Making the Possible Probable – A Mentoring Case Study

Earl R. Smith II, PhD

(Read More From My Blog)


When you awake each morning, the day presents you with literally thousands of possibilities. Human existence is chocked full of possibilities. But the important questions is, what is probable? And the more important question is, how can you make the right possible things probable – how can you select the right probabilities from all those possibilities? This is one of those areas when more education can be a real liability.


Mentoring often gives me opportunities to work with highly educated and literate people. Most of my clients have a Master’s degree. In some ways, working with these people is a joy. For example, they have been trained to understand and work with complex ideas. Their grasp of the language is such that conversations about complex ideas are possible.

However, every coin has a reverse side. Facility with language and its subtleties brings an increased skill in self-deception and denial of the obvious. Some things are better said – and understood – in plain language. An example might help you understand what I am getting at.

I was asked by the Chairman of a Board of Directors to work with the CEO. The company was a start-up that had made it through the initial stages and was pushing towards twenty million in annual revenue. The CEO had lead his team through several growth-generated reorganizations similar to the ones I described in Battle at the Cottage Gate. In the process, he had to reinvent himself a couple of times – as his role in the company changed in response to the new dynamics.

Recently the Chairman had become concerned. The company had reached a plateau of sorts and growth had started to level off. It wasn’t so much the leveling off that bothered him – he had seen too much of business to expect that growth would continue without interruption – but the reaction of the CEO to the development caused him concern.

The CEO had begun to withdraw into himself. He had become less communicative. When he did brief the board, his presentations were halting and poorly focused – quite out of character and not at all what the board had come to expect. The situation had caused some board members to begin to talk about succession. An informal succession committee had been formed and was talking about a search for a new CEO. Perhaps, the reasoning went, our present CEO had risen to the limit of his capabilities.

I took the engagement on the condition that nothing would be done by the board – either overtly or covertly – on the issue of succession for at least ninety days. The Chairman readily agreed but I pushed for a unanimous undertaking by all members of the board. Once that was in place, I was introduced to the CEO – let’s call him John.

My first meeting with John lasted almost three hours. He was clearly frustrated by the resistance he was encountering. As he saw it, the resistance was coming from the team. John had laid down the challenge – break the twenty million dollar barrier – and the team, although they appeared to be trying, were not making real progress.

One problem became clear during this initial session. John was a very literate person who could weave plausible descriptions and explanations around complex issues. He was mentally agile enough to quickly respond to any topic I would bring up and managed to talk with an authoritative air. Language was getting in the way of communication.

I noticed a tendency in John’s behavior. He quickly occupied the intellectual ‘high ground’ as a strategy for controlling and dominating – channeling – the discussion. Talking to him about this tendency created a very interesting situation. His occupation of the high ground occurred more quickly and his defense of his position was more strident. Those of you with an interest in logical argument will probably see the problem – self-referencing discussions tend to be circular.

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