Leader of All Trades, Mentor to Some

The path to leadership is different for everyone.  However, no matter how we get there, somewhere along the way we usually have someone that inspired us to leadership.  Someone who provided coaching and mentoring that connected to who we are and what we do.

Not always, but a first leadership position frequently involves leading in an area where we have prior experience contributing.  For example, I was a project manager before I managed project managers.  A call center supervisor may be a former call rep.  A school administrator is often a prior teacher.

Due to our prior responsibilities, learning how to be good mentors and coaches to our team members is easier than it would be if we had no common connection.  Not to say that developing leadership skills is easy, but it is easier if you had a good mentoring/coaching leader that helped you when you were coming up through the ranks.

As responsibilities increase, not only can the number of resources a leader is responsible for increase, but so can the mix of experience and interests of the team.  Suddenly, the advice we received may not be applicable.  The advice we want to provide might not be the right fit.

Though we may want to be, leaders cannot be all things to all people.  We have our own passions, interests and experience.  These may not always match up with the aspirations, abilities and potential of everyone on our teams.

So if we lead a mix of resources, what can we do?

I believe that the best teams are made up of position players.  Players that have strong abilities in a particular area, aligned to work that maximizes those abilities.  To support them, leaders need coaches aligned to the positions.

In football, there’s a head coach and a series of coordinators and supporting coaches who specialize in each type of position.  For example, the offensive coordinator has coaches that work with the linemen, backs, receivers and ends.  They each know their specific roles intimately and can develop them as players based on their specific abilities and expectations.

Whether or not a team is large enough for a leader to have managers responsible for a subset of the team, there is an ability to identify leads to provide coaching and mentoring to peer resources.

For example, I formerly managed a team that had a mix of resources responsible for systems development work, resolving customer systems issues, and data and analytics.

Some of the work involved significant planning and structured processes.  I was able to mentor and guide those resources given my background in project management and my natural affinity for that type of work.

The issue resolution activities were ad hoc in nature, and did not at all align to the way I think or prefer to manage my work.  However, there was someone on the team who excelled in that capacity.  I asked her to mentor and develop others who had an affinity to the work and were assigned to those roles.

Finally, the data and analytics function required a particular set of capabilities that a manager on my team had in spades.  He was passionate about digging into the details and asked to work with anyone on the team that had interest in data.  It was a win-win all the way around.

Ultimately, the old adage is true.  If you are a jack of all trades, you are an expert in none.  As leaders, we may not be best suited to mentor and coach every one of our team members directly.  Instead, we are responsible for helping them develop, even if it is through others.


Do you have experience leading diverse groups of people with varied interests and abilities?  What advice would you provide to help them get targeted mentoring and coaching to their particular needs?  I’d love if you could share your thoughts in the comments and keep the conversation going.