"Even Tiger Woods Has a Coach"
Good mentors are people who praise you in public while kicking your butt in private.
My reader survey showed a desire for practical content. Today I’m writing the first of two pieces on the role of mentors, both to help you think about what you need from a mentor, and how you should think about being one.
One of my old colleagues at Accenture used to say, “The best mentor is someone who’s praising you in public but kicking your butt in private.”
A key mentor of mine used to put this into practice. After rejoining Accenture after a stint working for a telecom startup during the dotcom era, one day my boss and I had a conversation after hours where he led off by saying, “Aaron, even Tiger Woods has a coach.”
This was a prelude to sending me off to executive coaching to deal with a number of personal interactions and style issues. I’ve never forgotten that line because I thought it was incredibly effective.
One of the things I learned in executive coaching is the importance of “spinning up people’s receptivity” to what you have to tell them. It’s not just about the content of what you are saying, but other people’s willingness to take it in.
This opening line worked well because it made a comparison between me and Tiger Woods. He wanted to reassure me that he thought I was a top performer, and that was why he wanted to send me to executive coaching - to enable me to reach my potential and not let self-limiting behaviors undermine my career.
In fact, companies don’t typically invest in executive coaching for people they don’t think are top performers or high potential, because it’s very expensive. In my case it was many thousands of dollars, and involved regularly flying to Minneapolis to meet with a coach who regularly worked with CEOs.
But of course anyone in mid-career sent to executive coaching is likely to take it as a negative. As in, I’ve screwed up and now I’m in real trouble. There’s probably an element of that. But it’s also a vote of confidence in you as well.
That line about Tiger Woods isn’t wrong. Even Fortune 500 CEOs have an array of coaches and advisors that help them. The woman who was my executive coach did a lot of communications consulting, and one of the things she did, for example, was help CEOs prep to go on CNBC.
This isn’t just a business thing. I guarantee you many top pastors employ coaches, research assistants, others to make them look as good as they do on stage.
Top performers are not at all afraid to pay top dollar for world class coaching. And one of the things executives learn through things like that is how to deftly take diamond in the rough subordinates and polish them up in ways that make them feel good about the process.
As it turns out, my boss had already cooked up a 360 degree feedback process with the coach he sent me to. He curated a list of people - all but him anonymous - that my coach interviewed in order to consolidate the feedback into a summary. These people were supposedly peers, people above me in level, clients - a mix of people.
The results were brutal. I’ve shared the document I received with a few people over the years, and it never fails to make an impression. Here are some excerpts:
Aaron needs to dress better.
Here’s the bad news: Aaron needs to wear a jacket, every day. That’s just what it is. Every day.
Dressing well is a tribal signal around here, it means you are on the rise or made partner.
He comes across very sure of himself, mostly in a positive way, but not always.
He stands and sits awkwardly; there’s something about his head. He never really looks at you, and that puts people off, it creates unease. He’s gotta change that.
Aaron should lift up his face, look straight on at people. He has a nice face, but he looks at you through the top of his eyes with his face down. Maybe he’s shy or something. That’s off-putting.
What can you do for him with his posture? He’s got his shoulders hunched, his head down, all the time.
He needs to stand up straight, look a person in the eye, keep his head up.
I’m afraid he’s going to hit a learning ceiling because he doesn’t listen. After a point, you can’t teach yourself everything anymore. You’ve got to listen to the people who’ve been there, done it, solved the problems, discovered new ways. He has to listen.
Aaron’s voice rhythms are too staccato. It’s hard to listen to him for long.
There’s basically four or five pages of this stuff, with a lot of positives included too, I should note.
I’ve always said that everybody’s got a rap sheet. The only question is whether or not you know what is on yours. Once you reach a certain level, or when it comes to certain ineffable matters of personal style or interaction, you can’t necessarily see your blind spots or faults. You don’t know what you don’t know.
One of the core functions of a good mentor is ensuring that you know the negative things other people are already thinking about you.
As I said, there are two elements of this: the information itself, and the way it is communicated so that you (or the person you mentor) will accept it.
There’s no two ways about this: this feedback is deeply personal, highly invasive, and difficult to take in.
As you see with that feedback above, it gets into the way you dress and the way you look. I’m pretty sure that my old boss, when he was looking to make partner himself, was given a similar laundry list of changes, including that he needed to shave off his mustache and lose weight.
I know that for a fact the executive coach I worked with had told CEOs that they needed to lose weight. But she also talked about how she had to wait for the right opening, to provide them enough insight to come to the conclusion themselves that this was an area they needed to talk about, and then address. This is the art of coaching and mentorship.
Everybody who’s made it to the top had somebody helping them deal with things like these.
Today the risks of providing this kind of candid feedback are so high, I suspect that most Millennials, and especially women, have never received it.
But you can be sure that people are still thinking those negative thoughts - and bringing them up at hiring or promotion time.
If you don’t have a mentor that is committed to helping you diagnose and overcome your key limiting behaviors, skill gaps, etc., you are at a major disadvantage in life and career.
If you have a mentor, and you aren’t getting this kind of candid feedback and insight, if he’s not showing you what’s on your rap sheet, then you don’t really have a mentor - or at least not one that’s doing everything that you need to succeed.
If you are someone who aspires to mentor others, this is also what you need to be doing. It’s not easy, because figuring out how to communicate these things in a way that’s appropriate, will be accepted, and will be corrected, is very difficult.
How Did I Do?
Sadly, while I was able to significantly improve the way I dressed, I actually didn’t fix most of these while I was at Accenture. It wasn’t until later that I directly worked on being able to establish and maintain strong eye contact - something I can do today. I actually wrote about how I did this back in newsletter #4, though I talk about it in a dating rather than professional context.
My posture still isn’t great. Once you have terrible posture, it is all but impossible to correct it later in left - which is one reason I’m going to be on the lookout for bad posture in my son. But I was able to make some improvements, which I wrote about in newsletter #12.
I’d be lying if I said I’ve fully overcome all of the points that were raised. Some things I have realized I’m not likely to change, so I instead have tried to make them work for me assets in the kind of work I do today.
In many cases there’s more to gain from leaning into your strengths than shoring up your weaknesses, once you’ve eliminated the career destroyers.
But regardless of how I responded to this feedback, getting insight like this is worth its weight in gold.
How to Get High Quality 360 Feedback
The way my old boss got me this information was brilliant in my opinion.
Most annual review or “360 degree” feedback type processes that corporations run are worthless for getting real feedback. These are “high stakes” surveys in that they will be used to formally evaluate a person and determine their annual performance rating, raise, etc. So just like all those Uber driver ratings or whatever, most people aren’t answering honestly. They are consciously considering the nature of the process and its potential impact on the recipient as they complete the survey. This distorts the results. People completing it might also rightly wonder if it’s truly anonymous.
The process my boss and this executive coach designed worked because it included a number of great design elements.
I did not know for sure who was providing the feedback. I had an idea who some of them were, I honestly can’t say for sure who all of them were.
The information was collected via telephone interview, not an online form.
The data was presented in a summarized format, with intentional scrambling of the results to make it hard to attribute any particular piece of feedback with a particular person.
The results were only given to me (I presume my boss got a copy as well). It did not enter nor was it available to Accenture for my personnel file or other performance evaluation process.
As an additional layer of buffering from the performance evaluation process, it was undertaken by an external coach, who was hired on an ad hoc basis (not through or as part of Accenture’s HR), and who made professional promises of confidentiality to me.
The net result was to create a low stakes environment - or dare I say it, a safe space - for people to provide direct, candid feedback without having to do it in person or something awkward like that, or do it in ways that might cause problems in my career.
I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, but if I were an executive in a corporation today and wanted to get this kind of feedback to someone I was mentoring, I’d definitely look to recreate this kind of process.
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Cover image credit: Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA - Tiger Woods, CC BY-SA 2.0