Go Young Or Go Home

Ed Baldwin Communication, Generations, Influence

When most people think about mentoring programs they think about an old school traditionalist attempting to talk a little real world sense into a millennial with lofty, impractical albeit creative ideas.  A gray haired fifty-something in business dress offering school of hard knocks knowledge transfer to a t-shirt clad tattooed twenty-something who considers the information being provided by his mentor to be about as relevant to him as the Roman history class he took his last semester of college. But that’s the traditional approach to mentoring. And in most places this kind of mentoring just doesn’t work. It’s too big of a generational chasm to bridge.

I would offer a different approach to mentoring – one that surely will add a little pizazz to the formula for success.  I’ll call it “Cooperative Mentoring”,  for lack of a better term.

Several years ago I sought out one of the senior leaders of the company I worked for and asked him to invest a few hours each month mentoring me.  His reply surprised me, “If you really want a valuable mentor you should find someone 10 years your younger and ask them to mentor you.”

I thought to myself what could I possibly learn from a recent college graduate.  After all, I was nearly 15 years into my HR career and believed I was well on my way to leading and managing an HR team of my own. Well, the mentor I selected (a college recruiter who worked on the team) introduced me to not only what recent college graduates really wanted in a first job, but also talked with me about the latest technology trends.  We quickly were engaging in regular formal and informal discussions about the merits of various company recruitment strategies, the viability of various technology tools becoming mainstream in the industry, and other really pertinent info that was extremely helpful in crafting success in my fledgling HR Director role.  It was one of the most valuable mentoring experiences of my career and it came from the most unsuspecting place.

My mentor in turn got a closer and more realistic view of what senior leaders really talk about in the board room, what the business valued in HR and the recruitment team, and what we considered to be just a bunch of techy mumbo-jumbo.  He seemed to really appreciate the broader view of the business and exposure and understanding to how what he did fit into that picture.  And while I’m more confident expressing my opinion on this mentoring twist than his, I’m fairly certain that the relationship was as meaningful and important to his development as it was to mine.

So three quick tips for trial running this type of mentoring offer in your organization:

  1. Start Small – Don’t bet the farm on this concept but carve out a small portion of your existing L&OD budget and try it on for size.  Starting too big too quickly will only heighten risks and raise expectations.
  2. Keep it Informal – Don’t burden this process with forms, reports and paper.  My experience tells me the best mentor programs are ones that develop organically.  Encouragement from HR is nice, but that’s enough. You don’t need the paper to support the positive impact of the program if the program participants are singing the praises of the positive impact they have derived from the connections.
  3. Pick the Right Starters – You’ll need a motivated senior level executive and an interpersonally savvy up-and-comer. And the two have to have chemistry and respect for each other.  If you select the right pair, the success will write itself.  If you select wrong – everything you do probably won’t keep the program from flat lining.

So give it a try.  Whether you end up adapting your formal mentoring program to create a route for this reverse mentoring, or whether you just try it yourself out of curiosity, I’m confident you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.