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What’s the Difference: Manager VS Mentor?

The Many Hats that Managers Wear logo You’re looking for answers about your career development, gaps in your skills, and how to navigate internal politics. Your manager may (or may not!) have the answers you need. A manager is often disinclined to spend time on matters like these, especially when there are team performance issues to deal with instead. Maybe you need a mentor! Which begs the question – isn’t my manager supposed to be my mentor? Not necessarily! We’ll break it down here so you can see the differences between manager vs mentor.

Managing is about administrative control of a team or project. Managers are usually measured by their short-term performance and deliverables. Managers focus on performance.

Mentoring is defined as “an intentional, development relationship in which a more experienced and more knowledgeable person nurtures the professional and personal life of a less experienced, less knowledgeable person.” Mentors focus on development.

This definition, from the booklet Seven Keys to Successful Mentoring, paints broad strokes in a way that is popularly assumed in businesses, too. Herein lies the problem.

All too often, we assume that mentors are to be more experienced and knowledgeable about everything – older, wiser, in a senior-level role.

The truth is that we are all more experienced and more knowledgeable in some things, regardless of generalized seasoning or tenure. A new hire who’s fresh out of school might be the perfect mentor for a senior executive with 30+ more years’ experience in certain subjects, technology, or perspective.

In other words, being a manager should not be a prerequisite for being a mentor. You should have access to others who can mentor you throughout your career.    

The Evolution of Mentoring

The first known use of the word “Mentor” was in its Greek form in The Odyssey. We’re talking way back in 1200 BC, when a loyal adviser to Odysseus was entrusted with the care and education of Telemachus. A man named Mentor became a guardian and role model to this son of the tale’s hero, Odysseus.

Scholar in toga

In ancient Greek times, this was not an uncommon practice. It was customary for boys to be paired with older males. Mentors were chosen by the boy’s father based on their values and the example they would provide. It was a great honor to be chosen for this role which we now call “mentor.”

In ancient times, these mentoring relationships were based on a basic principle of human survival. Humans learn skills, culture and values directly from other humans – the ones they look up to and admire.

Modeling and mentoring relationships are found throughout history.

In the Middle Ages, craft guilds were set up to structure the professional development of merchants, lawyers, goldsmiths and a wide variety of trades. An apprentice worked with a master. The master was considered excellent in the given trade. The apprentice worked and lived with the master, working up to a journeyman level and, eventually, to become a master in his own right.

In early industrial societies, we shifted to employer/employee relationships, and mentoring was no longer the common construct. The long-term development of employees was no longer the focus.

What we were left with was informal mentoring, often initiated by the mentee. There are plenty of examples of these partnerships – from George Washington mentoring Alexander Hamilton to Diana Ross mentoring Michael Jackson. The art community has maintained a dedication to mentoring – still informal, but often critical, to an artist’s position and success.

That brings us to modern times. There is a renewed interest in mentoring, largely driven by the competition for talent. Talented people in all fields seek employers who will support their development by offering mentoring and growth experience.

Unlike mentoring or yore, modern mentoring isn’t limited to:

  • A singular pairing.

  • An older/wiser mentor with a younger, less experienced mentee.

  • Long-term, formal commitments.

  • Parental or personal oversight.

  • Values-driven selection.

Instead, mentoring is often peer-to-peer, cross-functional, and/or outside the organization. Reverse mentoring is picking up steam, acknowledging that job level should not be the primary determinant of who mentors whom.

It’s still true, at times, that managers are best-suited to mentor direct report employees. But the mentor/mentee relationship is not automatic, and it should not be assumed. Managing and mentoring are two different, discrete disciplines.

How Mentoring Is Different from Managing

Here’s the biggest misunderstanding.

Usually, the manager is the one who shows or tells people how to perform their routine tasks. The manager is the one who sets expectations, checks the work, provides feedback, and offers tips for improving the quality and quantity of output.

Because this show-and-tell draws from experience and expertise, this is confused with mentoring. Many managers describe themselves as mentors without doing anything other than the work of managing daily performance.

That creates a gap in what employees are receiving from managers. When managers believe that they’re mentoring, they don’t do anything extra to offer true mentoring.

In fact, most managers are never shown or taught what it actually looks like to mentor (or to coach, but that’s an entirely different topic!).

Mentors teach what they already know about subject matter that the mentee is less experienced or knowledgeable about. Mentors have subject-matter expertise. They provide this instruction, example, guidance, and learning opportunity so that the mentee can develop beyond their current capacity.

Managers coordinate processes and resources to support development but focus, by necessity, more on performance and deliverables. Managers have expertise in setting expectations and giving feedback to get work done through others. The goal of managing is to get the work done effectively.

Here are three examples to clarify how these differences manifest.

  • How work is delegated

Managers delegate tasks to get the work done. They assign employees to specific tasks and may offload some of their tasks, too, to free up more of their time for management-level work.

Mentors delegate work with the express purpose of development. Delegating for development aims to provide stretch assignments, stimulating challenges, and personal growth. When a mentor delegates work, it’s not work that the employee already knows how to do. It’s work that the mentor has expertise in and uses as a tool for helping the mentee acquire new knowledge and skills.

  • Topics discussed

Employees tread lightly in conversations with managers. They are reluctant to disclose gaps in their own understanding or skills. They withhold information about opportunities they may wish to pursue in other parts of the organization or elsewhere. If feeling disengaged, they mask this from managers. They attempt to seem self-sufficient, loyal, and engaged at all times.

               Mentees turn to their mentors for guidance when they recognize a skill gap, when considering

              other opportunities, or when they’re feeling a sense of dissatisfaction in their work. They have a

               “safe space” and can be more self-disclosing without fear of being perceived negatively.

  • Who benefits

When purely managing, managers don’t have much opportunity to learn and grow. They’re getting work done through others. They adhere to standard protocols and proven methods.

Mentors, as they mentor, are continually learning and growing. They deepen their own understanding as they teach and are challenged by mentees to view their own expertise in fresh, new ways.

The advantages of mentoring include:

  • Personal satisfaction for both the mentor and the mentee.

  • Enhanced creativity and additional learning.

  • Development of a professional network and heightened visibility.

  • Mentoring helps both mentees and mentors to develop competence and confidence.

  • Organizational strength is enhanced when mentors share knowledge and expertise.

  • Mentoring provides leadership development at every level.

  • Cross-functional, cross-cultural learning can be enhanced with a good mentoring program.

  • Targeted development activities that keep career progression on track.

  • A “safe space” to learn political savvy and negotiating difficult situations.

  • High potential talent retention is more likely when people receive quality mentoring.

The last bullet is the most important one. The first four are multiplied when top talent stays with your organization. Mentoring is a proactive retention tool, and this is not a new development. Back in 2015, Training Industry Magazine reported that

“Young employees who were considered ‘high potentials’

at dozens of top global companies were unsatisfied with

the development efforts implemented in these companies to the

extent that it was the cause for many of their early departures”

This is why many organizations are developing formal mentoring programs. It’s an easy and affordable way to dignify leadership at every level and to promote a learning culture. Creative solutions include mentor/mentee pairings up, down, sideways and across the organization. These are short-term, focused on singular areas of expertise, and open to everyone.

Even when mentoring is widely available in the organization, it’s helpful when managers can wear mentor hats with their direct reports, too.

When to Be Manager VS Mentor

Not every manager is wired to be a mentor. Not every environment or job type is ideal for setting managers up to also be mentors.

When the manager demonstrates aptitude for mentoring and has established strong bonds of two-way trust with employees, it’s more likely that their mentoring will be effective and positive.

People who mentor others should be able to (and screened for the ability to):

  • Model company values and the “right way” of doing the work being learned by the mentee.

  • Dedicate time for engagement with the mentee.

  • Focus

  • Remain open to their own learning in the relationship and in being mentored.

  • Serve as a “guide on the side” rather than doing all the work for the mentee.

  • Remain focused on development work in a predetermined area.

  • Avoid interfering in the manager/employee relationship.

  • Defer to manager for performance issues and other matters outside the mentoring objectives.

  • Share failure and lessons learned as well as successes.

Mentors teach by:

  • Sharing their own expertise, relevant stories, advice, and connections.

  • Demonstrating how to do something.

  • Instructing, based on their own higher level of experience.

  • Allowing others to job shadow them.

  • Answering questions in areas where they have subject-matter expertise.

  • Providing resources that are useful for extended learning in a key focus area.

  • Helping draw big-picture connections to build business acumen and understanding.

For a manager, the right time to mentor is when (and if) the manager is capable of mentoring. Additionally, the mentee must be willing to engage in this type of relationship since it involves self-disclosure and an interest in learning and growing. The workplace demands must also allow for time and attention on mentoring. Fast-paced, production environments may not lend themselves to manager-led mentoring. Managers with high counts of direct reports may also be limited, unable to mentor when barely keeping up with the demands of managing.

When all the pieces fit together and a manager can choose which hat to wear, here are some final considerations to determine whether to manage or mentor.

1. How immediate is the response time needed? If there is urgency, manage. If there is time for learning, perhaps failing while learning, and growing, mentor.

2. What does the employee want? If they are floundering and asking for support to succeed in their current role, manage. If they are seeking new challenges and have mastered the essentials in their current role, mentor.

3. Is the employee engaged and challenged? If they are satisfied by their current work and finding fulfillment in it, manage. If they are becoming restless or bored by the work, mentor to provide new challenges that will be more engaging.

Becoming a mentor requires an understanding of how to mentor. If you’ve never had a true mentor, you may be surprised by what good mentoring entails. Be sure to access resources and take time to hone your mentoring skills.

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