Leadership

Deciding when a mentor is a mentor

Jason Alexander as George Costanza on NBC's "Seinfeld"
NBC | Getty Images
Jason Alexander as George Costanza on NBC's "Seinfeld"

Send your workplace conundrums to workologist@nytimes.com, including your name and contact information (even if you want it withheld). The Workologist is a guy with well-intentioned opinions, not a professional career adviser. Letters may be edited.

In nine years at my organization, I've gone from an entry-level slot to an administrative position with a wide array of responsibilities. My supervisor has been somewhat helpful, but I have formed a stronger bond with her boss, the director of the department. We have a standing weekly meeting (which he makes an effort to keep!), I'm assigned to many of his pet projects, and get a lot of positive feedback about my performance.

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To me, this director is my mentor in everything but name. But it seems presumptuous to call him my mentor if he doesn't see it that way. I've made a few attempts to steer conversation toward my appreciation for the opportunities he's giving to me. I really want to acknowledge his support, but I don't want to come off as creepy or ingratiating.

I feel I need to address this soon. I'm finishing up a graduate degree and outgrowing my current position. The director has hinted that he wants to keep me around. But I don't see how he'll be able to create a job with an appropriate salary. And actually, that's fine! I feel prepared to move on.

I just want to express my thanks now before it gets wrapped into negotiations for a better salary or informing him I'm moving on. What's the best way?

— M.W.

In a memorable episode of "Seinfeld," the feckless George Costanza couldn't seem to get a handle on what exactly "a mentor" is. "The mentor advises the protégé," Jerry offered. "Is there any money involved?" a mystified George wondered. "What's in it for the mentor?" He can't fathom the parameters of this relationship.

And really, who can blame him? "Find a mentor" is career-advice boilerplate. Yet the precise characteristics and obligations that attach to the idea are seldom defined, let alone formalized. So in your case, I'd say someone you see as a mentor "in everything but name" is, in fact, a mentor. There's no reason for not frankly acknowledging his help — and asking for more if you need it.

Not to draw too many life lessons from notoriously self-centered sitcom characters, but the confusion about the point of "a mentor" on "Seinfeld" may be instructive. In real life, many people definitely overthink it, fretting about how to find and cultivate the perfect mentor, lamenting potential mentors lost or worrying about mentors who just seem insufficiently … mentor-ish. Maybe we'd be better off to leave the word aside and simply focus on cultivating helpful professional relationships with people whose views we value, a much more straightforward proposition.

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Gilles Mingasson | Getty Images

In other words, if you're grateful for the opportunities, the feedback and the support, just say so. I don't see how that could seem creepy or obsequious. (I can, however, imagine how, "Thanks for being my mentor!" may seem a little weird.) And I'd probably leave it at that for now. Don't muddy the waters by alluding to the various possibilities about your future, whether it's at this company or elsewhere. Your open-minded perspective about that sounds right, so don't try to game out all the potential next steps.

Be sincere, and with luck this person will be someone who stays in your professional orbit for years to come, wherever you're working — and whatever you want to call him.

How to Thank a Jerk

Recently, my boss purchased for me a very pricey ticket to a conference. Our business was featured; I was expected to organize a pre-event dinner and then oversee our showcase segment.

In general, I think my boss is a jerk who has made my time here difficult. I have no warm fuzzies for him. I do, however, want to do what is right. The conference provided an excellent opportunity for me to network. What is appropriate? A simple thank-you note, a small gift, both, or neither?

— Anonymous

The Workologist receives much correspondence on the subject of jerk bosses who make life difficult. But it is rare that an inquiry goes on to acknowledge that, maybe just this once, the jerk did a good thing.

Your instinct is right: Set aside your general distaste for this individual and express gratitude for the good and helpful thing he has done. A simple thank-you note should cover it. That's sincere and avoids the minefield of turning thanks into a transaction. (And really, a gift risks over-thanking: You don't want to accidentally suggest that this person has suddenly become the most important figure in your career.)

The best reason to follow through has less to do with the boss than with you: You absolutely want to cultivate the thoughtful judgment behind this gesture. We could all use a reminder that even irritating colleagues can do great things, and when they do we should say so.

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This article was originally published on The New York Times.