Contrary to popular opinion, a mentor is not a job recruiter. He or she is not tasked with helping you land your next gig. Nor is a mentor a life coach. It is not their job to help you overcome personal obstacles or to be your best self.
But don’t feel embarrassed—many employees have a skewed perspective of what a mentor is nowadays.
“A mentor is a great resource to have in your back pocket,” says millennial career expert and associate director of communications for WORKS Jill Jacinto. A mentor is someone who can do everything from “act as a sounding board, help you move up the ranks, navigate office politics, and help you make important career decisions.”
[Related: What Is a Mentor & How Can You Become One?]
In other words, they can do a lot for you and your career. But there are also some things—OK, several things—they simply can’t do for you. Simply put, “a mentor is not a career coach or sponsor,” Jacinto says. But what exactly does that mean? And how do you know the difference between what your work role model can and can’t do for you? Here’s a list to set you straight.
They can help you define your career goals. We’ve all heard the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” If you don’t have an answer, “a mentor will help you articulate that and define your career aspirations,” says Jacinto.
They can’t decide for you. You’re faced with a tough choice—and instinctually, you turn to your mentor for the answer. “But a mentor will not make the hard decisions for you,” warns Jacinto. “They will offer their insight and expertise, but ultimately, you need to be the one who calls the shots in your own career.”
They can keep you in check. Want to mess around? Not on your mentor’s watch. “It’s easy to lose sight of your career dreams by procrastinating,” says Jacinto, “but your mentor will push you to keep working hard and staying focused.”
They can’t talk to your boss. It would be so nice if your mentor could fight your battles for you. But while your mentor will have your back, “it is unusual for him or her to chat up your boss about you,” says Jacinto. “If you’re looking for that, then you need a sponsor.”
They can help you make connections. Your mentor knows people. And he or she “might be able to introduce you to key people in your field,” says Jacinto. “You might find a new client, intern, colleague, vendor, or boss through your relationship.”
They can’t be your BFF. You can have a work bestie—but it can’t be your mentor. “You need to keep boundaries during your mentorship,” explains Jacinto. “While you can be friendly, becoming friends might hurt their ability to be non-partial and offer the constructive criticism you might need.”
They can give you constructive feedback. A mentor isn’t going to agree with all that you say and do. Rather, “their ‘job’ is to guide you,” says Jacinto. “And a big part of that guidance is helping you to see the bigger issue by providing you tangible feedback. It isn’t always easy to hear—or give—but it’s essential.”
They can help you grow your skills. Think of your mentor as a continuing education teacher for your career. “He or she might be able to pass along both hard and soft skills for you to add to your resume and career repertoire,” says Jacinto.
The key is to have realistic and professional expectations. “Your mentor is not your fairy godmother who is going to tell you would excel in your job or industry. They are not in your life to hand hold and placate you.” Rather, they’re there to “challenge you and offer their experiences as a tool for you to make beneficial career decisions,” she says.