Driving a 10p Nail with a Screwdriver.

Christopher Fullam
9 min readJan 4, 2021
Designerup.com

An enjoyable experience.

Like a ham sandwich enjoys talking about mustard, I always enjoy talking about mentorship. Some might say that I obsess about this topic just a smidge too much.

My colleagues will vouch for the too much part. One such discussion put a bee in my bonnet and sent me trotting to my desk to document my thoughts about the significant differences between a coach and a mentor. The blog post, To seek a Coach or a Mentor, that is the Question was the result. I was concerned that too many folks felt these roles were interchangeable, that it was one role with multiple names. I felt a need to set the record straight.

The clarification of these two roles gave me a strange, but nice, sense of accomplishment. True, nothing had really changed, but codifying the differences organized my thinking, and that felt good. I sent the article to my colleagues and waited for their response.

It wasn’t long before we started our normal process of sceptical review, sophomoric teasing, and serious interrogation. My suppositions were put through an intense grilling. Finally, the group grudgingly admitted that the clarification was indeed helpful when discussing the competencies and expectations for individuals in these roles. It may seem overly obvious, but you will have more success working with others if you can align what they need with what you provide. A screwdriver is usually very useful, but can be a poor tool when driving nails.

Success! I smiled.

I was surprised to see that my colleagues were smiling too. There was a shared feeling that a chunk of faulty “common wisdom” had been corrected. We started joking about the Knicks, my hair, the weather, and politics in rapid succession. A couple minutes later the laughter died down. There was a pregnant pause. I just knew the other shoe was going to fall. The dread was palpable. Breaking the silence after a couple long minutes, my friend, almost sheepishly asked,

So, why do corporate mentorship programs almost always struggle?”

Sauntering back to my desk, Yoda and why Corp Mentorship Programs fall short came spilling out. I laid out the most common reasons why internal mentorship programs fail to deliver on their promise. I felt the same feeling of accomplishment.

Once again, I sent the most recent blog to my peers and awaited a response.

The feedback came quickly. Another fierce discussion about the state of mentorship followed. The items discussed resonated with the group. Our combined experience validated each point. We had the feeling that we were creating something significant. (Not like penicillin significant, but still important)

We were well pleased with our work.

My colleagues and I sat back on our socially distanced faux leather couches with pictures of dogs playing poker on the wall above. We shared satisfied grins, virtual cigars, and virtual celebratory back slapping. We were very content in our codification until someone (whose name I will not utter) whispered quietly -

“Where does the manager fit into this?”

Shoot. (Verbiage cleaned up for public consumption)

After a very deep sigh… I trudged back over to my desk with a strange thought scratching the back of my eyeballs. Was I involved in a fool’s errand? Am I destined to spend the next few years chasing around the edges of employee development role definition only to end up like Smeagol, clutching the ring of truth just as I am dissolved in the molten lava of Mount Confusion?

Always the optimist, I decided to progress through the next iteration and see what happens.

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet” — Aristotle

There are three main roles with responsibility for the care, nurturing and development of the employee. The manager, the mentor and the coach. All three are important, but rarely are all three made available to every employee that desires them. For the vast majority of employees their manager is expected to fulfill all three roles, or the individual is expected to find their own mentor in the organization.

Of the three roles, some would say that the manager is the most important. It would be hard to argue that point knowing that in the vast majority of cases it is the manager who must ensure the continuation of the organization thru consistent value generation.

However; it is the other roles that make an organization’s culture “sticky”.

Being a Manager is not a walk in the park with Fluffy.

We have all heard the saying, “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers”. This is likely true in the majority of cases. After all, doesn’t the manager have the majority of the interactions with the employee?

Even when done correctly, these interactions can be challenging. A manager’s job is not easy. There are several roles to play along the way and as many challenges as there are triumphs. One of the most significant challenges is knowing how to identify the appropriate role required while realizing there are many different opinions of what a “perfect” manager looks like.

Peter Drucker’s definition of a manager is as good as any.

A manager sets objectives, organizes, motivates and communicates, sets yardsticks, and measures and develops people.” Peter Drucker

Returning to the sports analogies that I can’t seem to do without, the manager’s job is to put the best possible team on the field to accomplish the goals that she has defined. Certainly, along the way she will encourage, and she may critique a player’s technique. She will certainly communicate. She must also make substitutions that might improve her teams chances to win.

The manager will coach and mentor in the context of improving the team on the field’s chances for success. That is most often her motivation.

This certainly makes sense when you think about who the manager is responsible to, how the manager adds value to the organization, what the manager focuses on, and how her success is measured. More on that below.

The Client

The client in the table above is the entity that each role “works for”. It is who they are beholden to, and some might say who they need to impress. As much as we might like to think we are independent, it does matter who evaluates our performance.

Managers are employed to help the organization achieve its goals in support of the corporate strategy. The manager is expected to put the best team on the field to increase the chances of winning in the marketplace. This is their reason for being.

This is very different from the mentor / coach roles. For the most part the mentor and the coach are focused on the individual they are working with.

Coaches. While coaches work with individuals, they are really beholden to the team. They are responsible for how the individual performs when it counts in the game. Coaches are hired to ensure successful execution within the context of the team.

Mentors. Mentors are solely and exclusively concerned with the well being of the mentee. Often what is in the best interest of the mentee might not benefit the team or the organization, and might be at cross-purposes with the coach and the manager. This is a conflict that can be challenging to the manager who is also expected to coach and mentor.

The Focus

Managers focus on organization or team results. They are accountable to deliver on business metrics that support the corporate strategy. These might be revenue, sales, product delivery, qualified leads, customer satisfaction, yada, yada. (Vague Seinfeld ref.) Regardless of how effective a manager might be in other areas, if he regularly fails to meet reasonable expectations in terms of team or organizational attainment, his manager might be forced into making a substitution.

Coaches work with individuals to improve specific skills and techniques. This might involve coaching on how to be a better manager, conduct more effective meetings, resolve conflict, etc. A coach might work with an individual and discover that the individual struggles negotiating, or receiving feedback. The coach can help improve performance in areas that require attention.

Mentors are concerned entirely on the mentees degree of fulfillment. The mentor will work with the mentee to uncover misalignments and gaps that have negative impacts. This is not easy and requires that a solid trusting relationship be established between the mentor and mentee.

The Measure(s) of Success

How one measures success says a whole bunch about their motivation. Experienced Mentors will tell you that your measures of success will determine where you spend your mental and emotional energy.

Managers of course focus on business metrics as their success metrics. The organization or team is expected to be accretive to the company’s strategic efforts. If the team consistently fails to deliver, changes will be made. These changes could possibly include leadership substitutions or even elimination of the entire group.

Coaches are concerned with an individual’s proficiency at a certain skill or set of skills. Sometimes this can be reduced to very specific metrics. Productivity and quality are often in the mix. The coach feels satisfaction when the performance of the individual improves which subsequently results in a stronger team.

Mentors have a much more ambiguous measure of success. One of the hardest tasks of the mentor is to help the mentee to articulate what they really want or need. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Unlike the coach or the manager the endpoint is not usually well defined before the engagement starts. As a matter of fact, it happens quite often that the mentee discovers that what they thought they wanted, after further consideration, will not bring them the fulfillment and joy that they desire. The mentor cares only for the mentees achievement of results that are set only by the mentee.

A story of two well-meaning individuals and how it all went horribly wrong.

Jeremy had been working for this company as a software engineer ever since he graduated from college two years ago. He submitted his yearly accomplishments last week, and felt that he had a really great year. His manager Linda had scheduled a meeting for today, and as he walks down the hallway to her office he is excited about the opportunities that might lie ahead.

Linda had been very impressed with Jeremy’s growth over the past year. He is smart, works well with others and doesn’t need any hand holding. He is a keeper alright. Having lost two high performers last year to a competitor, Linda wanted to make sure that Jeremy was getting every benefit that she could provide. Their 1:1’s have been sporadic, and due to her work (over)load she hadn’t been able to spend much time with Jeremy. Linda decided to put aside an entire hour to connect with Jeremy and find out what makes him tick.

Jeremy walked into Linda’s office and sat down expecting to talk to his manager about his job performance.

Linda welcomed Jeremy, and after a few niceties put on her best mentor listening face and asked Jeremy,

“So, do you really want to be a Software Engineer?”

You can see how quickly that meeting got off on the wrong foot.

Summary

In today’s tech universe talent is hard to find and even harder to retain. Organizations that aim for success over the long run need to ensure that they maintain stable and predictable tech teams. This is highly unlikely if there is a high level of employee churn.

The most effective way to attract and retain talent is to focus on the well-being of the employee. To accomplish this goal the organization must ensure a fair and empowering performance management process, access to help developing desired skills and proficiency, and a caring interaction with an experienced mentor who can help ensure the individual has fulfilling work and a joyful work environment.

Great organizations cover these bases by providing exceptional leaders in the following roles -

  • The manager who defines the measures of success and evaluates the employees performance.
  • The coach who helps the individual build proficiency.
  • The mentor who helps the individual find fulfillment and joy.

This is the foundation for an organization with low employee churn, consistent and reliable delivery, and a culture that attracts and retains talent.

While I eagerly await feedback from my colleagues at Ajito.io, please feel free to contribute your thoughts!

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Christopher Fullam

X-Googler & Co-Founder at Ajito. Leveraging over 30 yrs exp. building & growing tech orgs to achieve Clarity, Predictability, and Engagement.