Sanu Miah Head & Shoulder Shot

Sanu Miah, founder, CheekyLittleCareers

CheekyLittleCareers’ founder Sanu Miah explains how relationships with mentors differ from those you develop with workplace friends

I was recently asked about who or what counts as a mentor and what to expect from a relationship with such an individual. Though I’ve had a couple of my own mentors, and still do in my professional life, up until relatively recently I’ve never really given this subject much thought.

Now I’ve had a chance to reflect and go over many of my own experiences, I’d like to share some of the key differences between a mentor and work friend based on what I’ve learnt. As I don’t want to over-analyse this topic, I’m going to keep my thoughts below as easy to absorb as possible.

A workplace mentor or sponsor will help you develop professionally and in doing so will enable you to navigate internal hoops and advance your career.

A mentor is typically more senior than you and is likely to discuss your ambitions, current strengths and the future skills (both soft and technical) you’ll need to acquire to progress in your career. They’ll also most probably share some of their own experiences with you and if appropriate offer advice. Expect conversations to be in-depth and on going.

A work friend is more likely to be one of your contemporaries. They will of course occasionally listen to you or share some of their thoughts and ideas about your career plans but in some cases they are also your competition.

A mentor will provide honest feedback, no matter how difficult it may be for you to hear.

Your mentor isn’t really a ‘friend’, of course during your interactions you’ll eventually grow closer – but a good mentor will draw a line and stick to it. This may sound a little harsh but it’s crucially important for you that they retain a degree of objectivity.

Give mentors permission to point out your weaknesses, and how you are perceived internally amongst colleagues across all levels of seniority. I can’t stress enough how important this is to your development. Take it from me, receiving negative feedback isn’t always easy to hear but when used constructively to make appropriate adjustments it can be a game-changer.

A friend, on the other hand, may only support your ideas or agree with you to avoid conflict or upset. This isn’t necessarily always helpful when it comes to personal growth and development.

Your mentor will help you strategise when it comes to your career. 

Your mentor will encourage you to think more creatively about your short, medium and long-term career goals. Once you’ve identified a path and/or goals, they’ll help you formulate a strategy, or in the case of a promotion or cross team move, they can help you design a more impactful campaign to ensure the right people notice you and for the right reasons.

A friend may occasionally encourage you to go for that promotion, or spur you on to call a recruiter, but in many instances their support may not extend beyond giving your ego a boost.

Your mentor is likely to hold a senior position in your organisation.

What this means is that they’ll have a deeper and clearer understanding of your organisation’s true culture and strategic priorities, as well as the political landscape based on the personalities of key decision-makers, which they’ll share with you over time. Some mentors may also be able to go further and use their influence in your favour.

Don’t forget whilst all of this may be new to you, they’ll have seen it all before and can therefore help you identify and avoid potential rookie errors, enabling you to successfully navigate career hazards.

A work friend is most likely to be at the same level as you meaning very little of the above applies.

The mentor/mentee relationship is at its most effective if you’re willing to listen and put in the effort, as well as action the takeaways from your interactions. Your mentor can help facilitate your progression to a point, but ultimately your professional future is in your own hands.

I’ll end with one final thought. Though the importance of having workplace mentors is abundantly clear, having a social network of colleagues who double-up as friends is also an imperative. The key is remembering that each one will typically serve a different need.