Mentorship and the Balance of Coaching and Cheerleading


By Brooke B. Sellas, {grow} Contributing Columnist

I’ve been thinking a lot about mentorship lately. And why marketers may be in trouble.

I feel like too many people are looking for a cheerleader rather than a mentor. They want someone cheering them on, stroking their ego, and backing up their biased opinion of themselves (or work, or whatever).

I’m sorry, but that’s not what mentorship is. A mentor is someone who coaches you, who cheers you on but can also tell you when you’re out of line or totally off.

If modern mentorship means pom poms and rah-rahs, we’re doomed.

Coaches Versus Cheerleaders

If you’re looking for a pat on the head and an “Atta boy/girl!” then go ahead and find yourself a cheerleader.

However, if you’re looking to be challenged, you’ll want to be held to a higher standard to reach a higher level of success.

About a year ago I started taking horseback riding lessons. My coaches are extremely tough. And I appreciate that.

Do I love it when one of them screams that I’m doing a great job? Sure.

But I love it more when they’re critical about the technicalities I need to focus on …


“Keep your hands lower, near the mane.”

“Your lower leg should be glued to the horse from ankle to knee while your upper body “scoops” with the horses movement.”

“Elbows IN, BROOKE!”

That critical feedback is helping me become a better rider.

Empathy is nice but we’ve gotten too tied into wanting things to be unicorns and rainbows. I’m paying to be trained and instructed, not to be lavished in smiles and “go you” rhetoric.

I need a coach. I need … a critic?

Critics Care, Too

To me, a good mentor provides mentorship by being three things, a …

  • Cheerleader
  • Coach
  • Critic

However, there are some leaders who are merely critics. And while critics care, if all they do is criticize, it can get ugly.

Admittedly, these people scare me. As a people-pleaser, I pride myself on being able to win people over (eventually). When I can’t, I obsess over what I’ve done wrong.

Sticking with horseback riding, a good example of a critic is one mom who comes to watch her daughter ride. Recently, the horse she usually rides came up lame and she had to ride a more challenging horse.

This gelding is a HUGE dude and plenty of us in the barn are scared of him.

As she was riding him around a jump course, he spooked after a jump with a tight turn and she fell off. And her mom stood up on the stage and screamed, “Why do you always F’ing fall off?! STOP FALLING OFF!”

Her mom didn’t ask if she was okay (another mom ran over to her … she was fine). Nor did she apologize. In fact, the critic is her modus operandi.

I don’t think the critic works alone in mentorship. But neither does the cheerleader.

Mentorship Is Just Great Coaching

Mentorship requires critical feedback AND cheerleading. We need internal coaching (with jobs, hobbies, or just LIFE).

For instance, when I wrote my first post for {grow} Mark sent it back FIVE TIMES. He was critical (“get to the point faster, your intro is too wordy”) but it was followed by coaching (“if you can provide some examples here, you’ll have something great!”).

And he definitely sprinkles some cheerleading in by sending a note to his contributors every year thanking us all and giving kudos to the person with the most-shared post of that year.

I recently joined an entrepreneur mastermind group and I feel like we struggle with mentorship. We’re good at coaching and cheerleading but a little less stellar with the critical feedback that goes along with coaching.

Why is critical feedback so hard these days (critical thinking, too)?

Is it because we’re trying to be PC or that we’re scared to hurt people’s feelings? I understand wanting to be liked (people-pleaser, remember??) but there’s also wanting to be good at what you do.

All of our jobs require mentorship. Especially if you’re a marketer.

Modern Mentorship

I write all of this to say that I’m concerned for marketers. I’m concerned that all of our nice-nice and PC answers are not allowing us to give the critical feedback needed for success.

When you remove the critic and the coach, you’re only left with the cheerleader. And I’m not sure even the biggest pep rally can save marketing right now.

So while I want you, as a mentor, to be respectful, I also want you screaming “heels down!” if it’s going to make me a better marketer.

What about you? Do you feel you have appropriate mentorship and coaching with your job or hobbies?


Brooke B. Sellas is the CEO & Founder of B Squared Media, an award-winning done-for-you social media management and advertising agency. Recently, she joined Mark Schaefer as the Co-host of the Marketing Companion Podcast. Brooke’s marketing mantra is “Think Conversation, Not Campaign” so be sure to give her a shout on Twitter!


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