Can Intergenerational Mentorship Solve Your Company's Engagement Problems?

Mentorship isn't a one-way street. And it doesn't happen only from the top down. Learn this and you could see greater employee engagement and less turnover.

What directions does mentorship flow within your organization? From the top down, the bottom up, or both ways?

Among an increasing number of growth-oriented companies, the answer is both ways.

This approach contradicts the tradition that dictates mentorship, both formal and informal, should flow from the top of an organization down. Aaron Perlut, partner at the digital marketing and public relations firm Elasticity, articulates that in a large public relations firm “When you are a junior-level staffer at a large agency, you’re told what to do and how long to do it for, and little input is asked for or appreciated…younger employees should be seen periodically, but never heard from.”

But wedding retail giant David’s Bridal, Mr. Perlut’s public relations firm, and startup media firm Bedrock Business Media are just a few examples of the diverse range of organizations who are breaking tradition and embracing formal and informal mentorship cultures that encourage the flow of support, teaching, and accountability between generations in the workforce: from bottom up as well as the top down.

These organizations report the benefits of this more collaborative approach of intergenerational mentorship include greater employee engagement, less turnover, better cross-functional training, and improved customer service.

And perhaps the best reported benefit? The implementation of generationally collaborative mentorship programs is essentially free.

Increasing Growth Through Intergenerational Mentorship

To subscribers of the “mentor down” approach, it might seem surprising that Charly Rok, VP of public relations for David’s Bridal--which was recently bought by Clayton Dubilier in 2012 for $1.05 billion--sought out a mentor who was almost half her age.

But to Ms. Rok, the idea that she could develop her own skills by tapping into a younger employee’s expertise was an obvious move. “I feel being older I am not as comfortable in the social media space, but feel it is important for my personal and professional growth to embrace it, understand it, and use it…[my mentor Noelle] grew up using social media, so it is second nature to her.”

Shortly after joining David’s Bridal, Ms. Rok approached Noelle Landolt, the company’s online marketing manager, about mentoring her in social media. “When [Noelle] first came to the company we had a very small presence on Facebook of about 15,000 followers…our numbers today are now 743,971 Facebook likes…her track record speaks for itself.”

The intergenerational mentorship relationship Ms. Rok and Ms. Landolt share has been a success, according to Ms. Rok. “Noelle has been instrumental in teaching me…she is patient, kind, and a great teacher. I just wish I had more time to learn!”

But not every executive is as open to generational collaboration as Ms. Rok. And according to Aaron Perlut of Elasticity, that can be a real hindrance to growth. “At my former company we saw two things,” Mr. Perlut notes, “One, the industry was changing and we were not adjusting to it, and two, the hierarchical culture ignored fresh thinking.”

The traditional “mentor down” culture at his old firm helped inspire Mr. Perlut to strike out on his own: his new St. Louis-based firm, which services national brands like H&R Block, Best Buy, Capital One, and BASF, is built on a foundation of generational collaboration.

“We created our business on the idea that we need to be flexible…and listen to ideas from any corner and any person, regardless of seniority.”

Mr. Perlut states that their practice of treating all team members like peers and encouraging cross-generational dialogue wherever possible has led to a range of results: “people want to work here, and once they get here they want to stay--and that is solely tied to the [collaborative and equal] culture we emphasize day-in and day-out…at the same time, our end-product is better for it.”

Implementing an Intergenerational Mentorship Model

700 miles east of Mr. Perlut’s team in St. Louis, Brandon Poole and his team at the Charlotte-based Bedrock Business Media make time to integrate their formal mentorship program into their daily routines.

Mr. Poole, the managing editor at the content-distribution strategy firm, worked with his direct report Romy Ribitzky, manager of content strategy, to develop an intergenerational mentorship plan “that would help our group stay focused, engaged, and ensure that people brought their best work each day.”

Their mentorship program includes pairing staffers up in a “buddy” system where they check in daily, actively critique each other's work, and provide constructive feedback.

Ms. Ribitzky notes that at Bedrock Business Media, “mentorship goes in all directions.” And while both Mr. Poole and Ms. Ribitzky--who serve as each other’s mentorship “buddies”--acknowledge that establishing a formal program takes an investment of time, “when you consider the ROI of having a fulfilled employee who is motivated, buys into the big picture, and knows s/he has a coach on-demand, the time pays for itself.”

So what are the keys to a successfully implemented intergenerational mentorship program? According to Mr. Poole and Ms. Ribitzky they include:

  • Creating mentorship pairs among the staff based on strengths, experience, and professional chemistry--not seniority.
  • Designating leaders to essentially mentor the staff in the mentoring process. Mr. Poole and Ms. Ribitzky help mentorship pairs work effectively together and facilitate development plan drafting.
  • Getting buy-in and support from the top executives. “Our leaders openly support the plan Romy and I put together,” Mr. Poole notes, “aspects of the mentorship model are almost always mentioned when we are charged with tackling new initiatives.”

But the secret to encouraging generational collaboration, formally or informally, is getting the cultural ethos around intergenerational relationships right. “At a company such as ours,” Mr. Poole notes, “it behooves us to have an open dialogue and make sure everyone feels comfortable asking questions…our biggest advocates are the people who work for us.”

[Image: Flickr user William Cho]

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16 Comments

  • Jodee Redmond

    This strategy focuses on abilities, not age. I can see that it would be highly effective. An excellent read.

  • Charles

    is These organizations report the benefits of this more collaborative approach of intergenerational mentorship include greater employee engagement, less turnover, better cross-functional training, and improved customer service.

  • Charles

    So, if "By formulating answers to these five questions, you begin to create a story of what your potential customer is doing and thinking about", and if what you need to sell is also your own story or that of a client's story, then story is really what it's all about, whether it's a story you need to sell, or knowing someone's story that you want to buy from you.

  • Charles

    when you consider the ROI of having a fulfilled employee who is motivated, buys into the big picture, and knows s/he has a coach on-demand, the time pays for itself.”

  • Charles

    But the secret to encouraging generational collaboration, formally or informally, is getting the cultural ethos around intergenerational relationships right. “At a company such as ours,” Mr. Poole notes, “it behooves us to have an open dialogue and make sure everyone feels comfortable asking questions…our biggest advocates are the people who work for us.”

  • Charles

    These organizations report the benefits of this more collaborative approach of intergenerational mentorship include greater employee engagement, less turnover, better cross-functional training, and improved customer service.