Opinion
Corner Office

Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks

New C-level executives benefit from deeply experienced mentors.

Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks

Many years ago, when I was promoted to my first executive-level position, I quickly realized that I was facing challenges larger and more complex than anything I’d dealt with before. Due to normal competition among C-level leaders, I was hesitant to admit my fears to any co-workers, and discussing any perceived weakness with the board of directors was viewed as career suicide.

Fortunately, I was able to confide in some mentors. These were older men and women who had walked in my shoes and had deep experience at the executive level. They were outsiders who could offer a perspective that wasn’t clouded by office politics or selfish desires, and they were people of integrity whom I trusted absolutely and completely valued. As a result of their wise advice and counsel when I was a young executive, I made better decisions, avoided major mistakes and progressed through the learning curve faster than I would have without their guidance. These results not only benefitted me personally, but the performance of the company I led improved as well.

I’ve always been grateful for the value that my mentors provided, so I am paying them back now by mentoring new C-level executives and business owners. Most of these relationships started out as acquaintances introduced by board members, other CEOs or investors. Some have grown into frequent, scheduled meetings when the mentee has a challenge to discuss; others are more formal relationships with CEOs created by my role as chairman of the board. Whether mentoring relationships are casual or more formal, the one common thread is that new executives are faced with challenges that are bigger and more complicated than they’ve experienced before, and they can benefit from wise advice from a trusted outsider with relevant experience.

Too many boards of directors assume that their new C-level executives have the skills and energy to figure things out on their own. Most directors believe in “on-the-job training” (OJT), which means learning by making some poor decisions and mistakes. When OJT is at the C-level, the stakes are higher and poor judgment can be very costly. It makes more sense to help a new C-level executive get through the learning curve faster and make better decisions through a mentor relationship.

Mentor vs. coach or peer groups

I am not so naïve as to believe than every new C-level executive will raise their hand and ask for help, and I know that when most new executives have a difficult problem, they internalize it, drink a beer or two on the weekend and hope it goes away.

A few turn to executive coaches or join a peer group, but generally these won’t offer the depth of counsel that an experienced mentor who has trodden the same path. Peer groups such as CEO roundtables or president’s groups, are valuable for trading stories and garnering support, but the format doesn’t allow for intimate discussions or personal attention that provide specific solutions. The value provided in a mentoring relationship cannot be matched, because a deeply experienced mentor has “been there, done that.”

Finding the right match

So given the valuable benefits of C-level mentoring, why isn’t it more common? In my experience, it comes down to finding someone with very specific characteristics that are not easy to find. These include deep experience at the executive level, a willingness to invest time, and discretion.

Deep experience means that the mentor needs to have a successful track record as a CEO during growth and crisis periods, or as a board director and/or board chairperson. These characteristics are more important than specific industry experience, as the fundamental principles of leadership are universal. Most CEOs have climbed the corporate ladder through a specific functional area such as finance, operations or marketing, but have not had broader responsibilities. So when they get to the CEO’s office, leadership issues are the new frontier.

Mentors must also take the time to listen and teach, and be able to guide the mentee without being judgmental. Some of the biggest fears that new C-level executives face encompass ethical, legal and moral issues. This is tough stuff that can only be discussed with an outside mentor who can be trusted completely.

The value that mentors provide to new CEOs and other high-level executives is difficult to measure by tangible metrics. However, in my experience, CEOs who have mentors make better decisions and less costly mistakes, act more quickly and produce better returns for investors. Seems like a good value proposition for new dogs to learn old tricks, huh? tcbmag

Mark W. Sheffert (mark@manchestercompanies.com) is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies Inc., a Minneapolis-based board and management advisory firm specializing in business recovery, transformation, performance improvement, board governance, and litigation support.