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Mentor Or Best Friend: Which Management Style Is Best?

Should you mentor your employees, or be their pals? Both management styles have their benefits and pitfalls.

Mentor Or Best Friend: Which Management Style Is Best?
[Photo: Flickr user Georgie Pauwels]

For decades, managers led with a heavy hand from corner offices. They demanded respect and expected employees to follow their direction. It was all about command and control, but the power-suit/power-lunch boss is a dinosaur in today’s workplace.

“Baby boomers climbed the corporate ladder under that type of leadership, but gen-X and millennials thrive with something much different,” says Thomas Moran, CEO of the professional staffing and search firm Addison Group.

A 2014 survey of over 1,000 boomers, gen-X, and millennials commissioned by the Addison Group found that 63% of managers across generations prefer to lead through mentorship. Millennials, however, like to get even more personal; 20% strive to become their direct reports’ best friend.

The shift is due to the growing importance in work/life balance, says Moran. “Boomers were brought up in conservative environments and often put work first,” he says. “Gen-X and millennials give more freedom to the employee. For example, if a top female employee wants to spend time with her newborn baby, it’s not unusual for her to work from home two days a week. A couple of decades ago, that wasn’t an option.”

The Growth of Managers As Mentors

During the dotcom boom, gen-X became innovators of the mentor leadership style, says Moran. “It’s managing through listening and partnership, and it sprung up when workers at startups were spread across the country,” he says.

A mentor is still a leader, but he or she is also a partner who helps employees reach their potential: “They ask questions such as ‘Where do you see yourself in two years?’ ‘Where do you feel you’re best suited for our organization?’ And ‘How can I help you achieve your goal?’” says Moran. “Mentors ask employees what they need, but they also hold them accountable if they don’t achieve their goals.”

The advantage of a mentor style is that it suits an employee’s desire to be heard. It also sets up the manager in situations where an employee’s results fall short.

The downside to being a mentor, however, is that communication will break down at some point, says Moran: “Performance drives results, and when the results aren’t there, individuals often blame the manager for lack of support,” he says. “More often, it’s a breakdown in the employee’s follow-through. A mentor needs to be able to demonstrate this to the employee.”

A Manager As A Best Friend

Millennials, who will make up the majority generation in the workforce by 2015, are eager to lead, with 82% displaying interest in management positions versus 57% of employees in other age groups, according to the study. As they fill leadership roles, some will take a best-friend approach, bringing the manager/employee relationship outside of the office and into a social setting.

“The team might work all day, for example, and then grab dinner together,” says Moran. “This is a softer leadership style that motivates through communication.”

Best-friend managers get to know the employee from a whole-life perspective. They talk about personal issues, such as kids, weekend plans, and bad days. The advantage of the best-friend manager style is that employees feel heard and understood, says Moran.

“When an employee is having a problem at work, it can be easier for the manager to deal with it because they have a bigger picture of their life,” he says. “Boomers were motivated to work because they wanted the job, but they probably didn’t like their boss. Millennials are motivated to work because they like their boss.”

Just as with the mentor style, there will be performance breakdowns when you lead like a best friend, but the conversation becomes even more difficult for the manager, because he or she is closer to the situation. And sometimes a communication breakdown happens in the personal setting and carries over into the workplace, says Moran.

“There’s an added risk of losing a good employee when you bring the personal into the workplace,” he says. “People might be uncomfortable and leave.”

What’s Best?

As unemployment drops and the economy gets better, Moran says it will be harder for employers to find and keep quality candidates. The more managers can understand what their employees need and want in terms of managerial style, the more successful everyone can be.

“While the best-friend leadership style can work in some situations, mentoring has more benefits,” he says. “You’re still a leader and you get to reserve the workplace for work. The goal is to keep employees happy and motivated. Don’t let anything jeopardize that relationship.”

About the author

Stephanie Vozza writes about business, productivity, and really cool people for magazines, websites, and companies. She is the author of The Five-Minute Mom's Club: 105 Tips to Make a Mom's Life Easier and the founder of TheOrganizedParent.com, an ecommerce platform she later sold to FranklinCovey Products.

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