There is a place for coaches and mentors in the boardroom but is it as a non-executive director?

Empty Conference RoomToday I saw an advert for a non-executive director which included in its person specification the requirement that the candidate should be able to coach, mentor and develop the Executive Directors. Given that there is a significant overlap between the skill-sets for coaches, mentors and NEDs it is probably not asking too much of a NED that they are able to coach and mentor the executives - the question is, as non-executives, should they?

In the UK, the 2006 Companies Act makes no distinction between executive and non-executive directors - giving them equal responsibilities and liabilities. This is the strength of the UK unitary board but it does mean that NEDs with a coaching and mentoring bent should be very clear as to the nature of their role and the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest.

For me, the NED role is best summed up by the two words "Critical friend" - in personal terms they are the friend that tells you that you do have BO!

In the boardroom they are the people who have the company's best interests at heart and are not afraid to speak out if they think that the executives have gone off-track.

Depending on your view of coaching and mentoring you might also agree that the term "Critical friend" could also apply to the coach/mentor - someone who is supportive and challenging without being directive.

To use a sports analogy, the coach/mentor as NED is a bit like a player manager - someone who is part of the team but is also expected to guide and develop the team. There are few examples of where that is a satisfactory long-term solution for a sports team.

I suspect that whoever wrote the job advertisement for the NED does not have a full understanding of the role of either a non-executive director or that of a coach or mentor - not to say that it is impossible for someone to fulfil all of those roles, just that it would require a very special person with a deep understanding of all three roles.

Hiring a NED is not a cheap way to get a board-level coach or mentor for the executives but hiring a skilled coach or mentor in a non-executive capacity can be a way of adding valuable insight to the board team.

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Good post, David. Thank you.

I've been working with the concept of 'critical friend' for a number of years, most recently in the context of developing the practice of coaching and mentoring through writing and conversations.  I can attest to its potential for good.  In case it helps, I'm attaching here a copy of a short article I've written for the Spring 2015 edition of e-Organisations and People on that score.  Best wishes.  Bob 


Thanks Bob - interesting article and the nuances of the differences and similarities between the Critical Friend, Coach and Mentor roles in a personal context are very similar to those in the boardroom with the NED as Critical Friend.

I agree that the Critical Friend role is particularly effective in the author / editor relationship

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