Boss vs. mentor

Whether you work in the private, public, or non-profit sector, you have a boss.  You may also have or want to have a mentor. You will get the most out of both if you understand how those two roles are different and what you should do for and ask of each.


Your boss is responsible for many things, of which your performance is one.  Above all, your boss is responsible for making his or her team carry out its purpose for the organization to which it belongs.  It’s important to remember that while your boss is extremely important to you, your boss has wider responsibilities than you do (which is why s/he’s your boss).  So if your request for a meeting is #38 on his or her priority list, the other 37 things may in fact be more important.

When you talk to your boss about your performance, it’s helpful to separate it into two parts: how you are doing as a member of your boss’s team or as part of the current project(s), and how you are doing as an individual employee with a developing career.  Most bosses are held accountable for developing their people, but usually their main focus is making the team and its projects successful.  So if you talk about your work in the team and on the projects first, you can move on to talking about your own career as a separate topic afterwards knowing you have focused first on what matters most to your boss about his or her own performance.  Separating those conversations also makes it more likely your boss will address the difference between the team’s performance and your own: there are cases where the team does well but you do not, or where a project goes badly but you do very well on it.

Your boss has a boss; even if s/he is the CEO, s/he answers to a board or investors.  Especially new, junior employees often forget this basic fact – that their bosses are also responsible to someone.  That means your boss also has that all the same concerns you have at work – doing your work well, being known to do it well, being a good colleague, contributing to the overall character of the workplace in a positive way – with the additional responsibility for you and whoever else s/he manages.  One really good question to ask your boss from time to time is “what do you need from the team / me that you are not getting?” and “How can our team do better in this organization?”


Like your boss, your mentor is responsible for many things, but except for the rare situation in which your mentor’s organization requires or rewards him or her for having a mentee, you are not one of those formal responsibilities.  Instead, you are someone whom s/he can help without regard to overall team performance or his or her own performance. That means you can ask your mentor for advice about your career without first contextualizing it in your team’s performance.

The kinds of questions that a mentor can be especially helpful with are about career development and pathways: when should you ask to be assigned to a bigger, more visible project? What kinds of new skills should you develop? What kinds of roles will help you learn what you might want to do in the future?  When it comes to the daily aspects of your job, your mentor can answer questions about context: I am seeing this kind of issue in my team; is that normal?

Above all, the kids of questions you can ask your mentor are ones you may not be comfortable asking your boss (ask your mentor if you may speak in complete confidence before asking, and make sure you don’t violate the confidentiality agreements of your company about what projects you are working on, etc.): when is it time to leave my organization? Is my organization doing the right things to stay viable and healthy as an organization, and as a place for me (those may not be the same things)?

Since your mentor is typically a volunteer, you should be especially respectful of your mentor’s time.  Go to the meetings prepared, show up and leave on time, and come with any answers to questions you were asked at previous meetings.  Don’t cancel meetings at the last minute, and don’t try to make appointments on short notice.

Same-gender or opposite gender mentor?

You can get value from a mentor of the same gender or of the opposite gender.  Women in particular may benefit from having a woman mentor for discussing career advancement, especially if the mentor is in the same organization as you.  The main thing is to find someone whom you trust and with whom you click.

Mentor within or outside the organization?

You can get value from both.  In general you will find that advice about complicated short-term situations will be more effective from people within your organization, whereas longer-term advice can be effective from both.  But the longer you remain with a particular organization, the more you will benefit from fresh eyes, which normally means an outsider.  It’s always worth trying to find a mentor outside your organization, but it may take a little longer.  You may find yourself about to speak more openly with a mentor outside your organization.