The Three Types of Executive Mentor

The kind of help executives choose tends to reflect their needs, as they perceive them. Common to all successful relationships at this level, however, are a strong sense of trust, a degree of mutual learning, and an openness/willingness to say what has to be said. Says one executive of her mentor: "Sometimes I finish a session thinking, 'How dare he [say that to me]?' but by the time I'm halfway down the motorway, I'm saying 'Damn it, he's right. I need to make a decision on that.'" A useful typography of mentors is as Executive Coach, Elder Statesman and Reflective Mentor.

The Executive Coach is usually part of a short-term relationship, based on a clearly defined skills or behavioural issue for the executive concerned. Some coaches shadow the executive closely for a period, to observe what they do and provide objective feedback. Executive coaches need strong observation and communication skills, but often may not have had significant personal experience of managing at the top.

Executives tend to seek them out (or have coaches thrust upon them) when they:

  • are deeply concerned about some aspect of their performance
  • want to make some specific changes in behaviour
  • want to acquire some specific skills.

The Elder Statesperson is typically a senior player who has "been there, seen it, done it," the elder statesperson gives the benefit of their experience and may act as a role model. They need good listening skills and the ability to withhold judgement and advice, until it is needed. This can be very frustrating for the person who is itching to pass on their accumulated wisdom and many of these characters spoil the role by trying to give more than is wanted. In doing so, they risk taking the ownership of the relationship away from the mentee. Elder statespersons tend also to be very well networked and able to introduce the executive to new sources of information and influence. If the relationship works well, it often leads to an enduring friendship.

Executives tend to seek elder statespersons when they:

  • want a successful role model to follow
  • simply need a sounding board
  • want to tap into a source of much greater experience, without using consultants (for example, a CEO making a first acquisition)

Reflective Mentors operate at a more intensive holistic level than either the coach or the elder statesperson. They help executives explore their own issues, build their own insights and self-awareness and develop their own unique ways of handling how they interact with key colleagues and the business. They use current issues to examine recurrent patterns of thinking and behaviour, asking penetrating questions and stimulating the executive to take control of issues s/he has avoided. They build the executive's confidence through greater self-understanding.

Executives seek reflective mentors when they:

  • are keen to maintain the pace of their learning
  • recognise the need for constructive challenge, beyond what they will receive from insiders and non-executives
  • want to build and follow through demanding personal learning plans
  • are committed to managing their own development and owning the processes involved
  • want to explore a wide range of issues as they emerge and become important to them
  • want to develop a more effective mentoring style in the way they develop others.

David Clutterbuck is Senior Partner of Clutterbuck Associates' Mentoring Schemes. His new book 'Mentoring Executives and Directors', written with David Megginson, is published by Butterworth-Heinemann, price 19.00 and is available in our on-line Bookshop.

Reproduced by kind permission from the Oxford School of Coaching & Mentoring journal "Coach and Mentor". For more information visit or email