Mentoring helps employees develop confidence, skills and independence, while supporting employees’ emotional and physical wellbeing. Mentoring differs from coaching in that mentors are expected guide the mentee professionally and share their organizational knowledge and technical experience. For these reasons some organizations have chosen to reimagine the job of managers, or even replace managers altogether with mentors. But is this the right approach?
What is the difference between a manager and a mentor
The key roles of a manager include taking responsibility for ensuring that day-to-day tasks and long-term projects are on track, setting schedules and managing workloads accordingly, seeing that work gets completed to an appropriate standard, and reporting upwards to senior management. Managers also have a responsibility to ensure that their team is working well together, avoiding conflicts and facilitating communication.
Being a mentor is a little different. Like a manager, a mentor plays an important role in making sure a team runs smoothly, but mentors also must have a unique one-to-one relationship with each employee that they mentor.
The role of a mentor is to offer and provide guidance and support to a mentee, who will usually be a more junior or relatively less experienced member of the same organization. A mentor will draw upon their knowledge and experience in guiding a mentee. At times, a mentor will choose to actively intervene and give guidance where needed, but it is also important for a mentor to know when to let their mentee make their own discoveries, while being available to the mentee should they require help.
The role of a mentor extends beyond advising on how to complete work-tasks, mentors also offer a friendly face to candid advice and support on intra-workplace social relationships, access to key networks, and wellbeing.
A good manager and a good mentor share many important traits. Each should be a role model to those they manage or mentor and should treat the people they lead with humanity. Each should be able to put the needs of those they lead, and of the organization they represent, at the forefront of their priorities.
Why do organizations want managers to become mentors?
By rethinking the role of the manager, and focusing on mentoring, organizations can encourage high potential employees and their teams to work with more autonomy and to fully embrace responsibility for the outcomes of their work.
This can encourage employees to work out answers for themselves and to develop skills independently, with the guidance and support of an experienced figure. In turn, these more empowered employees are more ready to realize their potential and grow into the next generation of leaders, the foundation of your organization’s future success and growth.
Unlike a conventional manager, however, a mentor is not an authority figure so much as a source of knowledge – inspiration even – that can be called upon and help guide an employee to really fulfil their potential.
Viewing employees from the point of view of a mentor, it is easier to see employees as unique individuals with their own sets of strengths and needs, rather than seeing them impersonally: a resource which can be put to work in completing a task. This recognition of the employee’s agency and humanity is likely to result in that employee repaying the organization, pursuing personal development and upskilling themselves in order to bring their best self to the job and remaining loyal to the organization for longer.
What are the potential disadvantages of managers acting as mentors?
Managers play a very particular role in organizations, which changes when they begin acting as mentors. Organizations require a well-defined chain of responsibility, where specific individuals can sign-off on decisions. Without a layer of middle management, this function can easily break down. While mentoring can have huge positive impacts on individual employees, it is important to ensure that teams are not left feeling unmanaged and rudderless.
Middle management or line managers play an important part in mediating between employees and senior management, giving employees support and assurance and acting as a line of communication. If the focus of the middle layer of management shifts too far onto mentoring, it is easy for their role to lose some of its important structure.
In some organizations this issue is mitigated by carefully considering how mentors and mentees are paired. For instance, when the mentor is assigned to a specific mentee, the mentor typically holds a senior manager position and resides within the mentee’s organization or business unit, but they are not directly responsible for managing that mentee. This helps keep the manager and mentee role differentiated.
How do I know if this is right for my organization
In an organizational culture where managers value the wellbeing of the team and the success of the organization above personal ambition, pivoting the role of manager to act as a mentor can be hugely beneficial.
Mentors need strong communication skills, as do managers. However, in the role of mentor, this must be backed up by empathy and the ability to build trust. These are the attributes that can make it feel easier for an employee to open up to a mentor in a way that is more difficult when dealing with a conventional manager.
Mentees also need a similar mindset in order to thrive under the guidance of a mentor. Self-sufficiency and the willingness to ask for help when needed seem, at first glance, to be mutually incompatible attributes. But a mentee must have a bit of both if they are to take full advantage of mentoring.
How do managers become mentors?
If you think that your organization could benefit from managers becoming mentors, you may want to begin by deciding whether to make this an informal part of your managers’ job role, or to try out a formal system of mentoring.
Either way, you will need to decide upon measurable outcomes that you hope to see from the mentoring program so that you can gauge whether mentoring is having the desired impact.
You will then need structures in place that allow time for mentoring to happen, ensuring that mentors and mentees have time dedicated to getting together on a regular basis. These meetings should be made a priority in the schedules of both mentor and mentee.
And it is very important that your organization’s mentors have the right training and skills. As well as being knowledgeable in their field of work, and able to give expert advice and guidance, they must be expert listeners. Mentors must be able to give constructive feedback, and they have to know how to recognize when a mentee needs help, and when they need space to make their own choices.
StratX ExL can help your managers to develop these skills. Our programs combine business simulations – where leaders and high potential employees can take responsibility for decisions in realistic simulated environments – with peer-to-peer learning and feedback.
Contact us today to learn more about how we can help.