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How Mutual Mentorship Can Change Your Career

Mentoring younger colleagues can benefit both sides. Here’s how to get the most out of your mentor-mentee relationship.

How Mutual Mentorship Can Change Your Career
[Chain of paper people: Alex James Bramwell via Shutterstock]

A 2012 Dimensional Research survey revealed that mentorship was the number one request by millennials worldwide, with 42% requesting help finding a mentor. In my discussions with more than 100 millennials across the United States, mentorship came up eight out of ten times, right behind access to senior management. “Young people want to be mentored,” says Jennifer, 27. “All of my friends have mentors and we share what our mentors share with us with each other.”

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Mentorship is obviously not a new phenomenon, but what today’s young mentees want out of their mentor relationship has shifted a bit. Mentees still want mentors to open doors and give guidance and advice, as Caitlin the 28-year-old from Seattle notes, but they don’t necessarily want to follow in their mentor’s shoes. “I asked one of my mentors how I could avoid having to work like he does. He was a bit surprised with the question. But I don’t want to be him. I want to understand what he has had to do so I can figure out what path I should take that is not his,” shared Caitlin.

Carol, 54, echoes the sentiment from the other side of the desk. “I mentor a couple of younger people at work but neither wants to have my job. They want me to help them–they are eager and willing to listen–but they don’t want to work the way my job and life demands.”

My Own Experience: Shift From Mother To Daughter

In the mid-1970s my mother, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brown University (then Pembroke), sat at our kitchen table for months, learning how to type so she could go to business school. It took months, because the self-help book could only be paid attention to in between managing the house, caring for her three very different daughters with very different interests, taking on leadership roles at our school’s PTA and our church, walking the dogs (because the kids were too busy), oh, and doing that wife thing.

She graduated from the first Simmons (all women) MBA program at age 41 as Salutatorian and embarked on a successful banking career. Once she had her first job, she consistently drilled into my head that finding male mentors who would help “break down the walls” for women was key to women having “meaningful careers in business, like men.” The prevailing notion was that male mentors would help my mother and other working women rise to get the same jobs–and the same conditions–that men had. That was in 1976, and clearly we still have a long way to go on that gender equality thing.

On one hand, mentors are not to be confused with parents–particularly parents who are overly involved in their children’s careers. On the other hand, some young mentees have a hard time distinguishing between the kind of support a parent could give (or really should not give) and the type of support an older mentor can and should give. It’s up to the mentor to course correct the relationship if it strays into parenting.

Mentors need to be supportive, and it’s important to set expectations and boundaries so that they can provide a constructive, professionally helpful relationship without allowing the dynamic to slip into that of a parental relationship. “I’ve seen a shift in how some of the younger workers approach me as a mentor in the last few years,” says Anne, 48, who has regularly mentored younger colleagues over the last 15 years. “I’ve had to redirect some of my more recent mentees to approach me in my role as their mentor with more structure and less like a parent.”

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We can’t underestimate the mutual benefits of a constructive mentor-mentee relationship for both parties. For mentors, the satisfaction of helping someone else achieve her goals is undeniable. And what’s not good about the karma mentors are putting into the universe by paying it forward or paying back the time their mentors invested in them?

At the same time, mentoring younger colleagues provides a window into the mind-set, challenges, pressures, and lifestyle of the younger workforce, allowing us to better understand them. And, importantly, mentoring provides an instant tap into a mentee’s network of friends and peers, which we might need to find future junior employees, particularly for smaller organizations that do not have a robust recruiting function in-house.

Most of us will need younger connections in the next 10 to 15 years to keep us relevant. And who knows, we might be counting on them for a referral, or even hiring us, in the future. With so much emphasis being placed on the quality of the team and the access to senior people by job-searching millennials, having a leg up with a peer endorsement goes a long way in recruiting efficiently and well.

Mutual Mentorship

Boomers and Gen Xers can also ask millennials to be their mentors on specific topics. If you continue to be flummoxed by Instagram or Pinterest, or don’t know how to use Facebook or blog comments to your advantage, consider having a millennial colleague or acquaintance mentor you for a month or two.

Ask your mentee what she reads regularly, and read those blogs and newsfeeds to get a good sense of the information and sources that are informing your younger colleagues’ points of view. Copy their Pulse or FlipBook feeds and page through daily for a month or two–your frame of reference will expand and you will have better insight into how millennials think.

You will learn a lot and, assuming you do it well, you will be setting a great example of how millennials should conduct their own mentoring relationships.

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Excerpted with permission from Millennials & Management: The Essential Guide to Making it Work at Work by Lee Caraher (Bibliomotion, 2014).

Lee Caraher is an acclaimed communication strategist known for her practical solutions to big problems. She is the founder and CEO of Double Forte public relations firm.

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