that the fact that the mentor also had a role in selection and rating of performance held them back from being fully open.  As a result, they were missing out on the chance to surface and develop their areas of weakness, and as a consequence likely to continue to perform at a lower level than might have been possible if they acknowledged the issue and sought assistance.

In a business context, I have experienced situations where an organisation has set up a leader as coach / mentor programme in which the individual’s manager is encouraged to operate in this capacity, but after a few months, reports that their people don’t seem to be that keen to open up about areas of development.  As a result the leader doesn’t get the chance to practise their skills and may also start to question the value of the coaching/mentoring process.  The organisation then runs the risk of wasting the investment of time, money and effort in the launch of the coaching/mentoring programme.

Are we being naive in thinking that everyone will jump at the opportunity of coaching or mentoring when it’s presented to them?  If I am the person being coached and the coach is my line manager (who also does my performance review and decides on any salary increase/bonus) how likely am I to be to fully disclose what’s going on for me and what I may need to improve?

Of course there are some excellent examples where the coachee and the leader-coach have a sufficiently evolved relationship that these issues do not occur.  But even in these,  I wonder if, subconsciously perhaps, anything from the coaching/mentoring conversations comes into the manager’s mind at the point of assessing performance?

So am I suggesting that the whole mentoring / coaching move that many organisations have made over recent years has been a waste of time and money?  Absolutely not!  I believe that the way organisations are having to work these days with less direct ‘management’ and less hierarchy requires a more supportive/coaching approach.  However it is unrealistic to think that staff who have become used to being directed by their leader will immediately embrace a coaching / mentoring approach without some concerns and doubts about how it will operate.

All is not lost however and there are things that can be done to remove some of the issues that can come up in the manager-coach / coachee relationship.  Some examples of these are as follows:

  • Ensure there is clear communication to coachees and mentees about the intentions of the process and how the information will be used.  While this may not ‘solve’ the issue, it will at least remove one potential element of concern.
  • If you are the manager of the individual, be very clear in the conversation what role you are actually playing i.e. manager; coach or mentor.  This can clarify the intent of the conversation and should enable the individual to become more comfortable opening up about development areas that they want your support on.
  • Be very clear about the confidentiality of the relationship.  You must assure the individual that the things that are discussed in a coaching conversation will not be shared more widely within the organisation without their permission.
  • If the direct line relationship is going to prevent an open conversation then consider a model which involves using a leader within the organisation who does not have line management responsibility for the individual i.e. give a manager of one team responsibility for acting as a mentor to people in teams other than their own. Alternatively, offer coachees / mentees the chance to choose their own coach.
  • In situations where you have concerns about the likelihood of the individual fully committing to the coaching/mentoring process as a result of concerns such as those above, consider the use of an external coach / mentor who is totally uninvolved in any form of assessment of the individual.
  • Remember that it only takes one ‘abuse’ of what you find out as part of a coaching /mentoring conversation to undo a lot of good work and potentially destroy your ability to build a trusted coaching relationship with the rest of your people (word spreads quickly).

So, in summary, I encourage you to continue to move to a coaching/mentoring approach of leadership when appropriate.  But look to do so in the knowledge that certain issues and concerns may get in the way of a coachee fully engaging with the process.  Do whatever you can to remove some of these concerns through applying one or more of the above suggestions.

P.S. I am unaware of whether the Black Caps have looked to include elements of the above in their mentoring programme, but very happy to hear from them if they have.

Article previously published in National Business Review – www.nbr.co.nz

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