March 28, 2014

Coaching and Mentoring and the Issue of Intent, Part 1

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In the course of the Leadership and Organizational Development work done at Schuitema over the last 20 years it has become very apparent that the key variable that one has to come to grips with in the case of both mentoring and coaching is the issue of intent. This is because the issue of intent is the key variable that sits behind effective coaching and mentoring as far as the coach and mentor are concerned, as well as being the primary factor at issue with the mentee in a mentoring relationship. Let us first examine how the issue of intent plays out from the coaches’ point of view.

One has to assume that in the case of both mentoring and coaching the purpose has to be the growth of the coached or mentee. We have two small examples that indicate what this implies. Examine the following two scenarios and consider which one of the two has as its purpose the growth of the coached: Assume Patti has two subordinates, one called Joe and the other called Fred, and assume that Patti is very knowledgeable in a task that both Joe and Fred need to do because she did that job in 1995 and let us assume that she did it very well.

In the Joe case Patti walks up to him and says: ‘Joe, in 1995 I did the thing that you have to do now and what I did worked. Don’t argue with me Joe, do what I did.

In the Fred case Patti says ‘Fred, in 1995 I did the thing that you have to do now and what I did worked. It may be helpful to you, take a look at it.

Clearly, one would intuitively feel that the Fred example was a coaching experience, while the Joe example was not. The question is what really is the difference between these two interactions? In the first instance there is clearly a difference in who is making the decision about what is being done. In the Joe case, Patti is making the decision, whereas in the Fred case Fred feels that he is making the decision.

This therefore seems to imply that one of the ways of distinguishing between the two interactions in how autocratic or democratic the interaction is. In the Joe case the engagement is autocratic and compulsive, whereas in the Fred interaction Patti’s behavior is more democratic or persuasive. However, this distinction does not cut deep enough for us to really discern the difference between the two engagements. In order to really fathom the difference one has to separate means and ends, and put into those two categories either the person who is being coached or the job that is being done and the result that is being achieved.

In the Joe case, Patti’s intention is clearly to get a job done and Joe, the person is the means to that end. She is using Joe to achieve some sort of result or outcome. If we assume that in the Fred case Patti means what she says, in other words, her intent is consistent with what is coming out of her mouth, it becomes immediately apparent that there may be a very different outcome from what Patti achieved in 1995. It may be better, but it could also be a catastrophe. What therefore becomes apparent is that her intention here is not to get the job done, since this could be a disaster. Her intention is to teach Fred something and she uses the job that he is doing as the opportunity to teach him something.


In short, in the Joe interaction she is using the person as her means to get a job done, and in the Fred interaction she is using the job as her means whereby she is teaching the person something. This inversion of means and ends enables us therefore to discern the real difference here, which becomes apparent when we consider who is experienced as the beneficiary of the interaction. Clearly, from Joe’s point of view he experiences that Patti is the beneficiary of the interaction. He therefore thinks she is trying to get or take something from him. Fred, on the other hand, experiences himself as the beneficiary of the interaction. He experiences that Patti is giving him something.

This means that the difference between these two interactions is significantly more than who is making the decision or how autocratic or democratic the behavior is seen to be. The difference lies in who is experienced as the beneficiary of the interaction, the coach or the coached. Imagine a coach of a team announcing to the team at their first meeting that his job or purpose is to get the game played and to produce the result, and that he was going to use the players as his means to achieve that end. This coach will clearly be guilty of misunderstanding his role.

The Coach is not there to produce a result; the players are there to do that. His role is to coach the player, in other words his role is to enable excellence in the players, the rest is up to them. This does not imply that the coach must dismiss as irrelevant the game that is being played or the result that is being achieved. Both of these variables are very important to him, but they are the means that he employs to coach the players. He goes to the game on Saturday, he looks at what is going on the scoreboard, not because these things are his job, they are the means for him to do his job, which is to coach the players on Saturday.

This means to say that the coach quite literally uses the task or the result as his means to enable the player. His deliverable in coaching the player is a change in the competency of the player and he uses the game and the result to that end. Strangely, when the coach gets this right he is given license by the players to be as tough and as autocratic as he needs to be. The best coaches are rarely pleasant and affable people. More often that not they are very tough task masters. The great manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, was reputed to be ruthless with his players and all of them were still completely committed to him. The key here is to understand who is the beneficiary of this toughness, the coach or the player? Clearly, it is the player. The key variable that is at issue as far as the coach is concerned is therefore not how autocratic or democratic his behavior is. It is whether his intent is to get something out of the player or to give the player something. Sir Alex Ferguson inspired excellence in his players. The extent of this inspiration was evidenced by his departure in light of which the club has seen a substantial drop in form.

This suggests that the primary variable that sits at the root of being either a coach or a mentor is the issue of intent. When the coach or mentor’s primary objective is to get something out of the coached or mentee the relationship will fail. When the coach or the mentor is primarily in the relationship to serve, enable and empower the mentee or coached, the relationship succeeds.

 Coaching, Mentoring and Empowerment

At Schuitema we have developed a simple model of what empowerment means based on the tried and tested wisdom that if you give a person a fish you feed him for a day but when you teach the person to fish you enable them to feed themselves for a lifetime. Should one take this rule of thumb seriously the following becomes apparent:

In the first place enabling the person to fish means giving them things, such as a hook, a line, a sinker, some bait, a license to fish, access to water where fish are and so on. We have come to refer to this as providing the means to do what is required.

Further to this one then has to teach the person what to do with all this stuff, how to tie a hook, how to bait it where to look for fish, what to do with them once they are caught and so on. It is also important to help the person to see the purpose of doing this, so that they see that this will help them to feed themselves for the rest of their lives. We have come to refer to this second issue as the issue of ability. Ability is concerned with how the job should be done and why the job should be done.

However, that these two variables are not adequate becomes apparent when one considers the following: assume that you are empowering someone to fish and you give them all the means they could conceivably require to do this and all the possible abilities they could require to do this. Then you announce to this person that you have a freezer full of fish and should they not catch a fish you would gladly give them one from your freezer. The question is, have you empowered this person? Clearly you have not. You have not fully empowered the person until you have developed the bloody mindedness to tell the person, once you have given them the means and the ability to do what is required of them, ‘If you don’t catch fish after this, starve!’ we call this last variable the problem of accountability.

Clearly, in the context of a coaching or mentoring relationship the question of accountability does not necessarily have the same significance as what it would have in the context of a reporting relationship. It is not possible for the coach or mentor to hold someone accountable in the same way that a boss at work could. However, it is possible for the coach or mentor to censure someone if they are just unwilling to act consistently with what is being coached, or indeed the coach or mentor could refuse to have anything to do with the coached or mentee at all. Fundamentally, though, a mentor is particularly interested in the degree to which the mentee accepts accountability for the situation that they are in, whereas the coach’s focus is more on the persons capacity in how the task gets done.

This suggests that empowering a person means to give a person the means to do what is required of them, to make them able to do what is required of them and to hold them accountable. It is this variable of accountability that speaks directly to the will or the intent of the person. Of the 3 variables that encapsulate the issue of empowerment, coaching speaks fundamentally to the issue of the ability, whereas mentoring is more concerned with the issue of intent.

At the cusp between the issues of ability and accountability is the problem of the why or the intent of the task being done. It is possible to deliver content in a teaching type engagement that would make the intent or the why of something clear to a person, and in this sense understanding the why is really an ability issue. On the other hand, understanding the why is really a necessary condition for the coached to accept accountability for what they are being coached in. If we reexamine the difference between the Joe and the Fred interactions, it is clear that in the Joe case Patti owns the why and therefore the accountability for the outcome, whereas in the Fred case Joe owns the why and accountability for the outcome.

In my experience most coaching/ mentoring engagements start as coaching type conversations. The issues that are dealt with are very pragmatic, with the focus being very often behavioral or task related issues that are of immediate benefit and concern to the coached. Over time, however, the character of these conversations tends to migrate from coaching to mentoring kinds of engagements. 

This migration is normally heralded by an enquiry into the issue of the intent of a task.

The Benevolent Intent of the Task

The best way of describing the issue of the benevolent intent of a task is by way of example. Let’s assume Krishna is the General Manager of a GSK plant in Sydney which produces a wonder drug for aids. This is the magic bullet for this dreaded disease. It is referred to as the Lazarus drug because one pill dropped into the mouth of a comatose patient dying of aids and they are instantly revived. Further to this, all you ever need do is take one of these drugs and you will never get the disease, no matter how promiscuous and risky you sexual behavior is.

Let us assume that Krishna is of the view that the employees in the factory are very disengaged and uncommitted, so he decides to call a meeting in the staff canteen in order to give them a pep talk. At the meeting he says words to the effect of the following:

‘Please work very hard at making these drugs because if you do you will help to make a shareholder on the London Stock Exchange very wealthy’.

I am convinced that within minutes Bruce the janitor will be plotting with the shop steward and Sheila the machine operator on machine x45 will be spitting in the mix. The reason for this is that these people will feel that they were being taken from.

However, let us assume that Krishna is not as silly as this. In fact, he has a completely different idea of how to deal with the issue of the lack of commitment of his people. He still calls a meeting but at the meeting he says:

‘Please work very hard at making these drugs because if you do you will save millions of lives all around the world.’

Clearly, both Bruce and Sheila would be far more engaged, as anyone would under similar circumstances. The question is: what is the difference between the two engagements? Clearly, while the first engagement left Bruce and Sheila feeling taken from, the second engagement makes them feel like they are giving something. It phrases the task in such a way that it is seen to be noble. That is refers to an order of reality which is bigger than the individual’s self interest and which is worthy going the extra mile for. It gives the mentee a sense of purpose.


We refer to this skill of being able to provide purpose as the skill of phrasing the benevolent intent of the task. A benevolent intent allows someone to act for reasons that are bigger than their self interest, therefore to give more than what they get. This also suggests that the cultivation of the will of the mentee is a very specific issue: it is concerned with cultivating the possibility for people to act for reasons that are higher than their self-interest. People’s will becomes disengaged based on the degree to which they are here to get and becomes engaged based on the degree to which they are here to give. A football team has problems if the players are only in it for the pay Cheque.

The reason for this is that when one focuses on what one wants to get from the other, the other’s ability to withhold what the self wants gives the other power over the self. You have no power over what you get because what you get ways sits directly in the hands of the other. On the other hand, when the self gives attention to what the self is giving or contributing the self now gives attention to what the self has power over, which means the self becomes powerful.The benevolent intent of the mentee gives the mentee autonomy, or the capacity to freely determine her actions.The mentee won’t act because she has to, she will act because she chooses to.

This means that when you give someone a reason to act for something bigger than their own interests you empower that person. Going back to our example of the GSK factory in Sydney. If Krishna refers to the interests of the shareholders he is disabling the will of Bruce and Sheila because he creates the conditions where they feel taken from and therefore want to take back; they are there because they have to be there in order to get what they need. Similarly, although not quite as aggressively, if Krishna sold the idea of working hard at making the drugs because they would secure their jobs or personally earn a lot of money he is again focusing Bruce and Sheila on what they are getting. This is again focusing the will on things that the other has power over and therefore, over time, disables the will of the self. It is only in the last instance, when Krishna refers to a noble and worthy cause which is demonstrably bigger than any one’s self interest that he creates the conditions that make it possible for Bruce and Sheila to give attention to what they are contributing and therefore enables their will and grants them autonomy.

This suggests that when you give someone a reason to act for things that are bigger than their own interests you are doing more than just making the person able to do what is required of them, you are granting them autonomy. In other words, over time, the coaching conversation necessarily has to explore the issues of the why, and on so doing the answers that coach gives are only truly satisfying and empowering when they attribute a benevolent intent to the task. In this sense the coaching engagement borders on the mentoring engagement because it is about cultivating the will or intent to give or serve.


A mentoring relationship is concerned with more than the development of the skill of the mentee, it is concerned with the maturation and personal excellence of the mentee. Since this is the case it is useful at this point to examine how the will or intent matures. In the first instance it is true that maturation is a process, and like all processes it implies that it is a move of increments between a beginning and end. In the case of the maturation of a person, we call the beginning birth and the end death.

Viewed from this point of view, it is axiomatically true that at birth the infant has had nothing yet. Whatever it is going to get it will still get. At birth the infant is here to get in the most unconditional sense of the word. At death one gets nothing, one gives everything unconditionally. However, there is a logical challenge to this insight, since one can also say that at death one does not give everything unconditionally it gets taken away unconditionally.

This requires us to examine the difference between having everything taken from you unconditionally and giving everything unconditionally. Afia has 10000 Rupees stolen from her and Miriam gives a struggling neighbour who is about to lose his house 10000 Rupees. What is the difference? Clearly, the difference does not lie in the 10000 Rupees; it sits in the will or the intent Afia and Miriam. Afia did not intend to give, which means she experienced that she was taken from. On the other hand, Miriam intended to give which means this was then her experience.

If we assumed that the lost of the 10000 Rupees, like death, is absolutely predictable, then it becomes apparent that Miriam’s experience of the loss of the money is the successful experience and Afia’s experience is negating, depressing and unsuccessful. When we die we have no choice about losing everything, the only thing we have a choice about is whether we hand over in good grace or resist and therefore have everything taken from us. To succeed at the process of maturation is therefore to succeed in developing the capacity to give unconditionally. The mentor’s task is precisely this issue: developing the mentee’s propensity to serve unconditionally.

The process of the maturation of intent goes through clearly defined epochs as one matures, and in so far as this maturation is the key deliverable in the mentoring relationship, it is very important for the mentor to understand how this development takes place. At Schuitema we have developed a number of complementary views on this process, but the most useful in the context of mentoring is a model that we have come to refer to as the four concerns.