I’m a firm believer in the thought that a single conversation can change your life. I keep this in mind when I am coaching others, and I do my best to align myself with mentors in my career with whom I find I have impactful conversations more regularly.
Sadly, when most of us are allocated a team leader/coach in our organisations, we end up disappointed. We hope for someone who will help accelerate our careers and inspire us to do great things.
The truth is you’ll often not be allocated to a coach that can/will really mentor you in a way that you want to be mentored. Tragically, the coaching role is more of a chore to many team leaders than something they’re passionate about. Many leaders, whom the coaching role is thrust upon, see it purely as an administrative function. This means we need to take matters into our own hands.
We need to find mentors that matter. As high performers, we want to be challenged and inspired, and we want honesty.
Don’t Rely on the Organisation
There are not too many times in my career where I can remember being allocated a coach who truly resonated with me. You can’t always rely on your firm/organisation to provide you with the perfect coach. Fortunately, I’m the type of person who is constantly talking to people and not afraid to speak my mind or ask for help.
This has allowed me to find many mentors over the last few years, all of whom played a part in my career development. There’s one mentor who stands out head and shoulders above the rest, though, and she was the most unexpected mentor I ever had.
Introducing ‘The Hoff’
Her name is Sharalene, and we call her ‘The Hoff’. This is a woman destined for the big leagues; a no-nonsense power player that doesn’t mince words. With her being the partner in charge of some of my largest audits, I was often on the receiving end of some carefully selected (and very creative, I might add) expletives. You could also be forgiven for thinking that she was a lot more in tune with numbers than people.
Why did The Hoff end up making such an impact on my career? Well, there are a few reasons:
- I despise diplomacy. In large organisations, you’re constantly faced with people who sugarcoat bad news, or who try to make a bad situation sound better than it is. Sharalene calls a spade a spade, and I love that. She was always brutally honest with me. Where other partners sold me the dream, The Hoff was quick to call it like she saw it. Often, this was embodied with the words, “well, we clearly messed that up.” Awesome.
- She genuinely cared. We’re talking about one of the busiest people in the firm, here. Somehow, whenever I had an issue that I was struggling with, Sharalene made time to work through this with me. I remember her offering – when I was only in my second year at the firm – to come into the office at 7am to talk through a resourcing issue that I didn’t know how to solve.
- She put my concerns first. Despite her being the firm’s number one fan (truly, she loves the place) never once do I remember The Hoff dismissing my concerns in favour of the firm. This made me feel truly valued.
- She challenged me, realistically. Recognising my ambition, she often pushed me to try new things and aim for new heights. At the same time, where she believed something I had set my sights on – for example, an early promotion – she was always the first to tell me if I might fall short. (See point 1 on diplomacy above)
What worked for me might not work for you
Would everyone love Sharalene as a coach/mentor? Probably not, because not everyone responds the same way to that sort of style, and not everyone has as thick a skin as I do. I know The Hoff as a jovial, approachable straight-shooter. Others might see her as the most intimidating person they’ve worked with.
The key is that you look for, and approach, the person who will mentor you in the way you want to be mentored.
The Holy Grail of Mentoring
So, what are the key things you need to look for in mentors at your organisation?
- Challenge. If you’re a high performer, you don’t only want someone who can help you navigate your working experience and problem solve for issues on the job. You want someone who can challenge you!
- Honesty. Find the person who will be honest with you. If you are being a little naïve or over-optimistic, you want someone who can help you keep your feet on the ground.
- Inspiration. Find the person who will inspire you, who not only assists within the context of your current role, but who really helps you invest in your career. This person puts you ahead of the organisation!
Influence: when a mentor becomes a coach
I believe the subtle differentiator between mentoring and coaching is influence. A mentor becomes a coach when they are actually able to directly impact your working environment.
While not my allocated coach, I considered Sharalene to be my unofficial coach because she had influence. Sharalene was senior enough to be able to make decisions that helped, and/or she could influence other decision-makers.
If you can find a mentor that is honest, while challenging and inspiring you, that’s great. If you find someone that can do all of that and help you – through their influence – to tweak the parameters of your working experience, then hold on for dear life. You’ve found the holy grail of mentoring.
These individuals aren’t easy to come by, so you might need two or three mentors who all contribute different aspects of a great coaching experience. That’s okay too!
Start by Asking for Help
It’d be naïve to think that all of this happens in a day. It’d also be a mistake to immediately dismiss your allocated coach as not being able to help you. Luckily, in most high-performance organisations, you’re going to find people who truly care about coaching. Give those who offer their help a chance to do so.
If you find that you’re not getting the experience you’d hope for, know that people often have a natural tendency to want to help. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.
It’s your career – own it
Now that you know what to look for in a good coach/mentor, I want to make something clear: it’s perfectly okay to ask your employer for a specific coach to be allocated if you know that person is happy to be your coach, officially. Will it bruise the ego of your current coach? Maybe, but you’re in charge of your own career. The rewards are likely to dramatically outweigh the small cost of a little awkwardness.
All said and done, finding these people can be a little tricky.The best way to identify the mentors that matter to you is to chat with as many people as possible.
Remember, it only takes a single conversation to change your life.
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