Engineer to Leader
"Imagine engineers and technical managers who are as effective with people as they are with technology."

STCerri International E-zine/Newsletter

March 10, 2009


Finding a mentor or coach

This week I was interviewed by Dice (the IT job portal) for an upcoming on-line resource they are preparing to assist young IT professionals in advancing their careers.  I was asked what my three top suggestions were for IT professionals who wanted to advance their IT career.  We ended the interview on the topic of what makes a good coach or mentor.

The interview got me thinking about how to select a really good mentor and/or coach, whether inside your organization or outside.

I know my own coaches and mentors were extremely instrumental in helping me with my career.  So I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts on what are the important qualities to look for when selecting a mentor or coach.

Enjoy and be well,

Steven Cerri

P.S.  Feel free to pass this Ezine on to a friend.

Note:  If you have missed my previous Ezines/newsletters you can find them archived at: 
Archived Ezines/Newsletters
"Mentoring and Coaching IS What You Think!"

There is a lot of discussion about the importance of mentoring and of coaching for engineers regarding their careers.  Many want mentors and coaches to tell them "what to do".  It seems our world is filled with people who want to know "what to do" in order to be successful.  

As engineers and technical managers, we often believe that if we just know what to do, we can do it and we will therefore be successful. Knowing what to do seems to be the key.

And yet... the world is filled with people who know a great deal about what to do and yet things don't change. 

Here are some examples.
How many people want to change something in their lives? How many want to exercise regularly, loose weight, stop smoking, save money... the list is almost endless. 

And for those who want to know what to do in order to exercise regularly, loose weight, stop smoking, or save money, there are more books and more courses than one can read or attend in a life-time (primarily because there are more and more coming onto the market every day.)

But gaining knowledge about "what to do" does not seem to change behavior in many situations.  People read books and attend workshops and nothing seems to change.  They diet endlessly.  They exercise for a while then keep paying their gym memberships but never attend.  They stop smoking and then start again.  They save, paying themselves first, while running up their credit cards.

In the final analysis, it seems that changing behavior is not just about "knowing what to do".  There seems to be more than one variable to this equation.

How do we change behavior? 
The question then is how do we change behavior and how do we move our behavior toward that of a successful long-term engineering career or toward successful engineering management?

What are the important characteristics in a mentor or coach? And how does this relate to your career?

The answer to these questions is embedded in the "way you think", or more precisely, the way you and your coach or mentor think.

Another way to say it is that it is in your way of "being".  And let me be clear, the way you think and the way of being are not the same as attitude.  Attitude is the by-product of the way you think and your way of being.  So someone telling you to change your attitude is putting the cart before the horse.

Think of it this way
Your way of being ... leads to and produces ...
         what you do
... which leads to and produces ...
                    what you have

Summarized it becomes:   Being --> Doing --> Having

Most people focus on having.  They think they want to have, have, have.

Some, especially we engineers and technical managers, think that knowing what to do is the key.  But alas, doing is not the key either.

So what's up?
The first step in the process is the most important step.  And that step is accessing a state of Being that will produce the doing.  It is the state of being that drives what we will do and the doing, in turn, leads us to what we will have.

So when seeking a mentor or a coach what should you look for and what should you ask for?  What are the important qualities?  Should you seek out someone who has specific successful behaviors and ask for coaching and mentoring around How To Do those specific positive behaviors?

As I said, knowing what do to does not guarantee success. While you want to find a mentor or coach who knows "how" to be successful, that is not the whole story. 

So what else is important when looking for a coach or mentor?  What should the young engineer or technical manager ask of their coach or mentor?

The answer is that the coach or mentor should convey the "why" and the "mental and physiological state of being" that causes the behavior to show up.  You want to know how your coach or mentor "thinks" and "is" when doing.

You see, as you move from engineer to team lead, to technical manager, to director, to vice president, to CEO you are paid less and less for technical know how and more and more for your judgment.

Let me restate that;  as you move up the organizational ladder, you are paid not just for what you know but also for your judgment.  And judgment is the "appropriate" application of what you know to situations that are, in general, relatively ambiguous and uncertain as to their moral, ethical, business, and operational boundaries and outcomes.

Therefore, if you want to fully and effectively utilize a mentor and coach, you must find people who will share with you their thought processes, their judgments, that ultimately lead to their actions.  

This requirement in turn, necessitates a mentor or coach who is self-reflective enough to know "why" they do things.  And this is not an easy person to find.

A good coach or mentor is hard to find
Have you ever read a book by an author who got his or her information by asking executives, managers, and business leaders to explain what they did and why?  Have you noticed that the leaders and managers tell the author what they did and their reasons and it all sounds very logical and reasonable?  And have you noticed that when you attempt to implement the actions described in the book, there doesn't seem to be a fit and match between your motivations and the suggested and necessary actions?

That's because the "logical explanation" for one's behavior is seldom the true motivation.  That's why it is very, very, very difficult to trust a book that purports to describe what and why a manager took a specific action in a certain situation.

In reality, the reason, the motivation, the state of being that gives rise to an action is often far removed from the "common sense" rationale that would seem reasonably connected to the action.

For this reason, if you want a mentor or coach you must find someone who not only can tell you "what they did" but also have a real connection to their motives so they can tell you "why they did it".  This kind of coach or mentor is difficult to find and worth their weight in gold.

This is why mentors and coaches get such mixed reviews.  Even coaches and mentors within your companies are often oriented around what to be doing as opposed to the "who you must be" when taking the action.

A different model of action
You see, in my model, action is the last stage in a process.  Many people assume that knowing what to do is the be all and end all to action.  Actually, in my model, action is the end stage in a four state process that begins with your "map" of the world.  In essence, your state of being.  Your sense of who you are.

It is the state of being, the sense of who you are that gives rise to action.

Find a coach or mentor who understands this and you will learn what it takes to be a great manager and leader.  Find a coach or mentor who understands this and you will learn judgment, and slowly develop your own judgment.  This is the path to true leadership.  It is the path to truly being able to be paid for your judgment.  It is also why management and leadership cannot happen over night.  The development of these skills and internal states takes time.

When I coached and mentored my direct reports we would spend more time discussing and understanding "why" to do something and who they had to "be" than on the actual "doing". 

And now when I coach and mentor my clients there is a healthy balance between what action to be doing, why to be doing it, and who the person has to be in order to successfully accomplish the action.

Summary of how to find a coach or mentor.
Here are four steps you can use to find a good coach or mentor:

1.  Find someone who HAS BEEN SUCCESSFUL in the area you are also interested in being successful.  (It's called modeling.  You want to model someone who's behavior has been the behavior you want to emulate or model.)

2.  Find someone who is self-aware enough to be able to tell you not only what they have done, but also why they have done it and, here is the most important concept, "What had to be true for them in order to have the specific behavior you are attempting to model?".

3.  Find someone who has the patience to talk you through this process over and over and over and over and over again.  Learning to manage or lead doesn't happen over night.

4.  Find someone with whom you have a psychological and communication compatibility.  Someone you can communicate with comfortably.  Someone you respect and who respects you.

These four criteria are important because there are ten questions (at least) you will want to ask your mentor or coach over and over again, and they are:

Question #1:  "Tell me again, what you did, what the steps were and what the end result was?"

Question #2:  "What motivated you to do that... What was going through your mind when you decided to do that?"

Question #3:  "If you had to do it all over again, would you do it that way or would you change it?"

Question #4:  "Where you moving toward something you wanted to accomplish and attain or were you moving away from something you wanted to avoid or minimize?"

Question #5:  "Did you ask for advice from others or did you decide on your own to take this action?"

Question #6:  If you sought and received advice from others, from whom did you seek it and how much weight did you give their advice in your decision?

Question #7:  "Where you focused on the immediate impact of your decision or did you take into account the greater organization or company?"

Question #8:  "Based on how it turned out, would you do it the same way now?"

Question #9:  "What would you do different, if anything, now that you have been through it?"

Question #10: "How did you feel internally before you made the decision, as you made the decision, and after you made the decision."

These are the 10 questions that you want to be able to ask your mentor or coach in order to extract the real "keys to the kingdom".  As you can see these are not so much about what was done but why it was done.

Be well,


"Imagine engineers and technical managers who are as effective with people as they are with technology?"

Steven trains, coaches, and facilitates engineers and technical managers to BE the answer to this question.  Steven is unique because he has made this transition himself.  Get Steven's latest thoughts at:

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Copyrightę2009 STCerri International and Steven Cerri.  You are free to pass this information on to others and to reproduce it.  If you reproduce sections in whole or part please give attribution to Steven Cerri.  Thank you.

Be well,

Steven Cerri
STCerri International

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Most of us believe that the behaviors that made us successful as engineers will make us successful at the next level of our careers.  Unfortunately, the skills that got you where you are today won't get you where you want to be tomorrow.
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