Executive Mentoring 101
For the past three years, I have had the privilege to work as an Executive Mentor/coach to more than 40 business leaders throughout southeastern Wisconsin. This is my “encore career,” my chance to put 40 years’ worth of business experience to work helping those now in the shoes I once wore to navigate through the maze that is the modern, hectic, 24x7 business world. Oh, and we talk about personal stuff, too – if you’re human, your personal life affects your business life, and vice versa.
What is executive mentoring? It’s only been three years, but I have learned far more than I have taught. Being an executive mentor is challenging, but incredibly rewarding.
Think you want to be an executive mentor? Here are my top 5 learnings (so far):
1. Listen First
Being a good listener is rule #1 in my profession. You cannot possibly earn the trust of another person – which a mentor, or really anyone, must do in order to make a positive impact – without demonstrating that you are sincerely interested in helping them achieve their full potential by having the ability to simply listen to them. Deeply listen. Listen and really hear what they are saying. Listen without thinking about what you’re going to say next. Listen without judging what you’re hearing. Just take it in and use nonverbal expressions to show you are paying attention to what is being said.
2. Ask Questions, Then Ask More Questions
Of course, you need to understand what the other person is saying, not just feel their words reverberate within the labyrinth of your ear. Ask clarifying questions. Probe and challenge, using the Socratic Method, which according to Wikiversity is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions. Or, use the “5 Whys” approach initially developed by Toyota to get to progressively deeper levels of understanding of the issue, its context, the assumptions surrounding it (which might not be true), and potential solutions. Help your mentee to fully comprehend the situation so they can begin to more clearly see the possible outcomes for themselves.
3. Lead, Don’t Do
The role of an executive mentor — and my goal, as well — is to draw out opportunities and/or issues that are impacting the executives in my groups and help them find solutions. The techniques noted above facilitate this approach. Great leaders inspire their followers to do great things for a cause or “why” (thank you Simon Sinek), but they don’t do those things for them. They show the way vs. providing the answer. They give people what they need for success and they let them figure it out – maybe with a nudge or a suggestion … or sometimes even a hard push.
An organization’s success is usually directly proportional to the quality of its leadership. Organizations with terrific people and products will ultimately fail if the leadership is weak. The same applies to mentoring and coaching. Sometimes a team, or an individual, will succeed despite the leader. Often, however, the team or the individual will reach even greater heights when served by strong leadership. Not a bark-out-orders, micro-managing-everything, attention-craving-type of leadership, but a gentle yet firm, persistent leadership borne of service and a belief in the power of others as the path to success. As a mentor, a coach, a leader, it’s not about you – it’s about the team and the individuals on that team. Mentoring involves leadership.
4. Rely on the Power of the Group
The executives I mentor are formed into three groups of 10-15 members who come together quarterly in addition to their one-on-one sessions with me. As mentioned above, my goal is to build trust between each executive member and me, as well as between members in each executive group. This takes time and significant effort. Once established, that group trust leads to a safe environment in which members are willing to share anything with each other in return for honest, experiential advice on how to deal with whatever they have put before the group. If the group is broad, deep, diverse, honest and sincere, I find that the answer to most every issue is usually somewhere in the room.
5. Follow Up
Accountability has become a go-to word in today’s business lexicon, and rightly so. Not accountability as in “who’s to blame,” but accountability in terms of doing what you said you were going to do. I follow up with each member regarding any issue or opportunity that has been raised, to see what progress they’ve made in resolving it. The member informs the group of their progress on the topic, as well, and is subject to “tough love” if they haven’t made any progress. The member also hears cheers from the group when they announce that they have slain whatever dragon was breathing fire at them. Either way, it’s positive reinforcement, which builds strength in both the member and the entire group.
About the Author
Kraig Rodenbeck chairs EA 2, EA 8 and EA 27. A certified management consultant, he spent nearly 40 years in management consulting and professional services solution delivery in the areas of employee mobility management and human services. His experience includes working with corporations and government agencies to improve performance, save costs and increase employee satisfaction. He was an EA group member for 10 years before taking on his first group leader role. Kraig earned his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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