Manager as a mentor/coach

Performance review cycles are coming in, and I have had a chance to review goals and tasks for many individuals while they are entered into our performance management (PM) system. Having gone through this exercise of using a PM product for almost 5 years now and reviewing hundreds of goals, it is clear that most good employees need something more than just a performance review system to excel. While it is necessary to have good goals and metrices identified to enable good performance review (see Gautam’s post on “Getting performance appraisals right”), what kind of goals should be set to enable organizational goal and career development goal alignment is most tricky. This is also the topic for a recent article in Talent Management magazine by Josh Bersin which argues for a change in organization’s approach to performance appraisals. However, I want to look at this from an individual’s perspective who is supposed to be appraised.

Most managers do try (in the limited time available to them) to align company goals with individual goals, 1-1s are tools to enable those. However, as soon as some of the individual goals start to conflict (really or potentially) with company goals, many mangers give up. Typical examples of such conflicting goals that I have seen come up in organizations I have worked in:

  • Employee wants to go for higher studies, but he is a star employee so you can’t just let him go.
  • He/She wants to work on something very different (or in some other group).
  • Wants to attend seminar/training which is very expensive and you have no budget for this.

These personal goals matter a lot to employees, and most of the time these will come up with your good employees. However, fulfilling these may very well go against corporate goals of fiscal prudence, develop expertize and reduce attrition. If you are an employee who has these requests, you may have seen these being turned down frequently. If you are the manager who gets these requests, I am sure you have struggled with fitting them in the broad framework of corporate goals. It is hard for all the involved parties.

My personal experience has been that some of these can be resolved by spending more time with the employees and understanding real motivation for such requests. For example, someone wishing to change the job may actually just want to change the project (but doesn’t feel good about asking bluntly), or he may just want to get the flavor of what other groups do (think of short term assignments to other groups). In other cases of higher studies and training, trying to understand ‘why’ often leads to solutions like part-time courses, leveraging cheaper training options, etc. However, manager should be open to have dialog with his superiors and peers in other organizations to get some of these requests met (like more budget, inter-group transfer, etc), only then the employees will trust him with their career aspirations. This in turn requires an organization culture which incentivizes this, otherwise no one in sane mind would want to give their star employee to another group!

Traditionally, employees use their managers as their mentor/coach, entrusting their career development problems and goals to him. However, as I mention above, the role of a manager and that of a mentor/coach are fundamentally different and sometimes conflicting. So it makes sense to seperate these roles more explicitly and ideally use different persons.

Sadly, very few, if any, organizations understand this difference in role and try to do anything about this seperation. Neither do they equip their managers to play the mentor/coach role effectively and teach them how to handle the conflict in these roles. Also, while the need for coaches is understood when it comes to executives, their need is not felt for junior employees, even though they may need similar support to excel. All this causes problems for employees who need a mentor/coach, especially when their manager can’t play this role effectively. One solution for such an employee could be to seek such coaches external to their organization but then that loses effectiveness because much of coaching inputs come from understanding the eco-system of a company and the industry.

What has been your experience with this problem? What has/hasn’t worked for you? It will be great to hear your perspective.

4 thoughts on “Manager as a mentor/coach

  1. You will note that most of these issues mentioned don’t have to do with the work being done, making it more difficult to help the employee.

    Something more specific to accomplishing a different set of tasks or projects — complete the software development from code creation through unit testing (rather than just code development, for example) — would expose the employee to the testing cycle and would be easier for a manager to arrange.

    A simplistic example, but getting the request more specific to the role makes it easier for a manager to accomplish.

    Having said that, you are very correct where the coaching function and the management function are two different skills and not many managers have them. Nor do companies train managers about the coaching and parameters that they can work on with their employees.

    A thoughtful post.

  2. Thanks for your comment Scot. I agree, most of these are not really related to the work being done. And that is one reason why it is necessary to engage in constructive dialog with the employee to understand real motivation behind coming up with these. I have found many times that (at least in India) that employees are very hesitant in coming up with real reasons for why they decided on doing (or not doing) something, and it requires effort on part of manager (esp since many times manager may have directly/indirectly caused the problem!) to get to the bottom of the issue. It is that much easier when your mentor/coach is not your manager, since there is less conflict of interest then.
    If employees could be thoughtful and anlytical, they make manager’s job easier, yes. but then being manager doesn’t remain that fun and challenging!

  3. I disagree that the role of the coach/mentor should be separated from that of the manager. for you to be able to get the support to excel you need to work closely with your manager to do it. Managers could delegate the function of coach/mentor, if he sees the special skills s/he want to develop could be provided by another staff in the organization down the line; however, responsibility of coach/mentor should not be delegated and the Manager should monitor staff evolution and be able to receive information on how the staff is progressing. Good managers do it.

    1. Good managers are also rare! 🙂 Thanks for your comments. I agree that manager should be the coach/mentor if possible. However, what I point to is that these 2 roles have sometimes conflicting goals, and while good managers can handle these conflicts – many managers struggle with it and most of them end up siding with their management role. From this perspective, seperating these roles may be appropriate.

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