Coaching and Mentoring : Best Advice for Leaders: Stop, Look and Listen

Albert A. Vicere is executive education professor of strategic leadership at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and president of Vicere Associates, Inc., a leadership consulting firm with clients around the globe. He is one of the country's top leadership coaches, and is the author/editor of several books including Leadership By Design, The Many Facets of Leadership and more than 80 articles on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

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Actors watch other performers to learn their craft. Athletes draw inspiration from other sports stars. People in organizations learn leadership skills by watching other leaders. It's a great idea and an age-old technique, but it only works when there are competent role models from whom others can learn. And the best learning comes from both watching and building a personal connection.

All of that poses a special challenge to leaders as they develop throughout their careers. Who do you watch as you advance up the leadership ladder? How do you learn from them? With whom should you connect? Do you need a mentor ?

I posed those questions to several top leadership development experts. Their answers frame a simple and powerful strategy that leaders can follow as they look for ideas, inspiration and continued development as a leader.

The experts agreed that role models are a great source of learning. But Victoria Guthrie of the Center for Creative Leadership cautioned that the challenge of identifying leadership role models is to make certain the model is selected not as much for what they do but how they do it. And there are lessons in both good and bad leadership behavior.

“There is a great deal of developmental learning from bosses, both the good ones and the intolerable ones. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say they knew exactly what they would not do as a leader as a result of having had a "bad" boss,” says Guthrie.

Noted leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith suggested that a great learning opportunity exists in studying the person who previously held your leadership position. “Learn as much as possible from the previous office holder about the opportunities and challenges in the position. Even if the previous person was not successful, studying their approach can provide have great insights into the job.”

What about formal mentors ? Goldsmith suggests a proactive approach, “Build a relationship with someone higher in the organization who has had similar experience in the past. Most executives love helping next generation leaders. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help.”

And help doesn’t just come from the person to whom you report. Peers, colleagues and direct reports can be tremendous sources of insight and guidance. “Many new leaders feel that it is a sign of weakness to ask for help and advice from those around you,” says Goldsmith, “but some of the most noted leaders in the world--including Michael Dell and Jack Welch agree that this is a sign of wisdom.”

The experts agree that mentoring relationships don’t need to be formal. In fact, the most effective leaders build connections with a variety of people who view the job from different perspectives. Peers are critical in building cross-organizational relationships. Sales people can provide insights into the customer perspective. Direct reports might have insights on how to better deal with front-line employees. It’s the connections leaders make with these people and the insights they gain from them that makes the difference.

John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas and noted observer of future trends in organizations summarized, “A person can’t have too many mentors. But they won’t come to you. Seek them out both within and outside of the company. Use them as sounding boards, get their advice, get feedback from them.”

As for role models, Goldsmith shared some wise guidance: “Everyone who is successful is there because of many reasons and in spite of making some mistakes. Don’t just copy other leaders. Carefully review what they are doing and try to sort out their because of and in spite of behaviors. Try to learn from both”

So what’s the best counsel for leaders seeking to hone their leadership skills? Stop and take a deep breath. Look around and identify some key role models. Observe the good, bad and ugly of their behaviors. Also look for some key individuals with whom you can connect for advice, feedback and support. Listen to the lessons from your observations and incorporate those lessons into your approach to leadership. Stop, look and listen—always sound advice.

© Copyright Albert Vicere 2004

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