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Why Mentoring is the New Black (for Executives)

Updated: Jan 3, 2019

Executive coaching has become mainstream with many larger businesses offering their leaders a panel of vetted Coaches to select from. But for senior executives is this inadvertently perpetuating some of the problems that have come to light in the financial services royal commission?

Coaching uses questioning techniques that encourage clients to draw on their own resources and competencies to devise strategies and take actions to address their issues. Therein lies the potential problem. Although a good coach will challenge, they draw out the solutions from the clients themselves and generally avoid offering advice. They are not necessarily equipped with the relevant business expertise, informed perspective and executive level leadership skills that an experienced mentor can apply for the benefit of their client. 

Traditionally mentoring is an informal, internal relationship between an elder and a junior but that is now evolving into a meeting of equals. External mentors are now being called upon to provide access to specific expertise, broader experience, objective and diverse perspectives and to challenge the thinking of people at higher levels within the organisation. 

So could external mentors have helped avoid some of the ethical and values failings of leaders of certain financial services organisations? 

Organisational culture is a reflection of the values, beliefs and behaviours of previous and current leaders that is manifested in the organisation’s systems, policies, practices and so on. We’ve seen what happens when those at the top demonstrate personal values and behaviours such as dishonesty, greed and disrespect which they would be unlikely to consciously foster. So how did things get so out of control? Could it be a lack of objectivity, diversity of perspective and accountability that external mentors can provide?

It can be difficult for executives to know who to turn to for confidential, objective feedback and guidance, especially when faced with situations they've never tackled before.  Egon Zehnder recently surveyed 400 CEO’s from across the world and the findings outlined in their report “The CEO: A Personal Reflection” showed that only 38% turned to the board chairman and just 28% to other board members for honest feedback. Only half of them (49%) relied on their senior leadership team and almost a quarter (24%) said they had to rely on their own judgment.

Unethical behaviour often happens in fear driven cultures with low levels of trust. A CEO might fear looking incompetent to the board if they alert them to what’s really happening in the organisation so they cover things up, a salesperson may fear being ridiculed or losing their job if they don’t make their numbers so they find a way to inflate the figures, a team leader may fear looking stupid in front of their boss if they speak out or ask a question, so they keep quiet. Or, as is happening in a number of large organisations that have signalled large-scale redundanices, people don't know whether they will be next on the list to go, so they live in fear of not being able to pay their bills. In these fear-based cultures the lived values and behaviours can become disengagement, self-interest, blame, control, manipulation, dishonesty and so on.

Financial services is traditionally a combative sector where internal competitiveness is rife and perhaps trust amongst colleagues exists merely at the surface level. For some, the common Australian workplace practice of ‘covering your backside’ prevails even at the top table and this appears to have guided many of the decisions and actions that have destroyed personal and company reputations and done untold damage to customers, staff and shareholders alike.

Should it be incumbent on top executives to seek external peer mentoring relationships with other executives who know what it is like to do what they do?

A trusted mentoring relationship would enable them to let down their guard, share their vulnerabilities, test their thinking, see how they’re perceived, learn from others they respect and most importantly have someone who will cut through the BS and tell them what they need to hear.

Linley Watson is CEO of Peak Performance International and a partner at The Leaders Mentor.

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