Can my boss be my mentor?
March 13, 2012 9:01 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to ask my boss to be a mentor for my careee development. How do I do it? Any pitfalls? What should I keep in mind?

I've been at my job one year and do it well. It's a position that I don't think anyone expects me to stay at for more than 2 or 2.5 years. And given how my workplace is structured, there's nowhere to advance here. My job has opened my eyes to some interesting directions that I'd like help with exploring. My boss is unbelievably well connected and could help me tremendously; also, my boss would find out in a heartbeat if I were networking anyway. I want to avoid as much of that awkwardness as possible. What's the best approach?
posted by Hellebore to Law & Government (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
At my office, we encourage people to mentor people who are NOT their direct reports, or directly in their reporting structure, because it simplifies any potential conflicts of interest between, say, it's good for your boss to have someone awesome (you) in your role, but good for you to grow and move on.

That said, a good boss/mentor will be able to separate those and encourage you appropriately, so if you're confident your boss can and will do that, then this is great.

I would simply ask forthrightly: "I enjoy working for you, and I'm interested in professional development. I think a mentoring component to our work together would be great; what do you think? I'm interested in hearing if you have other thoughts on the matter as well."
posted by rosa at 9:37 AM on March 13, 2012

While it's certainly possible for one's boss to be his or her mentor, I really wouldn't recommend it. One of the nice things about having a mentor is being able to bitch about your boss or job or being able to ask "stupid" questions that might cause your boss to lower their opinion of you should they find out that you've made it this far without knowing the answer already.

I definitely recommend cultivating a learning/development oriented relationship with your boss, but as for a formal mentor, I'd look outside your reporting structure.
posted by bluejayway at 10:05 AM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just because he or she is your boss, don't automatically assume he or she has got your best interests in mind.

That said, I've had bosses that I considered mentors, but it was a role I asked them to fill based on whether or not I liked and respected them.
posted by PsuDab93 at 10:27 AM on March 13, 2012

Before you decide if your boss - or any person really, should be your mentor, I think it helps to have part of the conversation include what you mean by mentorship - what is it precisely that you want from them. That's because everyone has their own definition of mentorship, and you actually seem to mean something specific in mind. In clarifying your own definition and what you mean, you can then inquire about your boss' mentorship concept. For all you know, they could agree to be your mentor and it could mean something totally different. Based on what you hear, you can decide if your boss really can be both your boss and your mentor.

In having this conversation, key points come out. For example - what do they think the value of mentorship is? Have they mentored before? What is it usually like for them? What is it you want them to do - introduce you to people? Define growth areas/skill development areas for you and suggest ways for you to develop? Be okay with listening to you explore career options, and make suggestions? By hearing how they've mentored before, you can get a better sense of what they are comfortable with/

Also, would you meet regularly? Are there any other expectations on either side? Also, everything that begins, has an ending. What would it look like when the mentorship relationship ended? Here's where clarification of your goals around mentorship is important. If your goal is career exploration, then it becomes clear what you want from them, and once you explore career options, and perhaps make a decision, the relationship sort of winds down. That's different if your goal is to develop a host of skills for future opportunities. For example, you want to learn how to supervise, or communicate effectively (for example, how to give corrective feedback, manage conflict, etc.). That might be ongoing, and be less about meeting, but more about your boss noting your performance and giving you feedback, or sending you articles, or suggesting trainings, etc. It might also be a little more ongoing, in terms of the relationship.

So, in sum, just be clear about what you want from your boss, that you are defining as mentorship. Ask them about their own mentorship experiences before you decide on anything as formal as a 'mentorship' relationship. Be prepared to define your professional goals - as compared to making them define them for you - so they can focus on helping you with their resources, contacts and expertise to achieve them. That way it focused on being beneficial for both. Thank them repeatedly even if their mentorship/advice isn't helpful, be clear about when it is. Also, understand that when you've achieved your goal, the mentorship relationship might end, unless they can be helpful in your new goal. All that to say, take primary responsibility for fostering the relationship.

Good luck whatever you do.
posted by anitanita at 10:42 AM on March 13, 2012

Good advice here.

My $0.02 is to agree, develop a strong working relationship with your current boss, to the extent of useful career path discussions, but you are not looking to him / her for a dispassionate, third-party mentoring / advising aspect. Sounds like your current boss is a great resource for extending your professional network and connections, and certainly leverage that as a direct report by asking regularly for face-to-face introductions (whether after-hours adult beverages, or lunch or whatnot).

And then look across the organization you work for (and from the sound of it there isn't too many layers), and see whether there is someone another layer up or perhaps the same level as your boss that you can reach out in a mentoring role.

I did this 10 years ago, going to my boss' boss to meet informally for lunch, and then working on some extra-curricular volunteer work together. 10 years later, both the mentor and myself have gone through several employers and situations, and still meet regularly.

And only last summer I met (somewhat by accident) a person nearby who is close to retirement, but knows so many people in my industry I can't believe it. An invaluable resource for advice and perspective, even though one can say I'm pretty far along in my career etc., I realize there's a lot of useful experience out there that is available for the asking. (It is understood that you already recognize your value that you bring into the mentor/mentee relationship, in terms of your own perspective and experience.)
posted by scooterdog at 1:31 PM on March 13, 2012

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