Mentor vs. Manager

Shawnee Love   •   October 4, 2019

While many managers are mentors, and many mentors are managers, the two categories don’t necessarily overlap.

A manager is typically designated by the organization the manager works for and is someone who has been given formal responsibility for accomplishing tasks or objectives through others.

A mentor may be formally assigned but can also be informally acquired and is someone who shares his/ her knowledge, experiences, and opinions with another person (typically a more junior individual but not always) with the goal of guiding and advising and perhaps helping the other person learn and grow.

These very different purposes create vast differences in the roles.

Managers have:

  • Scope of responsibility,
  • Detailed goals and/or targets,
  • Identified people who report in to them, and
  • Power and control over the assets (including people) for which they are accountable.

Mentors, on the other hand can occur formally (i.e., part of an established program) or informally (i.e., because two people hit it off and one wants to share expertise with the other who wants to learn). In a formal program, the arrangement can have a contract and there can be expectations and/or goals associated with the engagement, but even so, the mentor doesn’t have decision making authority or control over a mentee.  Rather, it is usually up to the mentee to drive the mentoring process and figure out how to get the most out of it.  In its best form, the mentor has influence and credibility to guide the mentee and is behind the scenes so the mentee may shine.

Managers on the other hand, do have decision making authority for the people who report in to them. Interestingly, the best managers rarely need to exercise their power or control because they train their people well, set clear expectations, and are always coaching, communicating, and connecting such that their people know what to do and how to do it well.

It may be safe to say that the best managers are mentors.  However, the best mentors aren’t necessarily managers. Moreover, it is often better if a formal mentor is not your manager as that offers you more opportunities to learn and explore and different perspectives.

What has been your experience?