Mentor Manager

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By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

Management, whether of people or projects (or, more often, both) can be challenging in the best of circumstances. It requires setting and executing on strategic goals, motivating others to exceed expectations, meeting budget and timeline requirements, developing and adhering to policy and procedure, and delivering on results. Management can feel like being a disciplinarian, a parent, a counselor, and a coach all rolled into one. It is one of the most challenging roles you will ever play. Why? Because management is all about people, and people are messy, and emotional, and their values and interests don’t always align with your own.

So how, then, do you incorporate tools and strategies of mentoring as a manager? And, should you? Clearly, my answer to this second question is going to be a resounding “yes!” And also, it’s going to be a less resounding, “maybe.” Managing from a place of mentorship takes a particular skill-set that is not natural to all. And as a manager it’s important to recognize when you should mentor and when you should not. Mentoring is a strategic intervention. And that means it is not always the right intervention. The smart manager is able to discern the appropriate circumstances that allow for mentoring in order to achieve both individual and team goals.

There are three hallmarks to mentoring that every manager should remember. Mentoring is

  • Goal-oriented. The work of mentoring is always centered on individual and programmatic strategic goals.
  • Action-oriented. The work of mentoring is always focused on forward movement, getting from an identified current reality to a desired future state.
  • Learning-oriented. The work of mentoring is always built on the learning goals of the person being mentored.

The good news is, incorporating the tools and strategies of mentoring into your management style can have long-term payoffs for employee engagement and ultimately the results of your team. Indeed, a recent study by Gallup found that the most engaged employees, described as those who “work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company, drive innovation and move the organization forward,” are looking for four simple things:

  • Meaning. They want to see how their work connects to a larger sense of purpose.
  • Empathy. They want to be recognized for their individual strengths, interests, and contributions.
  • Ownership. They want individual development plans that build upon their strengths, interests, contributions, and sense of purpose and help them to grow in their career paths.
  • Direction. They want clear goals and expectations for success.

That’s it. As a manager, doing those four simple things with and for your people will move them from the “not-engaged” and “actively disengaged” categories into the “engaged” category. And the tools of mentoring can help you to do this.

Think about how you can incorporate the following mentoring strategies into your management style:

  • Create opportunities for intentional conversations. In order to understand your employees’ values and to learn about their strengths and interests, you actually have to get to know them as people. And that means having regular, intentional conversations. These are opportunities to share organizational goals and expectations, and to learn more about their individual goals and career plans. Just because someone’s long-term goals move them beyond your organization does not make them any less of a valuable employee. Look for opportunities to connect their current work to their future goals.
  • Ask questions and listen. Mentoring conversations are always question-based, because that is where the best learning happens. Restrain yourself from trying to “fix” problems, or telling your people exactly what to do and how to do it (i.e., don’t micromanage). Instead, think about the questions you can ask to promote learning, and then be sure to actually listen to the answers. That’s where your learning happens.
  • Provide encouragement. Sometimes all that people need is to know that someone is paying attention to the work that they do. Look for opportunities to catch your employees doing something right. And, pay attention to how they like to be acknowledged, individually. Not everyone likes to be called out in front of a large group of people.
  • Give objective feedback. One of the roles of a great mentor is to provide objective feedback on both successes and opportunities for growth. As a manager, don’t wait until an annual performance review to do this work. No one should be surprised by the feedback that they receive at the end of the year. Make ongoing, regular feedback part of the culture of your team.
  • Create accountability. Finally, it’s not your role as a manager to do the work for your people. They have to take action towards accomplishing their goals. Hold them accountable to the goals that they have set for themselves, and provide regular check-ins to see how they are progressing and how you can be helpful.

Not every situation as a manager will allow for you to serve as mentor. Sometimes your job is to tell someone exactly what to do and how to do it. Sometimes the situation is not about the learning opportunity but about the work that has to get done. The smart manager, the engaged manager, learns to flex between these roles, and incorporates mentoring strategies when possible.