What to Do When the Mentor is the Boss

March 1st, 2005   •   Comments Off on What to Do When the Mentor is the Boss   

In general, I recommend against a boss trying to mentor her or his own direct reports. While providing coaching to all of one’s subordinates is encouraged, being a mentor to those who report to you can be fraught with challenges:

1. The present intrudes. When bosses try to mentor their own subordinates, their conversations tend to focus on the present, while mentor-protégé dialogs generally are more future-looking. Current work is a powerful connection between a boss and subordinate and is hard to set aside. Even when you have “big picture” discussions, they tend to be approached from the vantage of your current working relationship.

2. You are part of the equation. When you are the boss, you have a stake in the protégé’s performance and are a major player in his or her current work life. When there isn’t a formal reporting relationship, the mentor has no direct interest or role in the protégé’s situation. The boss, as an actor in the protégé’s world, has a harder time providing the objective point of view of a mentor.

3. The temptation to intervene. Protégés can learn from their mistakes by discussing them with a mentor, who can help the protégé to examine what went wrong and what could be done differently. A boss, on the other hand, is faced with a great temptation to step in and fix the situation. Whenever you intervene on a protégé’s behalf, you can potentially do several things: (a) disempower the protégé; (b) take away a potential learning opportunity; and (c) teach the protégé that you will fix his or her problems.

Despite these hurdles, many, if not most, informal mentoring partnerships grow out of boss-subordinate relationships. Mentoring is a natural extension of a positive reporting relationship. If you are mentoring someone who currently reports to you, you should consider the following:

1. Set aside time and space specifically for mentoring discussions. When the boss is the mentor, the challenge is making the conversations not about current work. To truly serve as a mentor to a direct report, create a space for such bigger picture discussions. Make the meeting away from your normal workplace and promise to keep the subordinate’s current performance out of the discussion (unless it is germane).

2. Discuss how to address the things you don’t tell your boss. A lot of what a protégé tells a mentor is hard to discuss with a boss who is involved in the situation. You need to decide whether you can separate your boss role from your mentor role. If you cannot, let the protégé know, even though it may shut off valuable avenues of discussion. If you can, don’t expect your direct report to believe it right away. Give your protégé time to develop the trust required.

3. Don’t take over the goal setting. As the boss, you know both the protégé and a “logical” career path she or he should pursue. You need to resist the urge to impose career goals on the protégé when she or he seeks direction. Taking such a “hands off” role is especially hard when the protégé starts down a path you wouldn’t have chosen for her or him. Relax, and find out where the path leads.

4. Watch out for jealousy of other direct reports. Unless you serve as a mentor to all of your direct reports (which wouldn’t leave you time to get your own work done), you need to be very mindful of treating some subordinates differently. The jealousy of a protégé’s peers may do more damage to the overall work group than the benefit the protégé is receiving. It may be wise to try to coach all of your direct reports, but save mentoring for those who no longer report to you (our article on the difference between coaching and mentoring can be found here).