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Why you need a mentor who’s younger than you

The founder of keepwith details why it’s worth defying conventional wisdom about mentor/mentee relationships.

Why you need a mentor who’s younger than you
[Photo: jacoblund/iStock]

A widely held misconception about mentor/mentee pairs is that the mentor must be older than the mentee. To identify the most possible prospective mentors in your network, you need to think beyond people who are older than you and consider your peers and those who are younger.

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A mentor, at its very essence, is an adviser. We have several types of advisers in our lives (our accountants, our attorneys, our friends). When you think about the people in your network whose opinions and insights you value the most, you are thinking about people who could play the part of a mentor. By taking the step of considering advisers who are younger than you as prospective mentors, you cast the net wider to identify the most appropriate ones.

Identifying and cultivating a mentorship relationship can be difficult

Take stock of the people in your life. Ask yourself who would be an appropriate mentor for you or for whom you would be an appropriate mentor. Be open and welcoming to mentor and mentee relationships in all facets of your life because you don’t necessarily need to find your mentor or mentee at work.

There are many formal mentorship programs that foster valuable relationships such as the Women’s Foundation of Hong Kong’s Mentoring Program for Women Leaders or The Executives’ Club of Chicago’s Leadership Circle. Yet organic, informal mentorships form all the time and can be the most valuable. Let mentorship relationships evolve naturally. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) formally ask someone “Will you be my mentor?”

Be open to meeting a mentor anywhere and in any context. Ignore misconceptions about mentorship:

  • The mentor is older and mentee is younger
  • You must meet a mentor in an office or for coffee
  • You should only have one mentor
  • You have to ask someone to be your mentor
  • You no longer need a mentor if you are a seasoned professional with decades of work experience

Be open-minded about the definitions of “mentor” and “mentee”

Mentor/mentee relationships can shift over time. For example, I was introduced to Kelly McNamara Corley, former executive vice president and general counsel at Discover Financial Services and current start-up founder, many years ago by a trusted member of our networks. I have always considered Kelly–someone who happens to be older than me and who has decades more professional experience than I have–to be one of my mentors. Last summer, Kelly contacted me with some questions about how I had tackled certain practical business questions and wanted to meet with me about how I had started my company.

More recently, Kelly and I attended an impactful dinner hosted by a good friend/mentor/client of mine, Kristen Prinz, principal of The Prinz Law Firm. As we all went around the table and introduced ourselves, Kelly described me as her mentor and said that my entrepreneurial journey inspired her to start her own company. Given who Kelly is, how well she is known and how many years more of professional experience she has than I do, I was surprised, humbled, and honored that she chose to call me her mentor.

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At a women’s conference in Tokyo last year, the CEO of a global insurance company’s Japanese business gave another example of a mentorship pair with a younger mentor. He shared with the audience that he has a mentor at a search engine tech giant who is decades younger than he is and that as a CEO, he appreciates the value resulting from this relationship.

Mentorship pairs with younger mentors are far more meaningful and substantive than merely an opportunity to learn the latest technology. A Forbes article highlighted how companies like Pershing, Target, Cisco, UnitedHealthcare, and Fidelity implemented reverse mentorship programs, which have proven positive for mentors and mentees while enhancing corporate culture and key business imperatives like millennial retention.

Acknowledge that mentorship is reciprocal

As we all consider that mentors and mentees may be older than us, younger than we are, or the same age, it is critical to remember that mentorship relationships are reciprocal. I have a friend (she now requests that I call her a friend and not a mentor) who is older than me and for whom at times, I have served as a mentor while at other times, I have played the role of mentee.

Last year, I wanted to speak in Asia, and since she lives in Tokyo, she helped make it happen. When she visited Chicago a few years ago, I arranged strategic introductions and for her to speak at the University of Chicago Law School. Regardless of whether we call each other mentor or mentee, there are times in our mentoring relationship at which we each play both roles.

Make it happen for you and your team

Identify mentors who are younger than you or the same age by thinking about the people you know who offer the most thoughtful advice, or make the soundest decisions, or are the strongest communicators. To narrow the field, consider the purpose of the relationship. Are you in need of someone to advise you on career matters? Industry matters? Parenting?

Implement a reverse mentoring initiative at your organization to encourage nontraditional generational mentoring relationships. These initiatives are a way to solve prominent cross-cultural dynamics within organizations.

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Encourage your teams to build and maintain mentoring relationships that buck conventional thinking that mentors must be older and more experienced. Do this by creating cross-generational project teams, providing opportunities for your more junior team members to demonstrate their leadership strengths to audiences comprised of more senior members of your team, and by fostering meaningful networking introductions.

Defying conventional wisdom about mentorship is as important a step as any in strategic relationship building. It is critical that we acknowledge the essential role that mentors play in all stages of our journeys, that we are open-minded about whom we consider our mentors and mentees, and that we focus more on the quality of the insights and the relationship’s potential than on our mentors’ age.


Megan Burke Roudebush is the founder of keepwith and teaches people how to network.

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