How to Be Coachable & Get the Most From Your Mentor
Finding a veteran executive to be one's mentor can provide a budding executive with the tools and the extra motivation to achieve. The right mentor can also be a respected voice to tell senior leaders of an executive's talents and work ethic.
But the best mentoring in the world won't bear fruit if a junior executive can't take in and act on the guidance being offered. That's why it's just as important for that junior executive to make sure he or she can hear and act upon feedback and advice. To hear advice, you have to be able to listen openly and to accept feedback from people who are different from you. For some, that's easier than others.
"View the coach as a human first, and not a boss or someone who is in a more senior role," suggests Mae Douglas, senior vice president and chief people officer at Cox Communications, No. 6 on The 2008 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity® list. "Most people want to help because it feels good, so recognize that people do want to help. That coach's diverse perspective will provide you different information than if you went to someone the same as you. That helps the mentee develop a better understanding of themselves."
It's also important to be aware of your weaknesses as well as your strengths, says
can have successful executives who are strong functionally, but when it
comes to the human relationship part, that's where they oftentimes have
difficulty because they aren't aware of themselves," says
Here are five other tips on how to be coachable and get the most from your mentor:
To learn who you are as a worker, ask your supervisor for feedback on your work ethic, strengths and weaknesses.
"Ask pointed questions right after you complete a project or important meeting," says Anne Marie Yarwood, vice president of human resources and head of diversity for JPMorgan Chase's investment bank (JPMorgan Chase is No. 13 on the DiversityInc Top 50 list). "During the walk back to your desk and while it is fresh in someone's mind, test their perceptions to learn their suggestions for your improvement. That tells them you want to be developed."
"Have the courage to ask the question even if you don't like the answer," says
If you are aware of your strengths and weaknesses, you will not take criticism as a personal affront, says Kym Ward Gaffney, national director of coaching at PricewaterhouseCoopers, No. 4 on the DiversityInc Top 50 list.
"Know how to not get defensive when your leader offers alternative behaviors or disagrees with your approach, because self-awareness is knowing when you become sensitive," says Ward Gaffney. "Be able to suspend judgment; be aware of your strengths and weaknesses; it all signals maturity. It means we can objectively listen to feedback without having the need to be right."
A male executive who seeks a mentor who is a senior female executive, or an executive without a disability who seeks a mentor with a disability, for example, will learn more because they're reaching outside familiar territory.
"If your network is not diverse, then you're most likely to get stuck because people in your network will see things like you do, which is affirming but not helpful when you're stuck, "says Yarwood.
She also suggested a method of approaching a mentor who does not share an executive's personal traits. "You might want to think of what you can do for the person," says Yarwood. "Offer to get involved in something they're working on."
Seek the common areas about which people can bond, says Ward Gaffney: "When you are being coached [by] someone who appears different from you, then you make the extra effort to seek points of commonality. Just because someone is physically disabled doesn't mean you don't share some interests. You should look beyond the physical to the core values that you both share."
A method of developing that personal relationship is revealing extra involvement with projects outside of an executive's division, involvement with an employee-resource group or external professional groups. Dr. Cole says taking a mentor to a favorite food spot or event can reveal an executive's interests outside of work. Developing a relationship with a mentor can also be accomplished by inviting "one's coach to a meeting of their LGBT employee-resource group or [inviting a coach to one's] church or synagogue or temple," she says.
Research the senior executive you want as a mentor to learn his or her educational and professional background. The information learned can serve as an opening to ask for the executive's mentoring expertise.
Dr. Cole says this is a great way to open the request for mentoring: "'I've read your biography and certainly know who you are; would you allow me to briefly share my story?'"
"Do your homework to learn who the coach is as a person," says Ward Gaffney. Your research can also help you determine whether or not the mentor is likely to be good for you. Earlier in her career, Ward Gaffney's excitement at being assigned to work with a female leader turned to disappointment when Ward Gaffney discovered that none of the female leader's past mentees were promoted after their time with her.
The more specific you and your mentor are about each of your goals for the relationship, the more beneficial the relationship will be to both parties. Yarwood says using broad terms to define a mentoring relationship and not reporting the results will set up the relationship to fail. A common mistake she says is to use broad terms instead of being specific.
"Ask specific questions about where you want feedback or coaching, and when someone has invested time helping you, then let them know the result. That lets them know you're willing to get feedback and act on it," says Yarwood.
"You should always set up a professional-development contract, and that means you are proactively seeking an agreement with your coach that you will create a receptive relationship where you are willing to receive feedback," says Ward Gaffney. "The first thing you can say is that you want to be receptive and you want to have a dialogue with them … You have to establish intentions and actions at the beginning … You're trying to set up mutual accountability."
Mutual accountability gives both parties a framework for formal follow-up meetings at which you and your mentor share in your professional growth. Scheduling formal meetings will ensure that a mentor has set aside time for tutoring and is mentally present.
"[The person being coached] must develop the spirit around which you will receive feedback," says Ward Gaffney. "Consistently and strategically ask for feedback. Don't ask for feedback when the coach is pressed for time. You want to make sure you are letting the coach know you expect feedback. If you don't make time to receive feedback, then it looks like you don't want the feedback."
Make sure your goals include what you can do for your mentor. "This is a business relationship that is expected to benefit both parties. Establish that reciprocity is going on," says Dr. Cole.
Mentoring relationships that focus only on what the mentor can provide dissolve because of a lack of reciprocity, says Dr. Cole: "Any human relationship involves reciprocity." She adds that an executive should involve their mentor in their extracurricular business activities.
It is the demonstration of leadership skills that eventually earns an executive a leadership position. One method to show leadership is by admitting you don't know it all and that you can and do make mistakes.
think a good leader is willing to show other people that they don't
know everything, that they have frailties and that they're willing to
honestly share that with other people," says
do not fear failure. "Failure is one of the best ways to grow and learn
… Until we have some [failures], we go through life merrily thinking
about life one way. Failure is about growth and learning from that,"
Tell your mentor what you've learned. "Always indicate you're learning and willing to stretch yourself because then people see you're not stuck in your comfort zone and seek continued improvement and to stretch your skill set," says Ward Gaffney. "If after receiving feedback, you crumble, people will say, 'I'll never coach that person again' … We should critique ourselves but not so that we critique ourselves out of action."
Demonstrating a willingness to stretch means "taking on different projects and different roles in the organization," adds Ward Gaffney.