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Rethinking Mentorship

Our dynamic, global economy demands creative leaders who are able to forge new paths. Mentorship must be more about empowering the mentee than about shaping the mentee to be like the mentor.
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Two businessmen in boardroom with paperwork
Two businessmen in boardroom with paperwork

Before starting at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, I received corporate training and mentorship that was largely directive. My managers told me what to do and I did it. When it came time for longer-term career advice, my managers encouraged me to follow in their footsteps.

Our dynamic, global economy demands creative leaders who are able to forge new paths. Mentorship must be more about empowering the mentee than about shaping the mentee to be like the mentor. It wasn't until I arrived at business school that my mentors stopped telling me what to do and started asking me questions. My mentors went from "advising" me to "coaching" me. What were my priorities? Where did I want to be in five, ten, twenty years? How did I define a successful, impactful life?

Daniel Goleman's research in the Harvard Business Review points out that the best managers must have several styles to be most effective. He points out that the "coaching" style -- acting more like a counselor than a traditional boss -- is used least often because it is the hardest, not because it is the least effective. Coaching requires managers to focus primarily on the personal development of their employees and not just work-related tasks. It requires managers to tolerate "short-term failure if it furthers long-term learning." Goleman points out that the coaching style ultimately delivers bottom-line results.

I was selected to be an Arbuckle Leadership Fellow at Stanford, a cohort of MBAs employing the coaching style to mentor other MBAs. I started the program from the perspective that my professor Carole Robin repeated over and over: our "coachees" were "creative, resourceful, and whole." I can listen deeply, ask provocative questions, use my intuition, reframe the problem, etc. But I don't need to tell them the answer in order to be an effective leader.

I was randomly assigned nine first-year MBA students to coach, all from different backgrounds. I would meet one-on-one with each of them over coffee for an hour at a time. We would talk about everything from their transition to business school life to their romantic lives to career issues. "What should I do?" they each asked. But I wouldn't tell them the answer. I would ask questions and try to help them find an answer on their own.

"Why don't you just tell me what to do?" was a common refrain from my coachees. Eventually the coachees internalized that I worked to understand their perspective and to help them find the answer on their own. Intellectual independence then bred empowerment. I watched a quiet student transform into a powerful presence in front of an executive audience.

I still had a nagging question: would the coaching style only work at business school? Could I still be a successful coaching manager and resist giving the answers in a real-world situation with deadlines, budget pressures, and valuable relationships on the line? In the run-up to the Out for Undergrad Tech Conference this February, I coached the direct reports on my team. When I fielded a question, my first instinct was to ask, "What do you think?" One of the volunteers on my team, a successful young professional at one of the hottest Silicon Valley companies, was frustrated at first, just as my MBA coachees were. But just like the Stanford MBAs, he too began to internalize that he could come up with the answers on his own. As soon as he would ask a question, he would pause, acknowledge he was thinking through an answer, and offer a solution.

Employees are motivated by more than money, and autonomy and purpose are two large motivating factors. As the global war for talent grows ever more competitive, the need to cultivate and hold onto talent is paramount. Coaching results in more autonomous employees who are able to find meaning in their work and see the purpose of their actions.

John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, spoke at the Stanford GSB in March. He said that learning how to "enable and empower [a team] is the most important thing you can take away from business school." I have seen that the coaching style is the way to build high-performing teams.

I not only feel empowered to be a better leader in today's dynamic economy, I feel empowered to help mentor new leaders when it's my turn to manage. I hope others will rethink mentorship, as well, and view coaching their teams as a way to unlock the potential of a new generation of leaders.