Mutual mentoring across the generations

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By Phyllis Weiss Haserot
This is the seventh in a series of regular columns by generational expert and internationally known consultant, coach, writer, and speaker Phyllis Weiss Haserot on intergenerational relations and navigating the challenges of the multi-generational workplace for better productivity, retention, succession planning, and business development results.

The Wall Street Journal had a short interview a few years ago about how 18-year-old Kate Spellman decided to take off a year before college and invited her 54-year-old dad, Jim, to bike with her across the country. He jumped at the chance - and had to get permission from his wife, who is a doctor, and get leave from his job. When asked why she decided to make the trip, Kate said: "You go to college, you get a job, start a family. I didn't know when I'd have such a large block of time free again."

When asked how the trip changed his relationship with his daughter, Jim responded: "She invited me to join her in a journey, not shepherd her across the country. As a father - and a guy - that ain't easy. I struggled with that early on - how much to take charge and how much are we co-partners. If I allowed myself to think like a father it would all have come crumbling down. By the end, we were riding 100 miles a day and I'd be the one begging for a break." This is the anti-"helicopter parent" story.

I thought about this story as I was putting my thoughts together for an article on "mutual mentoring", and relationships between Baby Boomers and the Gen Y and young Gen X employees in the workplace. There are lessons in this personal story for Boomer partners and managers as to how to handle their relationships with younger generations on their teams and in their offices.

A few definitions: Reverse mentoring is a process by which a person seeks out an "expert" who has less job experience than he/she does, but who holds a wealth of knowledge/skill on a topic that is continually changing and growing. This concept has been utilized particularly in instances when older workers who were not accustomed to all the computer related technology now commonplace were slow to adopt new methods or lacked knowledge of the software and its uses. The mentoring comes from their younger colleagues.

Mutual mentoring, also known as reciprocal mentoring, occurs when each person brings to the table knowledge to teach and a different topic to learn, and they agree to exchange mentor and mentee roles as appropriate. This is a two-way process in which each party gives and gains.

Can you see the potential in the workplace, for example, between the tech super-savvy Gen Y/Millennials who may be challenged in some of their in-person and formal written communication skills and the Boomers who are working to become more technologically adept and have developed through education and practice more effective communication skills? The possibilities are endless based on skills and behavior desired and needed for career/life achievement and fulfillment.

I bet there was some informal mutual mentoring going on between the Gen Y daughter and Boomer dad while out on the road for over three months - together just about all of the time. They avoided any serious fights, got the job done, developed an increased appreciation for each other as human beings, and operated on the whole as "co-partners."

Generational DefinitionsHere are some quick definitions. Generations are defined by the similar formative influences – social, cultural, political, economic – that existed as the individuals of particular birth cohorts were growing up. Given that premise, the age breakdowns for each of the four generations currently in the workplace are approximately:

Traditionalists born 1925-1942
Baby Boomers born 1943-1962
Generation X born 1963-1978
Generation Y/Millennials born 1979-1998 (under age 30 today)

So the (hard-charging) Boomer, eager both to give free rein to his sense of adventure as well as to bond closer to his daughter, learned to give up some control and to step out of the role of parent.

How do we implement mutual mentoring in a work context, another place where age and experience colors the role behavior? Without wanting to play therapist here, may I throw out the possibility that parent-child type hot buttons may surface in workplace relationships? This magnifies the impact of issues such as an older professional reporting to a younger one",paying your dues" versus solely merit-based recognition, or appropriateness of dress as well as informality of environment.

The first step to better relationships is awareness of the emotions and the sometimes knee-jerk reactions and remarks they produce. Just as dad Jim said",If I allowed myself to think like a father...." On the other hand, old-style mentoring relationships (which took place primarily in all male workplaces) often benefited from a dose of the parent-child devotion. It is likely the latter would work better between Boomers and Gen Y than Boomers and Gen X; however in the former relationship, it is important to develop the attributes of self-sufficiency and independence that many members of Gen Y (to generalize) are lacking.

As a formal process, mutual mentoring is most likely to take root if:

  • It is put in the context of and plays upon professionals' natural desire to keep learning.
  • It is open to and encouraged for everyone - rather than viewed as remedial.
  • Expectations are set, self-evaluations are done, results are publicized, and mentors are recognized in meaningful ways (appropriate to each generation).
  • People are rewarded for their mentoring roles.
  • A mentoring coordinator "gets" the process and has influence with leadership and respect.

So I encourage people of all generations to look at their career lives as an adventure with some risks and opportunities to try new things, getting to know new people with a pre-disposition for offering what you have to share, whether age 20 or 75 or anywhere in between. It will make for stronger firms economically and happier places to work. And then the Boomers can get visible recognition (so valued by them) for their firms being selected as one of "the best places to work" and "employer of choice."

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2009. All rights reserved.
Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm she founded over 20 years ago. A special focus is on the profitability of improving inter-generational relations and transitioning planning for baby boomer senior partners. Haserot is the author of "The Rainmaking Machine" and "The Marketer's Handbook of Tips & Checklists" (both Thomson/West 2008).

See all of the articles in this series.

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