At Stride, we put a lot of thought into our internal mentorship program, and a big part of that is distinguishing the role of the mentor from the role of the manager. This distinction is useful for anyone who wants to be a mentor, so we’d like to share our thoughts on the matter. Perhaps it will be helpful to you.
Mentors ask questions; managers give answers
When you’re mentoring a person who’s trying to master something, giving them the answer is often counterproductive. It breeds dependency and short-circuits learning. As a result, mentors often ask questions to try to help you solve problems on your own.
For example, if you tell them you want a promotion, they’re likely to ask what skills you think you’d need to make senior, which ones you think you’re weakest and strongest in, and what examples you might give of times you demonstrated senior-level skills. After you’ve thought it all through, you tell your manager you want a promotion. By contrast, they don’t ask questions; they give you real answers. They tell you whether they think you’re ready, and why. Then, after they put your name in for promotion, they tell you whether you got it, and why.
Mentors advocate for you; managers develop you
Remember when you wanted to be in a band, and your best friend made you all those mixtapes and told you she couldn’t wait to see you play? And then your mom came in and told you that you’d have to get your grades up before she’d buy you that guitar? Your best friend was advocating for what you wanted, no matter what. Your mom’s job was a little harder; she had to do what was best for you, even though it wasn’t what you wanted.
That’s the difference between advocating for someone and developing them. In this sense, mentorship is easier than management. Your mentor gets to just be excited with you about all your progress in learning Python. Your manager has to hold you accountable to certain milestones before they can make you team lead on that new Django project.
Mentorship is casual; management is formal
If you are being harassed by a coworker, you really need to tell your manager right away. By contrast, if Bobby from accounting is just grinding your gears lately, that’s a great conversation to have with your mentor. You really want someone to talk through it with you, and you know your mentor gets you. You’ll let your manager know if you need to escalate the situation.
Mentorship is personal; management is organizational
Let’s say your partner just got a job offer four states away, and you’re thinking of leaving the company to move with them. You’re worried if you tell your manager, then you won’t end up assigned to that new project you’re excited about, but you really need to talk to someone who knows what it’s like to work at Stride. That’s a conversation for your mentor. Of course, when you decide to make the move and want to become a remote Strider, that’s a conversation for your manager.
Both mentors and managers are tremendously valuable for an employee. And often, their roles overlap. You can talk to both of them about anything you want, and they’ll both do their best to help. For example, it’s not at all uncommon for your manager to help you think through a hard problem. But it’s valuable to know the difference, and to make sure you’re getting both, no matter where you work.
Want to learn more about managing employees? Whether you’re a mentor or a manager, having great people on your team makes your job much easier. To get a great team, you must hire great people. Our ebook How to Hire Agile Team Members: A Checklist takes you through the hiring process and increases your chances of landing a great hire.