When Leaders Ride Shotgun: Managers and Mentors as Guides

Imagine being 15 again. Your Jansport is slung loosely over your shoulder and your car keys shake nervously in your hand as you take your first lesson of driver’s education. The butterflies that started at the beginning of class have now transformed into full-body jitters. As you settle into the driver’s seat, your mind begins to race with all the “what ifs.” But, the calm presence of your instructor pulls you out of your mental freefall.

Guided by your instructor, you’re introduced to the mechanics of the vehicle you control. You become familiar with the routine checklist every time you get behind the wheel. Buckle in. Check. Adjust your mirrors. Check. Hands in control of the wheel. Check. Once you finally progress past the parking lot, your instructor teaches you the rules of the road and best practices. All the while, your instructor is keeping an eye out for potential risks. Should anything go sideways, your instructor always has a foot resting on the emergency brake.

Let’s take this example from the asphalt to the office.

In many ways, this is like our professional lives. In the early days of our careers, we too were learning the basics of what it meant to be a professional. We had to lean on the expertise of our managers and mentors to be a guiding force. Their influence and knowledge shaped the way we took on projects and initiatives, and how we handled challenges along the way. But not all managers and mentors are shaped equally, and the role they play is significant.

Throughout my career, the most influential managers have always been ones that provided guidance rather than dictating. This allowed us to walk side by side as equals to support one another as we marched toward a collective goal and vision. Of course, teaching and instruction are critical to success, and through partnership, there’s a safe space to ask questions of what and why.

  • “Why are we approaching it this way?”
  • “Why don’t we do this first?”
  • “What is the purpose of…”
  • “What happens if…”

This creates an ongoing dialogue and, more importantly, an environment where discovery and learning become the foundation for growth.

Good managers and mentors have foresight and anticipate the risks.

As we know, a driving instructor is always a step ahead since they have to anticipate any risks their students may encounter. From vehicles hiding in blind spots or cars running red lights, the instructor has to prepare their students for what might happen and what to do if it does.

This holds true for managers as well. Strong leaders prepare their charges when they see red flags from afar and coach them through what they might encounter. A client may start to become dissatisfied with the work, or the trajectory of the engagement may be heading south. By addressing these potential potholes early on, leaders can mentor and provide skills necessary to course correct the future of the project. There is a fine line between mentoring and micromanaging, and true leaders understand where the boundaries lie.

Leaders encourage and empower you to run on your own.

As new drivers become more confident and comfortable with each subsequent drive, the role of their instructors changes. The more student drivers become in control, the less hands-on their instructors need to be. This transition is critical for personal development.

The manager who made the biggest impact on my career taught me how to develop my craft in a way that empowered me to own my role and push beyond it. As I became more efficient and self-sustaining in my skills, he would tactfully widen the scope of my responsibilities. He’d do this to the point where I would be just uncomfortable enough but never unsupported. That discomfort is crucial because it’s through discomfort that growth occurs.

As I was developing my research and user experience (UX) skills, I would participate in research sessions where my role was to be a notetaker. With each research session, I had the opportunity to observe, listen, and learn from the facilitator. What questions were they asking? How did they create a safe space for conversation? How did they know when to pivot and adjust? Over time, my manager strategically gave me opportunities where I could lead and facilitate on my own. In the end, I found myself responsible for leading full research engagements. My manager thoughtfully increased my exposure and responsibilities in a way that always set me up for success. Truthfully, he saw my end goal before I did.

Time with managers and mentors is finite.

As we have experienced, the time we spend learning from our managers and mentors is finite. Knowing this, the role that managers play is vital to the success and growth of their charges. It’s a good reminder that great leaders are more than just task delegators because you never know when you’ll find yourself with your foot on the emergency brake.