Are you at the top of your game?

Effective leadership relies in part on continuous learning—understanding industry breakthroughs and their effects on your business, as well as encouraging others to act on them. So what happens when you reach a plateau, the so-called top of your game, and want a jump-start to stay sharp and competitive? Consider personal and professional development through a mentor or coach to tap into learning opportunities that challenge the way you think about running your business and being a roofing professional.

Why invest in the help of a third party? Leaders sometimes need to discover new ways to work and develop new skills. They may encounter a problem they can't solve alone or need help implementing a new idea or strategy. Third parties can provide a one-on-one learning opportunity that, when focused, can net transformational results.

Mentoring and coaching

Mentors and coaches are not the same. Mentors work with people in their areas of expertise and often are concerned with not only a mentee's performance but a mentee's alignment with organization or industry goals. Mentors are invested in an outcome that equates to organizational success. Coaches work outside an organization's boundaries and seek to expand the human capacity of their clients. They act as facilitators and teachers. Successful outcomes for coaches involve unleashing the human spirit and expanding an individual's capacity to achieve inside and outside the organization.

When mentoring works

Mentoring within an organization or industry works best in a structured program—especially if mentors are held accountable for and evaluated on their activities. Even without structured processes, mentees can experience strong success by approaching mentors on their own and maintaining the structure of the relationship. This may mean monthly one-on-one lunches, regular roundtable discussions with several like-minded mentees or even an on-call arrangement controlled by a mentee. Whatever the practice, mentoring works when the parties make regular contact. This allows the mentor to get to know the mentee and follow the professional issues he faces.

Mentoring also is a positive way to pass along deep organization or industry knowledge about processes, people and politics that can help leaders become and stay successful. It strengthens an organization's culture by creating learning opportunities with "one of our own." And when structured appropriately, it can be a fairly inexpensive way to tap established knowledge, skills and abilities.

When coaching is better

Sometimes, internal learning opportunities are scarce because of an unusually young work force or lack of needed skills. A mentee may want to be able to share problems, vulnerabilities or mistakes without appearing weak to a boss or industry leader. A coach can play a valuable role for professionals seeking a new level of personal and professional learning. Coaches develop decidedly more inspirational and interactive relationships with their clients by helping set higher standards and create goals and assignments to achieve them. Coaches seek to instill in others a passion to learn and grow by teaching new skills and providing access to new sources of information. They offer a vision of what is possible. These activities may entail challenging the rules of the game and the client's role in that game. Such engagements may run counter to those of a mentor who seeks to align the individual with the organization or industry.

A choice

Whether you decide to choose a mentor or coach depends on your resources and goals. Mentors often have deep organization and industry knowledge; coaches may not. Mentor costs may be measured in the time they spend with mentees; coaches charge an hourly rate. Mentors may have biased relationships with mentees aimed at keeping players on track; coaches break down boundaries and can threaten established practices. Mentors are insiders, and everything shared with them is shared with the organization; coaches maintain confidential relationships with their clients.

Whether you choose a mentor, coach or another avenue to personal and professional growth, successful leaders seek opportunities for continuous learning to stay on top of their game.

Karen L. Cates is a professor of management at Monmouth College, Monmouth, Ill., and teaches executive courses for Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.


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