At first glance, line managers and mentors can look very similar.
People’s relationships with their line managers are quite different from their relationships with their mentors, so this isn’t right.
This article examines both relationships. It covers:
Line managers are the first layer in an organisation’s management structure.
They are responsible for running small operational teams and ensuring that day-to-day tasks are completed efficiently and effectively.
Line managers are typically responsible for organising work rotas, checking completed work, and ensuring that their team works as a team.
It is a broad role, as line managers in turn report to the next level of more senior management in an organisation.
For more details on what line managers do, see our article: What Is A Line Manager.
Acting as a line manager is the first management role most people have held.
Many people find the transition tricky and find that attending a line management course can be very helpful.
A mentor is someone who offers knowledge and guidance to someone with less experience.
Mentoring has three general functions:
Given the holistic support that mentoring offers employees, it is often used to boost employee engagement and retention.
Mentoring can be formal or informal.
It is often offered by people who have occupied senior leadership positions and so can offer their mentee a ‘birds eye’ view of things.
In an informal environment, the relationship is unstructured, and its impact and the outcomes it generates are usually not measured.
In a formal environment, specific, measurable goals are usually used and assessed.
Mentoring is similar to coaching, but it’s a more holistic process. Coaching is generally focused around achieving a specific outcome.
Successful mentorship depends on the mentor and mentee sharing mutual goals, respect, and trust.
It is worth noting that while traditionally a mentor is older than their mentee that is not a necessity. As workplaces become increasingly multigenerational these relationships are becoming increasingly varied.
Both line managers and mentors aim to help individuals achieve success. However, their approaches are quite different.
Let’s look at the key differences:
Line managers focus on accomplishing short-term organisational targets like productivity, profitability, and service levels.
A line manager’s decisions are closely tied to the aims of the organisation that they work for. They will focus on the aims of their employer with their teams.
The focus of a mentor is on personal and career growth.
A mentor-mentee relationship revolves around sharing knowledge and experience. Mentors provide guidance, motivation and emotional support.
A mentor’s advice is far more general and long-term. Different mentors within an organisation will focus on different things, depending on the learning needs of their mentee.
Line managers generally answer questions.
If someone on their team is stuck, they will answer their question and show them how to do it.
They will be focused on ensuring that their people have the right skill or skills to carry out the tasks allocated to them.
By contrast, mentors tend to ask questions.
If a mentee is stuck, they will generally ask questions to help the mentee figure out the answer.
They focus on the long-term and so can take a different approach to problem-solving and learning.
Mentors will usually focus more on things like broad personal development or workplace interpersonal skills both of which take longer to develop and will vary from individual to individual as we each have our own style.
Line managers and their team have a relationship that is formally established by the policies of the organisation that they work for.
A line manager’s relationship with a team member is restricted to those areas mandated by their employer or required to meet their employer’s requirements.
Mentors and mentees have a much less structured relationship.
The way that the relationship is structured will vary from relationship to relationship.
Line managers manage their team to deliver key performance indicators for their employer.
Generally, these will be relatively short-term. Line managers do not work with long timescales, and so they will be directive towards team members.
Line managers will generally tell their team what to do. Their feedback will help team members improve their performance on specific tasks in the short term.
Mentors longer-term and more holistic goals mean that they guide mentees rather than tell mentees.
Mentors have open, ongoing conversations with mentees and will often look to achieve change over several years.
Line managers tend to deal with the measurable. By focusing on the measurable, line managers may find their team members trying to hide their mistakes because they do not want to receive critical or negative feedback.
Mentors usually deal with issues that you can’t formally measure.
A mentor will have a good sense of the progress that their mentee is making but usually wouldn’t be able to measure if they wanted to.
Mentor-mentee relationships depend on open and direct communication.
Often, the purpose of the relationship is to help the mentee discuss their flaws and address them, so judging a mentee would damage the relationship and limit progress.
Let’s look at the fundamental similarities of the roles.
Mentors and line managers both support a person’s development in one way or another. They have different time scales and objectives, but both are interested in developing the individuals that they are working with.
Both relationships work best when there is good personal rapport and trust between both parties. Rapport and trust are beneficial when mentors and line managers are working with an individual facing a difficult decision.
Both of these relationships are one-on-one connections usually. Both mentors and line managers will tend to communicate one-to-one, especially on complex issues.
Both mentors and line managers help people grow and develop.
However, the background and time scales of the relationship vary substantially between a line manager and a mentor.
This difference in approach means that the issues dealt with and how those issues are dealt with usually varies dramatically between the two roles.
Make sure you understand the difference to get the most out of each relationship.