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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Your Boss, or Your Mentor? Why You Should Know the Difference

Finding the right mentor can do wonders for your career. Ideally, your mentor will have successfully navigated a course that, to you, remains largely uncharted. The career challenges, failures, and successes he or she has encountered provide a unique and valuable perspective from which to give advice and guidance.

This is especially true of a mentor within your current organization. After all, who knows the dos and don’ts of your working world better than a current employee?

Your boss may seem like the perfect mentor to guide you through the next phase of your career. As your supervisor, this person knows firsthand your strengths, your abilities, and your goals. What’s more, he or she can give you feedback and guidance that’s specific to your role and career path. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, to be honest, there’s a lot that can go wrong. So much so that it’s worth taking a little extra time to think about whether or not it’s a good idea to mix the two relationships. For example, are you comfortable disagreeing with one another, or will disagreements carry over into your daily work-related communications? And are you—and is your manager—comfortable with the added familiarity that comes with mentoring?

Whether your boss is already your mentor or you’re wondering whether to deepen your existing ties, here are a few rules that will make sure you make the most of both relationships.

Your Mentor on Monday, Your Boss on Tuesday

Whether you’re dealing with a difficult client, navigating a challenging political environment within your organization, or simply in need of guidance regarding your career growth strategy, a good mentor is a priceless resource.

But it’s important to keep in mind that a boss-mentor never steps out of his or her role as your manager. That’s not to say that you should hold back when sharing your challenges or asking for advice—you just need to make sure that anything you say is well thought out and communicated objectively. While other mentoring relationships may be more forgiving of the occasional mentee rant, it is important when dealing with your boss that you remember to frame your issues appropriately.

It’s also important to distinguish early on (and mutually agree upon) what topics are and are not acceptable to include in your mentoring discussions. For example, your mentor may be comfortable giving advice if you’re experiencing issues at home that are affecting your performance at work or trying to relate to a difficult co-worker—but less comfortable when asked for help in securing a promotion or a position outside the organization. Establishing these boundaries up front will help keep the relationship comfortable for both parties.

How you go about this discussion will depend largely on the existing relationship you have with your mentor. If, like me, you’ve worked with your mentor for a while, the best approach is the direct one—simply ask “Would you be comfortable giving me guidance on…?” If the relationship is relatively new, consider meeting to draft a formal or informal mentoring agreement that includes the scope of what you hope to accomplish. This collaborative effort will make the future discussions less awkward and result in a clear set of goals and objectives.

Be Realistic and Be Fair

Your mentor-boss certainly wants you to succeed—that’s probably why he or she has agreed to mentor you. It’s also likely that he or she will go to bat for you when it’s appropriate. As the mentee, however, it’s important to understand that your boss still has to make decisions that are aligned with the organization’s overall culture and strategy, as well as your individual readiness.

In other words, be realistic and fair with your expectations. Your boss-mentor can’t guarantee you receive that raise or promotion, nor will he or she always be able to provide you a full explanation of the decisions that didn’t go your way.

What he or she can do, however, is continue to provide you with feedback that will help you work toward those goals. Understand, again, that in these conversations, your mentor cannot and should not always function as your cheering section. When giving feedback about your performance, he or she will need to be objective and honest (and you’ll need to be open to that feedback). It’s only fair to your manager-employee relationship, and frankly, it’s the only way you’ll grow. On that note:

Mentee, Know Thyself

A mentor outside of your organization often sees you at your best and provides feedback based on your talks and the goals you’ve shared—not so much on what he or she sees you do at work every day. As a result, a lot of what you get from a mentor is positive reinforcement and feedback.

A boss-mentor hybrid, on the other hand, is more likely to see your performance up close and personal. Which means, he or she is also more likely to provide you with feedback that is more constructive than subjective in nature. And while getting this real-time, scenario-specific feedback can be great—it turns out that some of us don’t respond well to feedback that isn’t entirely positive.

Several weeks ago, I met with my own boss-mentor to review my goals and objectives for the upcoming quarter. As we began discussing one of my least favorite job duties, he stopped me (politely) and said, “You know, Brandy—you aren’t going to get anywhere with this if you don’t change your attitude. Its obvious from your tone that you’re frustrated, and that comes through when you’re talking to people.”

I have to be honest: At the time, I didn’t really want to hear that my tone was anything but perfect. Did it take a few seconds to swallow the urge to defend myself? You betcha. Did I need to hear it? Absolutely.

Feedback like this from someone who knows your work intimately can be great—as long as you can take it for what it is: constructive advice that’s meant to help you improve. As difficult as it might be, it is important to resist the urge to defend yourself and reflect on the feedback you’re given and how you can incorporate it into your daily tasks, responsibilities, and communication.

When it Works

A friend once told me that my having a great boss who doubled as a committed mentor was like finding a unicorn. And, she’s right. Not because there is a shortage of great bosses or mentors, but because it is such a delicate balance between the two.

When it works, this type of relationship boosts your motivation and your engagement. Personally, I appreciate advice that’s applicable to my current objectives. Though I’m sometimes frustrated his proximity to my everyday tasks ensures I get away with nothing, I find the real-time feedback extremely helpful. I’ve also found that I work harder to achieve my goals and objectives because he’s framed them in a way that makes sense to me—and because I know he’s in my corner and wants me to achieve them.

If you’ve already got a great relationship with your boss and he or she is willing to sign on, you may find it worthwhile to give the boss-mentor thing a shot. If not, or if you feel uncomfortable blending the two roles, it may be best to seek out someone else within the organization whose achievements mirror your own objectives.

Remember, though the mentoring relationship is voluntary and terminable, the reporting relationship is not. Before stepping in a situation where the two are mixed, make sure you and your boss are comfortable with the added layer of communication.

Photo of employee and boss courtesy of Shutterstock.