Mentors and Coaches Are the GPS for Your Career

Two people pointing at a paper map on a car hood.

Do you have trusted mentors and coaches to guide you in your career?

With the 90,000 hours spent working in a typical lifetime, a career is often one of our biggest responsibilities in life, and can be one of the most meaningful ways we use our time in this world.

As AI impacts the workplace both positively and negatively, we each will have even more choices to make in our careers. A career can have many twists and turns with multiple paths to areas that we’ve never been to.

I believe it’s smart to get trusted mentors and coaches to guide each of us in our paths through life during times of accelerating change to equip us for a better future.

1. We Need to Learn From the Experiences of Others

Many years ago, I remember the stress of getting lost driving among the complicated freeway interchanges and off-ramps in downtown Oakland.

I ended up driving my passengers and me into unfamiliar neighborhoods at night while trying to get to an event on time. At the time, we didn’t have in-car navigation systems nor GPS-equipped smartphones. Although I studied the map in advance and made paper printouts of the maps, they weren’t helpful when I was driving in the dark with no place to stop and unsure of where I was.

Even if I were good at reading maps, I found if I missed an exit or a turn perhaps because a tall truck was blocking a sign, then it may be hard to get back on track while in an unfamiliar area.

If I had someone who was already familiar with the neighborhood to guide me, then the journey would have been much less stressful while getting better results, much like how we use GPS navigation today.

Similarly, there are certain areas in life where it’s important to learn and incorporate the experiences from other people to augment our own experiences so that we don’t get lost.

Remember the ancient Indian parable of the blind men touching the elephant?

  • One thought the tail was a rope.
  • Another thought the tusk was a spear.
  • And yet another thought the trunk was a snake.

Individually, they each had limited experiences. Together, they could piece together a more comprehensive view of the elephant and the world to make better decisions.

To navigate in our careers and in our lives, if we rely only on our own experiences, then we’re like one of those blind men, or like me as a driver lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Getting help from others would help us to grow and learn, so that we can either avoid mistakes or get back on track faster.

For important health issues, financial issues, legal issues, and car issues, we know we need to get help from someone who’s experienced with a variety of different cases in those areas.

Careers can be just as important.

For our careers, we can be open to learning from the experiences and guidance from others too. When we actively seek to learn from others, we go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

2. Learn About Multiple Paths From Multiple Mentors

Mentors provide their direct experiences which are often unpublished and hence not available through other ways like books and videos. This experience is called “tacit knowledge” in research by Ma, Y., et al (2020).

I remember going on a white water rafting trip with friends.

As none of us were familiar with the river, the rafting tour guide pilot was essential for our safe and successful journey down the river. The guide was already intimately familiar with the raft and the river, including every rock and dip in the water which changed daily. The rafting journey was successful with no one falling out into the water so long as we paddled and followed the path that the guide showed us from his experience.

Aren’t our careers like white water rafting too? Sometimes it’s smooth sailing, and sometimes it’s a rocky journey, and sometimes there are forks. We each go down that river only once.

From the experiences of multiple mentors, we can learn from multiple paths in life, so we can make better career and life decisions.

From some of my mentors, I’ve learned about the pitfalls and minefields in life too, such as sudden health or relationship or financial or even ethical crises. I feel like I’m a bit better prepared now for these common or unusual circumstances. Although mentors can give tailored advice too, their value as a mentor is generally from sharing their direct first-hand experiences in life, including both the good and bad outcomes.

I’m grateful to have several people that I trust as mentors in my life. I’ve learned a lot from them not only about their professional lives but glimpses into their whole lives as well.

How Can You Get Mentors?

I’ve approached mentors from different sources. Consider seeking out mentors from your alumni association, companies, former coworkers, professional industry groups, and other communities including even your parents’ networks, religious groups, and other affiliations.

Having mentors in your life is like having a GPS navigation system that presents you with a view of the various paths forward to choose from, and the expected outcome along each path.

3. Coaches Improve Your Ability to Reach Your Goal

Coaches typically don’t share their personal experiences like mentors do.

However, they get more involved with observing and providing feedback for the person being coached. They may even give advice, but the advice is very focused on the specific subject of the coaching, rather than giving broad stories of different paths as a mentor would do.

Although a person can be both a mentor and a coach, the roles and purposes are distinct.

I hired a speaking coach to prepare me for a Toastmasters speaking contest.

In Toastmasters itself, there were already lots of opportunities for feedback and learning in a safe encouraging environment. However, I wanted more in-depth private coaching to help me prepare for the contest. The speaking coach observed my practice session, spent time to explain her observations, and gave me advice on ways to improve.

With help from the coach, I ended up winning the contest!

I’ve learned from a tennis coach as well.

Without feedback from a coach, I would have likely just kept repeating my same steps over and over again, without adjusting to make meaningful changes. Bad serves. Bad footwork. Bad volleys. Repeatedly practicing bad techniques can be counter-productive, compared to getting practice guided by feedback.

A good coach can provide the right feedback at just the right time to improve your performance.

Can We Get Coaching From Ourselves or Our Bosses?

Although we can provide ourselves with self-feedback, we each still have blind spots that we can’t see but others can see.

Researchers show that self-coaching isn’t as effective as individual or group training. “The results for the self-coaching condition show that independently performing exercises without being supported by a coach is not sufficient for high goal attainment” according to research by Losch, S., et al (2016).

Note that your direct manager at work might not necessarily be the best career coach for you either.

  • Your managers will have their own career concerns that they’re dealing with, and will need to balance what’s best for the organization versus what’s best for you. You may need to find a separate coach outside of your company who can focus on helping you specifically rather than also helping your employer.
  • Your manager may give you a glowing performance review, or a mediocre review, or even put you on a performance improvement plan. In any of those cases, your manager’s time will usually be spread out over many other responsibilities, and will be limited in availability to help you individually to improve.

Just like how GPS navigation systems can give timely turn-by-turn instructions to lead you directly to your destination, getting a separate coach can guide you with the clear steps needed to attain the goals in your career and life.

Final Thoughts

Consider getting mentors and coaches to guide you toward your career and life goals.

They can provide much valuable experience and advice. You can learn much deeper from the unpublished experiences of mentors, compared to reading books and watching training videos. You can get tailored help from coaches who focus on helping you with the specific feedback and advice needed at the right time to get you the results that you want.

  • For example, if you received the results of your annual employee performance review, and not sure what to do next with it, ask somebody that you can trust.
  • If you are in data science, analytics, AI, or data engineering, and want to sharpen your leadership abilities, get guidance from someone who’s been there that you can trust.

If you want coaching, I’m here to listen and help. I welcome your direct messages to me via LinkedIn or my website to discover and discuss how I can help you achieve your specific goals for a better future including helping you with leadership coaching.

Originally published on Featured image by Freepik.

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