Workplace Doctor: Take charge and teach new recruit

Leader struggling to coach and mentor an inexperienced member of staff, should do neither. Instead he should teach him, says workplace expert Roger Delves.

I have a new member of my team, who in my opinion isn’t up to the job. To get him anywhere near the required standard I am going to have to coach him, something that will take up a large amount of my time. I was not present in the interview process and therefore it was not my decision to hire him. At times I find it stressful, even irritating, trying to teach him what I consider basic skills required for the job. How can I mentor him in a manner that will inspire him to step up while at the same time not drive me mad with frustration? BN, Abu Dhabi

Firstly you should have been present at the interview process and you should have had a voice in the decision to hire someone who is going to join your team. It is not quite clear from your question whether you were absent, not invited, or whether you couldn’t make the interview panel. If you were invited but couldn’t make it to the panel, then you need to ask yourself some serious questions about your priorities. Appointing a new team member is a very big deal (as you are now discovering), so it is vital that if you are offered a place at the table you take it. If you are not invited, you need to ask why you are excluded. The successful candidate is going to be reporting to you, so you should be involved.

Next, you talk about both coaching and mentoring – but you seem to think these are the same thing. Let’s deal with mentoring first: this is when a senior or more experienced figure draws on their own experiences to offer advice to a less experienced colleague. A mentor will sometimes offer constructive critical feedback. A coach is different. They don’t offer advice or solutions. The good coach creates and maintains an environment within which the person being coached comes to their own conclusions and finds their own solutions.

Given the circumstances, you should not be coaching or mentoring this individual. You should be teaching them. There is a well-regarded model of leadership created years ago by Hershey and Blanchard, called Situational Leadership, which identifies different approaches to leadership. The four approaches differ depending on the level of willingness and the level of ability shown by the person being led. The individual you describe appears to lack ability – he doesn’t know how to do what is required of him. Unless the appointing panel is incompetent, it must have recognised this. The working assumption would have been that you, as his leader, would be able to help the individual quickly develop ability. If you are not capable of this then the issue lies with you as a leader, not with your new team member. Your team member simply needs to be willing – keen to contribute, to learn, to take their place within the team. Willing but unable is a common entry point for new joiners. Your job is to lead the team and each individual within it, helping each person to become willing and able. If you find this stressful or irritating, then I am fearful that you are in the wrong role. If you remain a leader while finding it stressful, irritating and frustrating, then you will do far more harm than good. That is the job. It’s what you are paid for.

So lead by helping him become able, while maintaining his willingness to be a great team member. As his levels of competence rise, you won’t need to continue, because he will have reached that goal. If he remains willing, then he is now a team member who is willing and able – one to whom you can delegate, one whom you value. If competence eludes him then of course you must remove him. But while the initial error might be in the recruitment process, your personal leadership failure will be the inability to develop this individual to a level where he is at least competent.

Doctor’s prescription:

Knuckle down, and get on with meeting your leadership responsibilities.

Roger Delves is the director of the Ashridge Executive Masters in Management and an adjunct professor at the Hult International Business School. He is the co-author of The Top 50 Management Dilemmas: Fast Solutions to Everyday Challenges. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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Published: December 2, 2014 04:00 AM


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