This is mentoring.
So interesting how times have changed. Back in the day, I’m talking a mere five-ten years ago, if I said I was a coach - yawn, snooze, blank stares - you name it. Kinda like the famous Brene Brown TedTalk - “so what do you call yourself?” “Well, I’m a researcher and a storyteller. (Or why not magic pixie?)”
I’m a mentor and a facilitator. People frequently want me to say I’m an executive coach or a life coach. Thing is, that’s kind of true but it’s not the whole story.
Several of my mentors and teachers suggested I look at these terms carefully and choose. What do coaches and mentors do that is relevant, valuable, and different? As I explored the differences, I realized a couple things: 1. this is only my opinion and comes with that caveat, and 2. other’s may be confused too and want to know the distinction.
I actually did an informal survey of about 200 people. Here’s what they told me. Coaches, they informed me, are strict disciplinarians, aggressively demanding that goals be set and reached in a neat and tidy 8-week coaching package. (Hmm. This could work with some clients; unfortunately, I’ve never found it successful with mine.)
Thing is, goal setting is highly valued amongst leadership theorists and management gurus. What I found in my work is that achieving a goal often isn’t the issue. It’s an outcome. Outcomes are produced by consistent work on a subject, topic, or idea. Here’s the rub. Goal setting is planning for an outcome, and, we humans tend to spend way too much time in the goal planning phase and not as much in the goal achievement phase.
Why? Because we experience the inevitable setbacks. A lot like dieting, we’re psyched in the beginning, and spend a lot time getting ready, questioning whether we’re ready, and surfacing all the ‘what-if’s’ that might derail us. This can take a lot of time! When we hit the inevitable roadblocks, all that planning goes out the window. We either survive the derailing situation or we don’t. If you’re like 90% of humans, you respond to setback by feeling guilty. (Here’s a great article on this.) Guilt is a man-made emotion, meaning it’s not one the primary basic emotions recognized by most psychology degrees. Guilt is designed to eat away at our otherwise good and focused intention. Guilt derails. Ipso facto, goal setting derails.
That made me wonder, if the perception is that coaches focus on goals and goal setting, and that’s something most of us don’t like very much, why are there so many coaches and why is the coaching industry growing exponentially? Perhaps the answer can be found in the work done by the mentor.
As far as I can research, the word 'mentor' was first used as a name in Greek Mythology. The word became synonymous with ‘someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.’ (Wikipedia, 2015.)
Sounds about right to me; a mentor has to know the way in order to show the way. Notice there is no capital T or W. Meaning, there is no one way or right thing to do or be. Mentors know that and I suspect many coaches do too. So that prompted my next question - how do mentors and coaches know the way, or a way, in order to help their clients.
One of the most enduring pieces of knowledge that has come across my path is the definition of wisdom. Not an easy definition, mind you. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes - yep, Women Who Run With The Wolves - dedicated several years of personal research, as she enumerates in her audio CD, Seeing In The Dark - to pin down exactly what constitutes wisdom. Ultimately, Dr. Estes concludes,
“Wisdom is what works.”
And this is what I know a mentor to be. My own mentors embody this and it is my aspirational goal with all of my clients. A mentor knows that not every thing will work with every client. Great mentors search every avenue of knowledge they can find, they hold a mindset of curiosity, and they value it both in themselves and others.
A mentor knows many ways to consistently work on achieving a specific outcome. That way has very little to do with statistics or numbers or goals. A mentor is like a co-pilot, one who knows how to fly, and what to do if problems arise, and how to get safely back on the ground. And, she inspires her clients, helping them to become re-enchanted with their life and their prospects. A mentor knows that once you start, there's no telling where you might go.
And that’s one of the first things a mentor will ask, “where do you want to go?” And from that moment on, they will work with you to find a way to get there. A thousand different connections, linkages built over time, and a barely discernible pathway are the 'bones' of mentorship. The conversation is the key; dialogue, sometimes debate, clarifies the field of potential. This is a very reciprocal, balanced partnership, each contributing to the outcome.
I think a lot of coaches must actually be doing mentoring work, given the rapid growth of the industry and the fact that very smart, highly educated, successful people hire coaches. If it were a simple matter of goal planning or skill building, this group of talented, successful people would employ their own sense of agency and get the job done.
Here are a few other common traits of some of the very best mentors out there - they read, read, read, and read some more. Their favorite places include bookstores and libraries and coffee shops; they’re interested in anthropology, psychology, archaeology, and neuroscience, not to mention physics, astronomy, and astrology. They're just as likely to ask you how you spell your name in Egyptian hieroglyphics as they are to ask about your emotional intelligence. They’ve had successful careers themselves, carry several degrees, and endeavor to live whole meaning-filled lives that set an example of what could be. And, far from perfect, they’ve gotten quite a few bumps and bruises from walking their own road, and that just serves to season their thinking and temper their suggestions.
Overall, the mentors I respect - and what I strive for in my work - have figured out what works for them, and they're willing to show you what they know and how to figure out what works for you.
This is mentoring: find someone who has more wisdom than you do and then benefit from that collaboration.