Mentoring a New Generation: Challenges and Opportunities

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Every year, January is recognized as mentoring month in the US. Quebec took notice. This year, the province joined its US neighbours to celebrate mentoring during the first month of the year. To mark the occasion, I hosted a “Mentoring New Generations” roundtable when attending the Cannexus Career Development Conference in Ottawa on January 29, 2019. I took the opportunity to share my mentoring vision and articulate the ways I want the practice to evolve with a new generation and their main challenges. 

Without question, the last few years have seen a surge in mentoring within workplaces, educational institutions, professional associations, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Additionally, mentoring experiences are changing— particularly because of digital innovations as well as a new generation entering the workforce.

Mentoring, like the labour market, is changing

More and more millennials transition into the workplace via mentoring. In fact, 79% of Millennials see mentoring as crucial to their professional success. In recent years, however, many experts and long-time mentoring practitioners have recommended softening the rigid framework that defines many mentoring programs. Traditional programs are coordinated in a way that makes it difficult to match more than 30 mentors and mentees per year.

In a recent report, Insala points out that “Millennials prefer less traditional means to meet their very specific needs and desires. These frameworks embrace a more egalitarian form of mentoring—one where traditional roles are less rigidly defined and where the setting is faster paced and much less formal.” It is crucial to consider the needs and desires of a generation that, according to Deloitte, will occupy 75% of the workforce by 2025.

A roundtable discussion of mentoring realities in 2019

Are traditional mentoring methods viable for a generation that stays connected, moves faster, and expects continuous feedback? This was the central question driving the roundtable, which consisted of a mix of 10 mentors, mentees, and program coordinators.

9 people are sitting around two round tables, discussing mentoring benefits and mentoring challenges.

From the onset, all participants acknowledged the importance of understanding the roles of mentors and mentees. They also emphasized the need to manage mentoring expectations, which include response times, frequency of meetings, and mentor-mentee boundaries (among a few other factors). Expectations also differ between mentors and mentees. When training participants of a mentoring program, it’s worth considering that mentees tend to have more “balanced” relationship expectations than mentors. Finally, participants also discussed how to connect and maintain relationships in a way that bridges generational gaps. Among other things, they pointed to social media as a tool that tones down hierarchies and makes exchanges more informal, even when they’re between strangers. 

Next, several questions about the table’s experiences with mentoring programs were posed. A millennial mentee was quick to point out that he prefers having two or three mentors guiding him. He expressed how it’s difficult for a single professional to address his various needs. However, the program in which he participates only permits one mentor relationship at a time. He, therefore, sought out two additional mentors informally.

Main points discussed

On the other end of the spectrum, a mentor pointed out her mentee’s frustrations with her program’s procedures, slow pace, and administrative red tape. Millennials want things to move fast and fluid. This mentor stressed how crucial it is to keep mentees motivated and autonomous.

Concerning corporate mentoring, one participant mentioned that in-house partnerships are often received poorly by young workers due to a perceived lack of mentor objectivity. Mentees can easily sniff out conflicts of interest. What they want and what the company wants are not always the same thing.

One mentor discussed her reverse mentorship, which is when the individual taking on the role of the mentor is younger than the mentee. She spoke highly of the experience. The rest of the group welcomed the idea of broadening their managerial skills as well as embracing new technologies.

Ways to make mentoring accessible to a new generation (and, in turn, everyone!)

  • Ensure the program offers numerous mentoring approaches so that various needs are met (e.g., one-on-one mentoring, group mentoring, duration flexibility, informal mentoring, structured mentoring, etc.). It’s also important for the program to distinguish the mentoring process from other kinds of partnerships such as coaching, supervising, and tutoring.
  • Optimize the time mentees spend engaged with the program. Leverage simplified registration processes, easy matchmaking tools, and flexible training so that your mentee’s needs are responded to quickly and efficiently.
  • Promote reverse mentoring. Your program should invite people to participate as both mentor and mentee. Everyone has something to learn and share!
  • Leverage new technology that simplifies the management of your program and helps mentoring frameworks adapt to a younger generation.
  • Businesses should not limit themselves to mentors strictly from within their organization.
  • Make your program democratic and give participants greater autonomy. Offer everyone mentoring opportunities—not just high-potential individuals. Give all participants matching autonomy. Let them determine the pace of their meetings, their method of communication, and the duration of their mentor-mentee relationships.

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