The real role of mentors and coaches

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the old one-liner.


But practice what?  Diligence and hard work aren’t enough – you have to know where to place your energy.

At first, the roadmap can seem pretty clear.  You want to get good grades?  The teachers will tell you what to study.  Want to be a good analyst at your first job?  Your boss and peers will tell you what to do, and it’s up to you to do it.

Most of this is about someone else setting up the rules of the game and you trying to win against that set of rules.  And as you progress in your career, you decide which the skills and behaviors you want to master and you work to improve them.

For example, here’s the illustrative chart for how you get better at public speaking:

Skills 2

So if you want to become a public speaker (Aptitude), there’s a set of identifiable Skills (e.g. projecting confidence, engaging the audience, having a good and varied speaking voice, being a storyteller, etc.) that matter, and you might be good (filled in circle) or not-so-good (empty circle) at these skills and at the behaviors that support these skills.  Simple enough, if you put in the effort.

And if you do put in this effort, if you’re a “sawgot” (someone who gets things done), you will over the years systematically pick off the skills and behaviors you need to work on to improve on the aptitudes you’d like to master.

This is likely a lifelong endeavor, and while it’s part of the answer it isn’t the whole story.  At a certain point you need to get underneath all of this and find new points for leverage.

The “underneath it all” are your attitude and assumptions – both about other people and about yourself.

Skills 3

I think of the top three levels (Aptitudes / Skills / Behaviors) as “What I do and How I Act” and Attitudes/Assumptions as “Who I am and How I See the Word.”  It’s Attitudes and Assumptions that are the the bigger leverage points if you can get to them; and these becomes increasingly important over the course of your life (since you’ve already come a long way at mastering behaviors and skills, right?).

More specifically, you’re carrying around a set of assumptions that colors your own sense of where you do and don’t excel, along with a story that explains why.  So for example you might have decided long ago “I’m not a good public speaker because I’m not a creative storyteller.”

For both parts of this sentence (“I’m not a good public speaker” and “because I’m not a creative storyteller.”) you could be 100% right or 100% wrong (or somewhere in between).  For example, maybe you’re only an OK public speaker but it has nothing to do with how well you tell stories (do people laugh at your jokes?).  The assumption about why will color where you put in effort, and you might be completely misdiagnosing what’s going on. So you might be putting in lots of effort into “storytelling skills” when what actually happened is that you’re carrying around the wrong mental model of what makes for a good presentation (stand up and present a bunch of boring slides).  It ain’t that you’re a below-average storyteller.

And this is where I think coaches and mentors come in.  I used to think that mentors were mostly for “what am I going to do with my life” conversations, but I’ve found out that that most people, other than you, are very poorly placed to answer that question (the best they can do is give you information about the different paths out there).

But if you can build relationships of trust and honesty with people who know and respect you and who know more than you about (at least) some things; and if over time you can develop a shared sense of who you want to become; then you have the opportunity to dig in to this conversation at the level of assumptions – the story you carry around about yourself that informs all the time and effort you’re putting in to your own development.

What this requires of you is cultivating these relationships of trust plus a willingness to go all the way to your assumptions about yourself when talking to these people.  This can be hard, because these stories, these assumptions we carry around, our personal narratives…these usually run straight to the core.

But imagine the impact if, in one conversation, someone is able to reflect back to you that just one assumption you’ve been carrying around for your whole life is plain wrong.  If someone were, in a single comment, able to show you that the circles you thought were empty were in fact filled in, and vice-versa…that it’s the story you’ve been telling yourself that needs adjusting, not the things you do (which are just tactics, after all).

If I were a betting man, I’d say the wrong assumptions you’re carrying around are about something you think you’re not good at…when in fact you already pretty good or even great.

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3 thoughts on “The real role of mentors and coaches

  1. Wow. I work as a coach – and have worked with people on things like public speaking – and this post is dead on. Most people are good at “systematically picking off skills and behaviours”. Sometimes they want a coach to hold them accountable to doing that, but the real value in a coach is when we can reflect back and point out the underlying assumptions and attitudes. That’s the powerful ground for change. Thanks so much for expressing this in a way that beats any of my attempts! I’ll be linking to it.

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