As some of you might know, Ellen Singer joined us for last week’s coffee hour to talk about mentoring. I don’t need to tell you with a guest like Ellen just how well that coffee hour went. Don’t believe me? Visit our CrowdCast Channel and see for yourself! Ellen is a big advocate for all things coaching and mentoring and if just one hour of Ellen isn’t enough for you, then come join us in Las Palmas where she’ll be giving several amazing workshops. Blatant conference promotion aside, sorry I’m not sorry about that, the topic of mentoring and coaching proved controversial to say the least.
Ellen, being the nice and generous person that she is, postulated (quite reasonably) that whether mentoring or coaching is right for you depends on you. I, on the other hand, have a different take on the matter.
Let’s talk semantics
No controversy can ever be resolved without first discussing semantics. As a lawyer, if there’s one thing I know for sure it’s that she who called “semantics aside” left herself open for all sorts of argumentative attacks. So what is meant by mentoring and coaching?
According to Merriam-Webster, mentor is a “trusted counsel or guide” and to mentor is to “serve as a mentor for.” Merriam-Webster also identifies mentor (verb) as a synonym of tutor (verb). Meanwhile, coach is “a private tutor” and “one who instructs or trains” and to coach is, among other things, “to instruct, direct, or prompt as a coach.” So if we adhere strictly to these definitions, semantics are of little or no help.
Now let’s talk history
But it’s not all semantics, is it? As we all know, the concept of mentor (and the word mentor) in the West dates back to ancient Greece. Mentor was a friend of Odysseus who was entrusted with the education of Odysseus’ son Telemachus when Odysseus left for the Trojan War. Notice some key concepts here: entrusted and education. For those of us who have been trained in philosophy, the mentor-mentee relationship is one based on trust and intended to educate.
Exit Greek Mythology. Enter Greek History in particular and Western History in general. The mentor of all mentors, as we know, was Socrates, who mentored Plato, who mentored Aristotle, who mentored Alexander the Great, and we all know how that turned out, right?
Mentoring is a tradition that dates back over 2500 years and is associated with Virtue Ethics, which as we need not be reminded, is all about achieving greatness by being a well-rounded, intellectually honest, virtuous beacon of society.
As we all know, Virtue Ethics lasted a very long time but eventually died out, despite current efforts to revive it. One of the many schools that came after was Stoicism (which is to moral philosophy what self-help is to psychology, again, sorry, but not sorry to be harsh). Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy that was founded in the early 3rd century BC by Zeno of Citium in Athens. It was heavily influenced by certain teachings of Socrates, which were cherry-picked by convenience and artificially matched up with the teachings of the philosopher Heraclitus. What it lacks in intellectual rigorousness it more than makes up for in moral shortcuts that appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Enter coaching. (Irony intended). Coaching dates back to sports. And before I get into it, I must clarify that I love sports and sports coaches, especially basketball, which was a sport I proudly played for my school and Mrs. Kashishan, my coach, was the best coach ever. EVER! But my love of sports and Mrs. Kashishan aside, where does the idea of coaching outside the realm of sports come from?
Apparently, the term coach has been used in an athletic sense since as far back as the 1610s, but it wasn’t until Oxford University first used the term coach to mean tutor in 1830 that the notion of a coach in a non-athletic sense started to take off. And it wasn’t until the 1980s that the term made its way to the business world.
Now, before doing my history homework to write this post, I was already convinced the 1980s should be wiped from human history. I mean it was after all the decade that gave us giant shoulder pads, sweatbands, parachute pants, M.C. Hammer, and Milli Vanilli, only to name a few horrors. And to add insult to injury, the 1980s gave us business coaching.
Sports Coaching Good. Business Coaching Bad.
I know what you’re thinking. How can I love Mrs. Kashishan and still say business coaching is bad? Because here’s the thing with sports coaches: to be a sports coach, you have to be an ex-player who excelled. Sticking to basketball, some of the all-time greatest NBA coaches just happen to be some of the all-time greatest NBA players.
Take Phil Jackson, for example, who coached the Chicago Bulls from 1989 to 1998, leading the Bulls to win six NBA championships, before moving on to my team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and leading them to win five championships between 2000 to 2010. Do you know what Phil was before being a coach? You guessed it, an NBA player with the New York Knicks.
Pat Riley didn’t just play pro basketball before becoming an NBA coach, he was also drafted as a wide receiver by the Dallas Cowboys in the 11th round of the 1967 NFL Draft, cause he was just so good at sports that he could have had a pro football career instead if he had wanted to!
And I could go on for pages and pages.
So, if sports coaches are so awesome, what makes me disapprove of business coaches? Well, if you were paying attention, you’ve realized by now sports coaches excelled at the sports they coached (and even at other sports!). So if business coaches excelled at business, then I’d have no beef with them whatsoever.
But, here’s the thing: I’ve done my market research and if you pay close enough attention, there are very few business coaches in translation with a proven record of business success, which to me just raises an obvious question: how can someone possibly coach others in business if they haven’t succeeded in business themselves?
By that rationale, my beef is not with business coaches. It’s only with business coaches who don’t have a proven record of success. Coaching is about guiding and a lot of what’s out there in the business coaching market is really just the blind leading the blind (again, sorry, but not sorry).
So, if you’re in the market for guidance, here’s my take:
Whether you call it a mentor or a coach, the key is intellectual honesty.
That being said, how about you join us for our next intellectually honest coffee hour or our intellectually honest workshops in Las Palmas? We’ve got an interesting line-up of people who’ve actually succeeded in translation for a change!