Mentoring—Using the Voice of Experience

Companies crave experienced executives—so why don't they do more to make sure that wisdom is captured in the corporate DNA? Harvard Business Professor Dorothy Leonard discusses the differences between mentoring and coaching; why it can be difficult for "masters" to reach "novices" and who should be responsible for managing a corporate mentoring program.
by Sean Silverthorne

Sometimes executive education has little to do with what happens in a classroom. Mentoring and coaching are the time-tested ways for wisdom and knowledge to be passed through an organization. Harvard Business School professor Dorothy Leonard and Tufts University professor Walter C. Swap, along with HBS research associate Brian DeLacey, are studying the processes of mentoring and coaching in entrepreneurial environments. Leonard and DeLacey discuss their findings with HBS Working Knowledge editor Sean Silverthorne.

Silverthorne: In the context of executive education, talk a little about your research.

Dorothy Leonard: There are two streams of research that are coming together here. One stream is the research that Brian and I started a couple of years ago: the use of technology in aiding learning processes both face-to-face and when people are in diverse locations.

The other stream of research, started in the year 2000, was aimed at understanding how an innovative team working together in a creative act managed the process of knowledge transfer between the more experienced and less experienced members of that team. The context was entrepreneurs learning from coaches who were either professionals in venture capital firms or who were cashed-out entrepreneurs acting as angels for small start ups. Both sets of people had certain expertise that they were trying to transmit to highly inexperienced entrepreneurs. (Sometimes the coaches were inexperienced and the entrepreneurs were experienced.)

The cognitive science shows us is that there are limits to how fast you can drive in the learning.
— Dorothy Leonard

Walt and I studied mostly companies on the West Coast. Brian studied the incubators here in Boston. Walt and I also went to Asia. So the total set of data include thirty-six start-up companies, two of which we have followed quite intensively for a period of two years, at first even sitting in on their board meetings and then tapering off to periodic interviews. We've also written three Harvard Business School cases and we're in the process of finishing the fourth out of those companies. We interviewed the people in the companies twice, once in the year 2000, and then we came back approximately a year later. Then we interviewed about thirty-two informants, people who were grand old gurus in the Silicon Valley or here or in Washington, D.C., who added to our understanding of the expertise and content of what these people were trying to transmit, and how they did it. And, to the extent that we now have data on the companies, how well the companies did.

There is obviously a big gap between what your coaches tell you and whether the company succeeds or not. I'm not suggesting that we can establish causal relationships, but it certainly gave us a deep intimate look at the attempts to grow expertise in a short period of time, and that's where I think there's a lot of applicability to most companies. The speed of projects and the speed of the need for innovation have increased so that we are shoving young people into positions of leading innovation in an ever-increasing pace. How are they going to learn? That's where the two overlap.

SS: It used to be that you would learn skills and knowledge on the job, and your company could afford to wait around for you to come up to speed. But it seems today, with the fast pace of innovation, small companies need to have their people learn quickly.

DL: But what the cognitive science shows us is that there are limits to how fast you can drive the learning. For instance, one of our venture capitalists commented that, in the year 2000, we have too few CEOs; we need to grow them. And that comment reveals a basic fallacy and misunderstanding. You can't grow CEOs any faster, because people learn through experience. That's not to say that coaching can't help. Obviously, if you look at sports, you'll see that top-notch athletes from Venus Williams on the tennis court to Tiger Woods in golf, they still have coaches. Coaches do have a place, but there are certain limits.

I think both projects have converged on this understanding that you can drive learning up to a certain extent, but there are limits.

SS: But to what extent can mentoring—the old veteran teaching the young pup—speed up the process?

DL: Well, I can't answer that with any authority because we didn't match the companies with entrepreneurs who didn't have coaches. What we do see is that there's a great variety in the ability of coaches to transmit knowledge for a lot of reasons, both in the types of knowledge and the types of ways that they try to do it, and also the degree to which the entrepreneurs have receptors for it.

Brian DeLacey: One statistic that still sticks out in my mind is the response to the question we asked in the second interview. We looked at, basically, how much do the entrepreneurs learn over a period of time, how much do they mature as entrepreneurs? We asked them what…the sources were of that learning, how much was retained from the mentors, how much was retained from peers or other sources, and how much came from business experience. In all but one case, 80 percent or more came from the experiential learning.

DL: We also had a four-point scale of novice, apprentice, journeyman, and master. We asked them where they were on the scale then and where they are now. They moved from about 2.07 to 2.94; so they did learn. And they certainly gave their coaches a lot of credit for helping them both in the start-up period and throughout the extraordinary change that occurred in that period.

We were witness to a sea change in the availability of money because in the year 2000, as one of our informants said, anyone who could power up a PowerPoint presentation could get funded. And by 2001 you had people talking about having to train the entrepreneurs to make do with what they had.

I have a wonderful quote from one of our experienced coaches, Stan Meresman. He is talking about the difference between working with experienced and inexperienced entrepreneurs. He says, "I can't tell you how many companies there were in the last eighteen months where I sat in on board meetings and said to the entrepreneur, 'Assume that you can never raise any more money, ever. Therefore we need to take the cash that we have and make it last till the cash flow is positive, which means we need to reduce the burn rate.' It stops the meeting cold. Then the entrepreneur blurts something out like, 'Well, we wouldn't be able to do that unless we take out 25 percent of our people and not do this new project.' And I say, 'Thank you for listening.'"

There has been a lot written about mentors,and very little written about coaching.
— Dorothy Leonard

The experienced entrepreneurs get it, do it, run with it. But with the inexperienced entrepreneur, you have to go through it again, explain again why the plans they have presented with a 5 percent cutback still doesn't get us to cash-flow positive. This is one of the points, too, that came out of both projects which is, you have to be aware of the receptors in people's minds, their experience base, and whether they can really hear what you're saying. As Stan is indicating in that quote, there's a big difference between experienced and inexperienced entrepreneurs.

SS: Does that mean that if you're constructing a mentoring program that you don't want a master teaching a novice?

DL: That's a good question. I think it depends on the master. The larger the gap, the more difficult it is to transfer the knowledge. Some people are very good at understanding where the novice is, and don't talk over their heads. They start with the basics. Others don't recognize when someone doesn't understand what they're talking about, or has a different context. I wouldn't say no, but most of the people we talked to who were experienced coaches had patience—to a point. But, for example, Kanwal Rekhi of Excelan was the first Indian CEO to be listed on NASDAQ. Rekhi, during this period of intense flowering of entrepreneurial ventures, was very generous with his time. He would let anyone, (mostly they were from India or Pakistan or Indo-Asia), come in and present to him and then he would comment on it and critique it. However, if they came back a second time without doing anything he was not willing to meet with them. That's one way that the coaches kind of checked that. The second way is that coaches and entrepreneurs found each other, and while coaches were willing to take on raw recruits, they wanted them to be coachable.

SS: So what are the implications then for a business that wants to set up a mentoring system?

DL: I think the first thing is the recognition that no matter how much technology we have, how many PowerPoint slides we have, how many knowledge management systems we have, the fact of the matter is that people learn from experience. Simulation probably helps, but trying to transfer knowledge and codify fashion and expect people to actually use sophisticated behaviors is futile. That's what drives the need for coaches.

Then you say, OK, let's assume that we accept the fact that (a) a lot of knowledge in businesses is tacit, not explicit; (b) that we need to transfer knowledge among experienced and inexperienced people; and (c) that some of our people are really very inexperienced and starting from scratch. How do we set up a coaching system? First of all, the literature shows that mentoring systems work best when people select each other, not when they are forced. We know that. But then cultures need to understand that there are a variety of ways of coaching. Coaches aren't teachers.

It takes a special coach to help someone learn by doing. And it takes time. And it used to be, as you said, that we would expect a certain amount of slack in the system that would allow people to learn on the job. For example, a very experienced account manager might take a much less experienced account manager along just to listen in on meetings, not to contribute, but just to listen. What tends to happen now is that we try to teach people by giving them directives or rules of thumb and say, "do it this way." And they'll learn by doing this, but it will be much more effective if we really have an understanding that a manager is also a teacher, and that therefore a manager needs to know how to teach.

SS: Part of the role of the teacher is to understand how well his or her students are coming along, internalizing what's being taught. What do we need to know in a corporate setting about how we evaluate the people we're trying to teach, and evaluate the teacher as well?

DL: I think it's very difficult to evaluate for some of the softer characteristics and skills we're looking for, like leadership, but the whole idea of a 360 evaluation is very useful. Then you get feedback on some of these softer things that people are learning to do and you find out how well they're coaching. So it seems to me that the only possible evaluation is within the context of the organization and within the organization of a task. And you can't divorce it from that, which is why it's not a purely HR function or shouldn't be a once-a-year kind of evaluation; it really needs to be an ongoing evaluation.

SS: Who in a corporation these days should be responsible for developing a mentoring program, a coaching program, a learning program? Do we need a new kind of role?

DL: I think in most organizations it's HR's function. But we need HR people who are very strategic thinkers and not everyone is.

Some organizations have created a chief learning officer or chief knowledge officer, to try to incorporate more of a sense of active learning in the organization as a whole, and some of those people also may have a role in thinking about skills development. It would be the internal university that people set up. I'm on the Board of American Management Systems. There the AMS University is part of HR, and it is the HR people who are thinking about it. But the HR director is a very experienced and quite strategic thinker and he's an adviser to the CEO on strategy as well as the CFO and others.

SS: How does a small business with limited resources, time or otherwise, approach this idea of keeping its folks trained?

DL: The thing about small organizations…is they are often in the process of constructing their strategy and that means that they may not be able to grow the people they have in those positions. The founder often doesn't live through the first stage to become the CEO. The VP of sales often doesn't make it into the next product line.

BD: Yes, I think the ways in which they grow in smaller companies is more dynamic and more externally oriented, less internally dependent, the same way a large company might.

DL: But in both cases it's really important to have coaches with disparate views. A lot of the entrepreneurs we have looked at recognize the fact that a single coach was not going to be enough, that a single coach has limits also.

If you go back to the premise that what we know is based largely on experience, any single individual is going to, by definition, have certain bounds around the experience. So we found entrepreneurs using one coach for help in, let's say, strategy, and another coach for help in operations. That's true in small companies and it's also true in large companies.

There's also perhaps a distinction here between coach and mentor because there has been a lot written about mentors, and very little written about coaching. When we went to look at the literature on mentors, we found generally that most focused on the role of a mentor in terms of helping people navigate within the organization, understand the politics, perhaps personal development. The coaches we studied might well do that [as well], and certainly help people through the ropes, like knowing who to go to for financing, but how do you handle the board? But they also gave them a lot of straight business content in terms of strategy formulation, product development, positioning in the market, how you grow your sales force. They also help them with networking, connecting them to people. There's a lot more to the coaching role than is covered by literature on mentoring. It has domain knowledge content as well as personal development.

SS: We talked a little bit about what makes a successful coach or mentor, but what makes for a successful student in this role?

There are individual benefits and organization-wide benefits to the whole notion of recognizing how people learn and adjusting the systems for that learning process.
— Dorothy Leonard

DL: Well, again, I think it's "coachability"; the ability to actively learn. We had a few entrepreneurs who said things like, "I just didn't listen. I thought I knew what I was doing." When you put a team of people together, in this case entrepreneurs and coaches, they have different and complementary knowledge. The entrepreneurs knew something, as much as anyone knew, about the Internet, for example. The coaches, while some of them are extremely sophisticated technically, had more knowledge on how you grow a business. So, there was potential for both sides to be arrogant. The entrepreneurs couldn't always judge how applicable the expertise of the expert was. The coaches themselves were a little bit uncertain.

So, back to your original question, what makes a successful student? A novice has to understand where the limits and the bounds of their own knowledge are, as well as the limits and bounds of the expert. To the extent that they understand the bounds of their own knowledge and are really actively seeking to learn, they are more able to learn.

SS: As all this great mentoring and coaching takes place in an organization, is there a way to capture those interactions between mentor and student to benefit the organization as a whole or does it just get lost?

DL: I think what you're asking is an interesting question because it reminds me of the question of whether there is genetic learning in a sense—these people who do experiments with rats to see whether the second generation of rats is actually better at navigating the maze than the first generation of rats. And I believe they found that they are, so there's some kind of continuous genetic learning, or learning at the molecular level. It would seem to me that while the most obvious purpose of coaching is to drive learning and help individuals learn, the real benefit to the organization lies among many dimensions, only one of which is more knowledgeable people.

The other is that coaches do not just teach domain knowledge, they teach how to learn. And so they teach people how to experiment and to derive learning from experiments. At one level we have coaches transferring knowledge about content. The second level of benefit is that your coaches transfer knowledge about process, which should enable those people to learn better and become better coaches themselves. The third level of benefit, at the organizational level, is cultural. There is an understanding that knowledge is to be transferred and shared. Now, that makes a heck of a lot of difference in whether you have a total learning organization or an organization that is dedicated to valuing people's knowledge and developing people. That affects how much loyalty people feel to an organization where there may be opportunities for learning and for growing in a job.

There are individual benefits and organization-wide benefits to the whole notion of recognizing how people learn and adjusting the systems for that learning process.

SS: That enriches the corporate DNA—it makes smarter rats.

DL: Smarter rats and happier rats, loyal rats.

SS: Are there any other points you want to make about this work?

DL: I guess the only thing that I didn't mention was that it's clear that a lot of expert knowledge is tacit, and that makes it difficult to transfer because people can't always articulate all they know. That's why they'll resort to stories or rules of thumb and so forth. But again, that's why it's important to work together on things rather than to just tell people what to do.