Mentoring Senior Executives: strategic thinking or therapy?

This proposition evoked a number of additional questions for Professor David Megginson of Sheffield University's Business School. Starting with the assumption that if mentoring means 'beginning to see the subject in new ways', what implications does this have for the mentors of senior executives?

  • Should they be setting longer term goals or responding to the moment?
  • Should the agenda be driven by the organisational interests or start from the mentee's dream? and
  • Should the mentor be ready with questions or provoke new ways of looking at things through the use of stories?

He contended that we all have preconceived ideas that are rooted in Western society: that mentors, for example, are male, older, and white haired. Western thinking he suggested is binary and it sets up such polarities illustrated by the questions above. Such thinking constrains the mentor as well as the mentee. The power of mentoring is about displacing the vision to unlock thinking and action. But is this therapy or developing the capacity for strategic thinking - a key competency for senior executives?

Strategic thinking requires vision. It is not a linear process. If the dominant narratives of a culture narrow strategic vision, an organisation it limits itself. The mentors role is to challenge not just the reasoning of the executive but the assumptions - to broaden boundaries and open up possibilities. As in 'therapy' story telling can be a powerful tool to open up possibilities (often unintended ones), but they can monopolise the exchange space and therefore must be balanced with listening and post-dicatable reflection (making sense of the past).

Mentoring is a journey. It takes time and the joy is in the travelling not in the arriving. But this is not always how busy executives see the process and many can get frustrated in the early stages when task-thinking over-rides their ability to explore the problem and unlock their thinking. So the role of the mentor is to slow down the journey, to focus on extending and exploring the route. The process provides us with a map: maps are not an absolute truth, but rather are there to act as impulses to action, to give focus and direction to what we do.

We must therefore start and pay attention to where mentees are and although we can set boundaries there will be things that unfold as the journey progresses. Mentoring is about being with the mentee, not offering solutions and sometimes listening to stories that appear to fall outside those boundaries. People get immersed in their own stories, which have high salience for them and can betray behavioural patterns that become relevant to where they are now and where they want to be.

Mentoring is doing good and in this respect the process is therapeutic but it is not therapy. The people we are working with, in part, defines this boundary, but equally there is a responsibility of the mentor to know what is in their power and what is not. Mentors do not have to be therapists, but they must be ready to know their limits.

A final thought. Mentoring is about helping people to enlarge the gap between feelings and emotion: encouraging reflection to inform action, rather than emotion driving the impulse to act.

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