Manager or Mentor?

Two millennials walk into the office. (Not a joke, sorry!). The first sits down at his desk, opens up Outlook to peruse through emails that came in overnight before waving good morning to his manager, grabbing a cup of coffee and returning to his spreadsheets to prepare for his team’s Monday morning powow. The second millennial is met at his desk by his manager and given a day’s worth of tasks to complete, with scheduled check-in times in case he has questions. Both millennials are hard workers, but which one do you think is developing faster within the company? Which of the two managers do you think is a leader and which one is a teacher?

We all have people that we look up to. Some of us look up to a professor, others look up to coaches, and some of us are even lucky enough to look up to our colleagues. In almost every office there are managers who are admired. These managers challenge us, help us to develop, and take a personal interest in our successes. In short, they are our mentors.

Not every manager is a mentor. There’s an old saying that “not all leaders teach, but all teachers lead.” I would argue that, particularly in the corporate world, that saying carries a lot of weight. I have definitely had managers from all over the spectrum. Some I hated, some I loved, and some were decent managers, but were not someone who I would consider a mentor. I encountered each of my own mentors at different parts in my life and in drastically different fields, but I felt drawn to each of them for one reason or another despite stark differences. A 6’8 marine, a self-made Canadian consultant, and a professor of Central Asian nomads to name just a few.

So that raises an interesting question: among the wide range of millennial mentors, are there identifiable, common characteristics? Is it possible to pinpoint specific traits that millennials find desirable in a manager that might make that manager an attractive mentor?  We tried to find out.

We polled millennials in seven states, ages 22 to 35, to find out what they thought of their immediate bosses. Our rationale was this: millennials spend the most time with their immediate managers, right? So, it would make sense that the majority of millennials’ mentors, if they have one at their current job, would be their most immediate bosses. Here’s what we found from a simple word choice survey:

What Word Would You Use to Describe Your Immediate Boss?:

Approachable (60%)     or      Unapproachable (40%)

Receptive (80%)            or       Non-receptive (20%)

Flexible (90%)                or       Rigid (10%)

Modern (80%)               or       Dated (20%)

Active (40%)                  or        Passive (60%) 

According to our results, the majority of participants consider their bosses to be approachable, receptive, flexible, modern, and passive. Each word pairing was meant to represent opposite styles of management with the words in column one representing a hands-on management style and the words in the second column representing a more hands-off management style. In the first four pairings, the first column represented between 60-90% of participants’ opinions about their bosses. Yet the most interesting results came in the fifth pairing when the majority of participants said that they would describe their immediate boss as passive (hands-off) rather than active (hands-on). 

So what did we really learn? At the end of the five questions, we then asked participants if they considered their most immediate boss a mentor. 69% said that they do and used positive words such as “dedicated,” “straightforward,” “knowledgeable,” and “supportive” to describe their immediate manager. That’s not a unanimous finding, but it does support our original theory that close proximity plays at least some part in millennials’ viewing of a manager as a  mentor. While every participant did not identify their immediate boss as a mentor, the majority of participants did, which gives us a basis to explore our paired traits as desirable mentor qualities.

As I mentioned already, the first four pairings make sense. Bosses who millennials can approach  with questions or concerns, who are receptive to new ideas, who are considered flexible in their management style, and who take a modern approach to leadership are very likely to be considered a “good boss.”

However, the last word pairing raises an interesting caveat. The majority of participants said that they considered their bosses to be passive (hands-off) rather than active (hands-on). So if the majority of our participants consider their bosses to be mentors, and if the majority of our participants consider their bosses to be hands-off managers, then being hands-off must be an important element of mentoring millennials. And that kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? With all the talk around how driven and self-sufficient Gen-Yers are a more removed management style would seem to compliment that.

Let’s go back to the scenario we started with. The second manager gave his millennial daily tasks and had specific check-in points along the way, while the first manager took a more hands-off approach. According to our findings the first manager is more likely to be considered a mentor by his direct reports. Because he managed the first millennial “from a distance,” he allowed his employee to make his own discoveries. You’ve likely heard of being “tossed in the deep end,” when you start a new job. Well, the managers who do that are actually fast-tracking your development and, as it turns out, most millennials consider the managers who do this, mentors.

That logic resonates with me. The coaches whom I remember fondly didn’t give me feedback after every play, and the teachers I liked the best never put too much weight on any one failure.

Each of them gave me room to develop, but were ready to offer advice and feedback when it was needed. The second manager in our scenario was not a bad manager, but when you compare his leadership style with the first manager, you can clearly see the differences. Because the second manager is directing him on a daily schedule with designated increments, the second millennial does not have the same relationship with his manager as the first pair did. And as a result, the second millennial likely will not consider his immediate boss a mentor.

What about you? Do you consider your immediate boss a manager or a mentor? Do you prefer a hands-on or a hands-of manager? Lets us know and join the conversation!