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how to be a great manager and mentor

The Dual Role of Manager and Mentor

The most successful leaders will make the effort to invest in their staff’s personal and professional growth

Karie Kaufmann

Karie Kaufmann works with growth-minded entrepreneurs who want to scale up their business, without losing their mind or losing control. She does this through one-on-one executive coaching, strategic planning retreats,...

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If you’re a leader in a laboratory, one of your primary roles is not just to manage the people on your team, but also to mentor them. Great employees will stay where they are growing, and where their progress and contribution are valued. Because their personal and professional growth will also benefit your company, this makes your investment in mentoring a win-win.

While it’s wise to match a new hire with a senior employee as a “go-to” for quick questions, training, or helping them to get oriented on the new team, this type of “mentoring” relationship is really serving more as a guide—and is different from the level of mentoring that you will be doing as their boss.

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How to be a great boss and mentor

1. Give the gift of your time and attention

Being available does not mean having an open-door policy. That will only leave you frazzled and unproductive. Instead, schedule one-on-one time with each team member every week, with at least a portion of that time being dedicated to mentoring, not just status updates on current projects.

Even though there are many demands on your schedule, carving out the time to focus on each person shows you value them—not to mention that being proactive in your communication will cut down on interruptions throughout the week. Beware—if you consistently cancel or postpone your meetings, you are setting an example that priorities are relative, and that will eventually affect their productivity and overall happiness in their role. So, make the commitment, and plan ahead to prevent distractions so you can be fully present.

2. Learn to ask great questions

When you have vast experience and are accustomed to solving problems all day, it’s easy to go into “fix-it mode” with your team members. Be intentional to ask open-ended questions and truly listen before dispensing advice. Simple questions like, “what’s on your mind?”, “how can I help you?”, or “what’s the real challenge for you here?” will help you to guide the conversation. It will also train your mentee to be solution-oriented, because rather than just giving advice, you are training them how to think at a higher level.

3. Help them to grow

To build a world-class business, you need a team of A-Players. And A-Players will only stay where they have new challenges and opportunities for growth.

Ask your mentee what their goals are, and don’t panic or shut them down if it seems their aspirations might eventually take them outside of your company. You might subconsciously attempt to limit a person’s growth for fear of needing to backfill their current position, but if you truly want to develop and retain top employees, lean into their growth goals and help them make a roadmap to get there.

On the other hand, if the person you’re mentoring isn’t sure what their goals are, you can start by asking them to identify a skill or area of the business that they’d like to learn more about. Helping your team members to value ongoing education will likely open their eyes to growth opportunities, and you’ll both benefit in the process.

4. Assume responsibility for their results…or lack thereof

Your employees are 100 percent your responsibility. If you have an employee who is not performing well, take a look at what you did, or most likely didn’t do, that is causing this issue. Were they given everything they need to be successful? Was their training sufficient? Have you regularly checked in and provided support? Have you given clear feedback and an action plan on how to improve?

Reflecting on these questions will help you to put on your “mentoring hat” and work with an under-performing team member to solve the problem rather than placing blame. The best-case scenario is that they will improve, and you could go down in history as one of the most impactful bosses of their life. But even if you do end up parting ways, you can do so amicably, and have the peace of mind of knowing that you did your part to help him or her succeed.

5. You have to keep growing to help them grow

People like to follow people who are going somewhere. And this is the kind of person you need to be when helping others reach their goals.

Think of all you have been through to get where you are. The people you lead are likely just a few steps behind you on that journey. You have a wealth of knowledge they will be eager to hear—but the truth is, your mentee will likely learn more from your failures than from everything you’ve done right. Be transparent about the good and the bad, and that it’s okay to make mistakes along the way. Most of all, they need to see that no matter how far you’ve come, you are still a work in progress, too.

Your transparency will encourage your mentee to set goals and step out of their comfort zone in learning new things, knowing that you’ll be there to support them when (not if) they hit a few bumps along the road. And now that you're on track to creating a culture of growth and ownership over results, that will benefit your business, and everyone involved.

Management and mentorship as cohesive roles

The best managers are also the best mentors. While an employee might also seek a mentor outside the management structure (which is also a great thing), management and mentorship don’t have to be two separate roles. The best bosses balance both by dedicating time and providing a safe space to help their team members to grow and develop. It’s personally fulfilling to both individuals, and the natural byproduct is that you build a great team in the process.