Mentor Leadership will Save us From Servant Leaders

Servant Leadership has been a popular management philosophy for the last couple decades. It promotes leading instead of managing; inspiring instead of demanding. That leaders should act as servants, removing obstacles so their team can execute effectively.

It’s an improvement on the stale management ideas of previous generations. The old ways favored compartmentalizing and directing; providing detailed instructions about what you as the boss want over inspiring the team to achieve a goal and letting them use their creativity and skills to get there. So while servant leadership is an improvement, it’s already become outdated in today’s business world. Servant leaders are failing us.

One of the problems with servant leadership is that it can be used as a crutch to promote “people managers” who are not skilled enough, and are too passive in their leadership. “My job is to get out of your way” I was once told many years ago. “So what do I need you for??” I said in my head…

But the even bigger problem is the massive barrier to people entering the work force. Many workplaces require 2 or 3 years of experience for entry level jobs, because formal training does not provide enough preparation to be productive in the modern workplace.

And there are recently invented technology roles that have little to no formal training at all! Bootcamps have popped up to fill the gap for software engineering, product design, and product management, but a 6 week course is just not nearly enough.

And even if formal training existed, and was adequate, the technology world moves so fast that 2 years time introduces so many new methodologies and skills, formal training has a short half life.

There’s also another a problem — a culture problem. A close friend and CEO of an established startup lamented about working with “entitled” young Millennials. He told me how he scheduled a meeting with someone, and they demanded a raise. And he’d reply that he called the meeting because he was going to fire them! That their few months of work was simply not to standard, and they were not taking direction from their managers to improve.

Simon Sinek has a great talk about working with Millennials. How the younger generations approach life and challenges inherently different than previous generations. So, he says it’s the company’s job to find ways to teach and train young employees.

I agree, and believe it is up to today’s leaders to train, guide, and mentor the next generation. And this is not a novel idea! Apprenticeships were common for hundreds of years! The best way to learn is to learn by doing, alongside accomplished experts. Instead of complaining how school does not prepare kids for the real world, step up, as a leader, and help prepare them.

So, I practice what I call “Mentor Leadership.”

I have hired designers and product managers who were looking for their first gig. (Including young designers I mentored on DesignLab.) I saw the raw talent and ambition, and believed they were willing to do the work and learn. In all cases, they turned out to be exceptional team mates, productive employees, and I was proud when they went on to their next jobs.

Was it slow in the beginning as they acclimated? Yes. Were there missed deadlines because skills weren’t quite there? No! A good mentor leader knows how to budget enough time and provide enough guidance so deadlines are not missed.

  1. A servant leader provides the goal and the outcome. A mentor leader asks if they need more clarity, help, or direction.
  2. A servant leader asks what they can do to ensure a presentation or project runs on time. A mentor leader asks where where a direct report feels stuck or confused, and provide guidance.
  3. A servant leader asks to see a presentation one-on-one before presenting it to the team. A mentor leader will ask how a direct report feels about the work, ask them to explain their process, and discuss trouble spots, and provide constructive feedback. (Giving and receiving feedback is another article I need to write.)
  4. A servant leader takes the blame when something fails and privately pushes team members to do better. A mentor leader has the skills and expertise to guide team members, and stays close enough to a project to know if things are off track before the failure occurs.
  5. A servant leader is empathetic and aware of each individual on their team, and knows how to structure work because of it. A mentor leader is empathetic and aware of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses and knows how to help them improve and grow.
  6. A servant leader understands their team’s capacity and structures deadlines and expectations around it. A mentor leader builds in extra buffer on timelines to give individuals space to master new skills.
  7. A servant leader knows the gap in their team when they want to make a new hire. A mentor leader sees new hires as having the capacity to fill a gap in their team.
  8. A servant leader helps their team members get to the next level. A mentor leader tries to incorporate their team members career aspirations into their current roles. (I have helped a UX Designer pivot to Front End Developer; I helped an IT support manager pivot to Product Manager.)

One more thing — a leader’s mentorship should not be only for the entry level hires and new team members! In order for people to feel fulfilled in their jobs, and be proud of their work, they need to continue to grow. Therefore, a mentor leader should constantly be mentoring and coaching everybody on their team, at every level.

And if you’ve already invested that much effort to get entry level hires productive on your team, it makes sense to continue to keep them engaged by continuously teaching and stretching them. Your own effort invested in mentoring them will decrease while your return on that investment will increase exponentially as they continue to level up.

In short, a Mentor Leader includes all the humanity and empathy of a Servant Leader, but also maintains their own skills to the highest degree to act as an effective teacher and coach, with the strategic ability to make sure the team stays on track and executes effectively through their learning curves.