This question comes up a lot in training sessions and one-on-one conversations. People at all levels and with all sorts of experience crave mentorship, coaching, productive feedback conversations, and the opportunity to grow. And the first person they often look to for this kind of support is their manager or direct supervisor. And, just as frequently, they discover that they are disappointed in the amount or the quality of mentorship that they receive. How, they wonder, can I make my manager a better mentor to me?
It’s a worthy question, inasmuch as it speaks to one’s interest in continual growth and learning and a desire for ongoing developmental opportunities. There is value, certainly, in wanting a better relationship with the person who is supervising us, and anyone who has experienced that sort of developmental management (as opposed to micromanagement, hands-off management, narcissistic management, or any of a number of other, less supportive to downright destructive styles) knows how truly amazing it can be.
But it’s not fair, perhaps, to expect this sort of management style from the person who is also doing our performance reviews and who likely is responsible for multiple staff people. The question as it is currently worded is actually a very passive approach to personal career development; in a sense what it is saying is how can I get this other person to fix their flaws as I perceive them to my benefit? The short answer to that is, you can’t. You have no control over other people’s behaviors. You can only control your own behavior and how you react to other people.
Instead of this passive approach, take an active, self-interested approach to your career development by incorporating the following tips:
Change the question. Instead of asking, how can I make my manager a better mentor, ask, how can I become more easily mentored? Bring questions to your meetings that invite discussion and provide insight into your manager’s decision-making and problem-solving style. Seek out feedback on projects and opportunities even if it’s not offered up. Think about the unique opportunity you have to learn from this person: whom does he or she regularly interact with, what sorts of organizational decisions are he or she privy to, what insight might he or she provide around the landscape of the organization or industry? Don’t be a passive receptacle to learning and then complain when no one fills you up.
Be attuned to your manager’s mentoring style. Don’t presume that just because someone is in a management or leadership role, that he or she is good at mentorship. Likely he or she has not been trained to do this, and is figuring it out along the way. Maybe he or she doesn’t do the big growth conversations, but prefers to drop little “words of wisdom” or “life lessons” here and there. Maybe his or her constant feedback feels like micromanagement, but underneath that provides great coaching on skill development. Pay attention to what your manager is doing, and how, so that you can adjust the way that you receive that wisdom accordingly.
Seek out other mentors. At some point there is value in seeking other people to be your mentor, if you are not getting what you need from your manager. It takes a very skilled individual to be able to create space for open and honest conversation around challenges and growth opportunities and also to be able to deliver an objective performance review. Remember: the best person to mentor you is always the one who has the time and the willingness to do it. If you aren’t getting what you need, developmentally, from your manager, look around for other people to fill those gaps. You might even ask your manager to suggest some people who might fill those roles, and in so doing signal to him or her that you are interested in that kind of support.
Be your own mentor. Finally, it’s important to remember that mentorship is all about learning and growth, and there are a lot of ways to accomplish that. Take ownership for your career by doing some critical self-assessment on your strengths and growth areas. Set intentional goals to capitalize on those strengths and develop areas that need it. Seek out online and in-person learning opportunities to build your skill-set. Your career path does not, and should not, rely solely upon the person to whom you report. It sits squarely upon your shoulders and is no one’s responsibility but yours.