Mentorship vs Management — Solving the problem
By Adil Wali , 24th Apr 2010

Ok, so in my last post on the subject, I outlined the core problem surrounding mentorship and management in most businesses today.   This problem is seen everywhere from startups to bigger companies, but is probably most prevalent at larger organizations.  The core problem, succinctly summarized, is:

  • management and mentorship are separate things that require different skills and experiences
  • most companies make the mistake of likening the two and assuming they are one growth path
  • companies further err on the side of management, assuming it is more important and value

The goal of this post is to explore some solutions to this problem.   Or perhaps more simply stated: ways to think about this better.

How do you get mentorship and management right in your organization?

First things first: you need to get mentorship and management right in your organization.  Step 1: Perhaps the best way to get started in that direction is to understand that the skillsets truly are different. Sit down and map out the roles within your organization, and better understand where your gaps are today.  If you don’t feel like you have any gaps today .. then go look in the mirror .. because you are probably going to be looking at the gap.

Being an entrepreneur, I am most familiar with the world of small and rapidly growing businesses.  In organizations like these, the first thing you want to do is look at the founding team.  Are you leaning one way or the other as an individual?  What about your co-founders?   My guess is that at least half of a founding team is going to lean pretty heavily on the mentorship side.

Why?  Because it’s pretty hard to get from ‘zero to business’ without being reasonably good at doing as opposed to managing.  Of course, in some rare cases, you have a founding team that is stronger at management than mentoring (but they probably had capital to begin with or had a very early stage backer).  In either case, however, the outcome is the same: the founding team needs to work quickly to putting a team around themselves that complements their skills.  For a team that is mentor-heavy, they need to get some rock-solid managers in place right away.  If they don’t, they will end up building a mentorship bias very quickly because the whole company will be good at doing, but very few people will be good at managing.  Google, anyone?  (To be fair, I am totally guessing that Google may be this way only because I have heard they have a very strong ‘doer’ bias and I know a few employees who have cited awful managers.)

Step 2: The next thing you want to do is examine you reward structure. Is your organization assuming that mentorship and management are the same thing?  Are people being promoted and rewarded through one path?  In other words, are people being forced to switch from one path to the other in order to grow within the organization?   This is almost certainly going to be the case, even if it’s not completely wrong.  More likely than not, you will find small (but significant) biases throughout the org chart.  Map out the path again, this time, thinking critically about how certain functions of the business will need to be mentored.  Think separately about how and who will manage.  Overlapping the two roles into one person may be a reality given the constraints of your company today, but you should have a plan for growth that allows you to mature out of that thinking as soon as you can.

Step 3: Think about things from a process perspective. Thinking about the people in the organization isn’t a bad place to start, but the processes need to be examined as well.  Again, given that your organization is likely to be biased today, you are probably only thinking about one side of the equation.  Well, actually.. because traditional organizational theory lends itself mostly to management, you are probably biased in that direction today (unless you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing.)

Your management process should be structured around getting things done.   But your mentorship process should be about making things excellent (as well as making people excellent).  You should have a process for both.  Also, you should, in the long-term, have a process owner for both.  One is going to be your lead manager.. and the other will be your lead mentor.  You’ll probably want one of each for nearly every function of your business.

What might this look like when it’s done right?

Here is a guess it what it might look like from an org chart perspective:

Doing it right involves equality and voluntary transitions.

Why is it worth it to do this right?

It’s not fair for me to recommend doing this within your organization without believing that it has real ROI.  Good news: it does.  Bad news: I don’t really have any proof (yet).

So for now, without much hard evidence, we should just explore this intuitively.  Why does it make sense to think about mentorship and management differently in your organization, to structure the processes, the rewards, and the growth differently?  Because:

  • People will be getting way more awesome work done as a result of the best doers spending their time doing and the best managers managing.
  • When mentorship has been stripped out of traditional roles of management, your organization will be less bureaucratic, and will have way fewer managers.
  • By promoting and rewarding mentorship, you’ll have a more healthy mix of junior and senior people, which will allow you to get the most bang for the buck.
  • You will be able to obtain and retain the best talent in the world because most folks at that level realize what they love doing.  (It’s generally one or the other)
  • You will have better morale and happiness throughout your company — which will drive a stronger culture and will ultimately increase productivity.
About the Author

Hi, I’m Adil Wali. I became a Microsoft certified professional at age 14 and started my first web development company. That led to a career as a serial entrepreneur, advisor, and startup investor. I got my first “real job” at 33, and I’m now a FinTech executive with a passion for the markets.