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Why You Should Look To Your Junior Staff As Mentors

Be open to learning from younger, less experienced colleagues. Their perspective and experiences can sharpen your leadership skills.

Why You Should Look To Your Junior Staff As Mentors
[Photo: Flickr user Eric Behrens]

Continual learning is an integral part of every position in business. But too often, senior employees feel as if they have nothing else to learn, or that no one is left to teach them since they have less people in their office to look up to.

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In a 1988 interview, science fiction author Isaac Asimov said: “That’s another trouble with education as we now have it. People think of education as something that they can finish. And what’s more, when they finish, it’s a rite of passage. You’re finished with school. You’re no more a child, and therefore anything that reminds you of school–reading books, having ideas, asking questions–that’s kid stuff. Now you’re an adult, you don’t do that sort of thing anymore.”

Asimov was correct. Senior employees and managers need to keep expanding their knowledge base as much as everyone else, but they don’t need someone more senior to help them do it. Now is the time to flip the script, and look to your junior staff for mentorship.

There is something different to take away from a junior staff member, compared with someone of equal or senior to your status in the company. Spending time in the trenches with those heavily involved on a day-to-day basis can teach you a great deal, and help you evolve as a leader. The perspective you’ll gain will allow you to take a deeper look at yourself as a manager, and how your employees work every day.

When it comes down to someone in a higher position who is eager to learn, junior employees can often be the better teachers. Here’s why:

  • They can rejuvenate your skills
  • They help you build relationships
  • They give you a unique perspective into your team’s day to day

When you’re in a higher position, a lot of you time is spent in meetings, planning, and communicating with your colleagues via phone or email. Since the majority of your time is occupied, there is a lot less time spent using your hard skills.

However, junior employees are staying on top of these skills, and are also developing new ones as the industry continues to evolve. It’s extremely beneficial for senior staff to look to these junior employees as mentors to learn and understand these skills that have become building blocks for their business. Keeping yourself updated on the required skills of your business is important in how you plan and carry yourself.

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A Mutually Beneficial Mentoring Relationship

Establishing and building relationships with your junior staff will also help you understand how the team works as a whole. As a senior employee it often becomes difficult to be involved with your junior staff, as you are essentially a ship on top of the water. Your attention is mostly brought to your junior staff when there are storms and waves because you don’t realize what goes on below sea level. Looking to junior employees as mentors helps you stay current with what’s going on above and below water; therefore helping you better address your responsibilities on both sides–an important aspect of a senior employee’s role.

Spending time with your junior employees can also improve your department as a whole. You will begin to understand better what tasks are completed, and how they are done. You will also see the dynamics among your teams.

By picking the correct junior staff, you’ll learn what works, and what doesn’t. With that knowledge you will be able to multiply what does work, and scale it for the entire team. What I like to do is stay close with one person in each area because it’s extremely helpful to have those conversations and learn from them, and have them get excited to teach you something.

Not only are you benefiting from this relationship with juniors; they are benefiting as well. You’re learning from each other, and juniors are seeing you execute an idea or plan you learned from them on a higher scale. This shows them that their jobs are important to the entire team, and it will give them confidence that their contribution to the team is valuable to the entire department.

It doesn’t have to be formal. You don’t have to set up official meetings, or create a mentorship program, or even let your employees in on what you’re doing. I like to keep things casual. I’ll ask one of my junior staff members to jump in a room for 10-15 minutes. Or I’ll informally reach out to them to see what they’re working on, and how things are going.

There also doesn’t have to be any sort of official selection process–you can seek mentorship with multiple junior employees. I look for people who are hungry and passionate. Even though they are not in a high position, they are leading teams without any direct authority from me. If they’re passionate, and they constantly try to do better, then they have something valuable to share with others.

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James Kenigsberg (@JamesKenigsberg) is the chief technology officer and a founding team member at 2U (@2UInc), an edtech company that partners with universities to offer online degree programs.

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