Mentorship vs Management


A surprising number of companies get management completely wrong.  So many companies, in fact, that I hesitate to write this post because I wonder if I am going to be giving away some sort of secret that no one in the ‘corporate world’ seems to know.

The problem that I have seen in most organizational structures is what I call a ‘management bias.’   In order to understand the problem, we must examine the ways that people can lead in an organization.  I’d say there are basically two ways: mentorship and management.

Mentorship is about:

  • being excellent at something
  • helping others become more excellent at that thing
  • creating process to review excellence
  • implementing the excellence review process
  • running a continuous learning program
  • taking the top folks on your team under your wing to help ‘train them to train’ others

Management is about:

  • building clarity about what core objectives are
  • creating a process by which to divide and conquer tasks
  • defining how success is measured
  • creating a process by which to prioritize and execute
  • implementing the process by which to prioritize and execute
  • keeping track of who is focused on what

You can see from the quick bullet points above that these two ways of leading actually require significantly different skillsets.  You may get the occasional rare person who is good at both, but you certainly shouldn’t count on it.

So what’s the problem with most companies?  Well, they don’t realize the difference between the ways of leading above.  Instead, they assume corporate life is about one path and one trajectory.  Let me illustrate (the best way I can) visually.  We’ll use the example of engineering in most organizations.  Here’s what the typical career progression looks like:

Most companies force their employees to switch from the mentorship path to the management path. Sad.

As you can see above, and as you may be familiar with, most companies view positions of mentorship as ‘lower level positions.’  As such, a glass ceiling is placed above you.  If you intend to grow in your career (in compensation, stature in your organization, etc), then you must basically make a switch from ‘doing’ to ‘managing.’

That’s such an unfortunate and painful trade-off!!  Why?  Because the people who often get recognized and promoted within an organization are top performers at ‘doing.’  That’s what makes them potentially great mentors.  But instead, the company will promote them into management, where they are completely unproven.  So, in most cases, you lose your best engineer and gain your worst manager. Talk about a lose-lose.

There are plenty of other reasons that this approach is painful and misguided.    To name a few: you are compensating the person for the wrong thing.  They are highly paid by this point in their career because of how good they are at doing the activity in question (in this case, engineering).  But you are moving them to a management position, where they are relatively green and are likely to make serious mistakes.  This means that they are drastically over-compensated.  Furthermore, you are assuming that management is harder than it is. I hate to burst bubbles here, but management, at a basic level, is over-rated.  The primary reason for this is that people are blurring the lines between mentorship and management.  If you take the mentorship part out of management .. it’s basically administrative.

Well, I have presented the problem in this post.  That’s a good stopping point.  Marinate in this for a while, and I’ll come back in a while with some proposed solutions.

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