Are you a mentor or a coach?

© Pete Longworth

© Pete Longworth

Before I tell you about my latest and greatest read, I want to share a paragraph from it that stopped me in my tracks:

"I've come to believe that coaching might be even more essential than mentoring to our careers and teams. Mentors dole out words of wisdom, but coaches roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They don't just believe in our potential, they get in the arena to help us realize our potential. They hold up a mirror so we can see our blind spots and they hold us accountable for working through our sore spots. They take responsibility for making us better without taking credit for our accomplishments.”

The book, called Trillion Dollar Coach, is the story of Bill Campbell. Bill was a college football coach-turned-executive coach in Silicon Valley, and he worked with many founders and their exec teams at companies such as Google, Apple, and Intuit. When “the Coach,” as he was called, passed away in 2016, he left behind a legacy of growing both companies and successful people.

I was so struck by that paragraph because I realized I have become more of a mentor than a coach. I’ve forgotten that my role in my company is to get in the arena with my leadership team and help them see what they can’t see: the blind spots that are holding them back from becoming the best versions of themselves. And I’ve failed to teach them how to do the same for the rest of the people in Student Maid.

My lack of coaching hasn’t been intentional. It stems from a few things: The first is that I have a small leadership team, and I consider them my closest friends. Some of us have been working together for seven, eight years. It can be hard to remember to wear my coaching hat in our conversations. The second is that I’m busy. Between leading my own company and helping other organizations strengthen their cultures, I’ve become disconnected from my purpose. I’ve forgotten why I started all this in the first place: to help my people grow.

Reading about Bill’s legacy reminded me of the one I hope to leave behind, and it inspired me to get back in the arena with my team. In particular, it got me thinking a lot about blind spots. To me, blind spots are small things. They aren’t the big weaknesses that come up in discussions like 360 reviews—the ones we know exist and that we know are holding us back. They are the little weaknesses we aren’t aware of. The small shortcomings others see that aren’t big enough to bring up in a 360, but when we work on them, they can make a huge difference in how we show up. Last week, I decided to make blind spots the focus of our leadership workshop, a time we block out every month to work on our business and ourselves instead of working in the day-to-day.

To help us find our blind spots, I asked five questions:

1. How is this person’s energy when they walk into a room?

2. How does this person lead meetings?

3. How does this person communicate? Verbal and written?

4. What is this person’s demeanor when attending meetings? Distracted? Present?

5. How does this person perform in terms of owning their role?

We went person by person, myself included, giving our honest answers to these questions about one another. No ego. No justifying or commenting. Just a mirror held up by our teammates, helping us see the things we can’t. It took us three hours just to get through these five questions, and there are only four of us. 

This was the feedback my team gave me: I can overpower a room when I walk into it, which can make others feel small and knock their confidence. Sometimes when I’m really busy, I forget to connect with others personally in meetings and jump straight into business. I can derail meetings because it’s so important to me that everyone is happy; I let emotions rule the agenda and hang on until we reach consensus, which isn’t always possible or the right thing to do. When it comes to my communication in speaking and writing, I need to work on transitions and structure (I’m working on that with this post!). My positivity tends to get people’s hopes up about things that may not be feasible, so then my team has to crush those dreams and bring people back to reality. I need to be better at articulating our vision with clarity, because when I don’t, my team feels lost.

Powerful stuff.

After talking about our individual blind spots, we transitioned into discussing the blind spots we have as a team. Here are some of the weaknesses we identified together: We aren’t coaching our team members like we could or should be. We aren’t using everyone’s strengths on our leadership team. In many ways the work we do at Student Maid and the work we do to help other organizations outside of our company makes us feel siloed and disconnected from one another. We do great with external accountability—to customers, team members, etc.—but not when it comes to accountability internally among our leadership team. We are a lean team and take on more than we can realistically accomplish. We don’t rely on other partners and experts like we could. We focus more on revenue than profit, and we need to be better with managing our money. We aren’t comfortable with the unknown, and when things get overwhelming, we tend to freeze.

Again, powerful stuff.

At the end of every workshop, I ask my team to rate it. I used to think the higher the rating, the better I did. But last week after our blind spot discussion, I didn’t get the 9’s and 10’s I’m used to getting in workshops. I got a 4. And a 7. The reason? It was uncomfortable, and at times, not fun. And now I realize the higher the score, the more likely I’m mentoring and not coaching. The lower the score, the more I’m challenging people and helping them grow. The more I’m doing my job.

Now it’s your turn. Are you more of a mentor or a coach? How often do you hold up a mirror for others? It can be painful and awkward, but if you see something that’s holding someone back, they may never see it if you don’t bring it to their attention. 

How often are you asking others to hold up a mirror for you? Are you surrounding yourself with people who make you better? Are you asking people for feedback to help you grow? And what do you do when the mirror is in your face? Do you defend yourself? Do you let ego get in the way? Or do you choose to see it for what it really is and work on it? 

And finally, are you considering your blind spots as a team? As an organization? Are you willing to go there? Are you willing to block out the necessary time to have these critical discussions so that you can reach your potential?

We don’t remember the people who make us feel good all the time. We don’t remember the meetings we rate a 9 or a 10. We remember people like Bill: the coaches who get in the arena with us and make us aware of what we can’t see. We remember the tough team discussions that remind us we still have a lot of work to do. 

May you coach more than you mentor. May you be more like Bill.

Big hugs,