When Generation Z entered the workforce in 2017, it became the first time in history that there were five different generations employed in the workplace… sometimes even in a single company.
From Traditionalists (born before 1945) and Baby Boomers to generations X, Y (Millennials) and Z (born after 1996), each generation has come to maturity at a specific time in history, bringing with them not only fundamentally different ideas about the “right way” to work, but also vastly different skill sets, and different professional goals and desires.
How can all of these generations best work together and share the wealth of their accumulated knowledge? Because make no mistake, it is not only the older employees who bring valuable work and life experience to the table: the youngest ones – the “digital natives” – bring with them an almost innate understanding of the technologies that have revolutionized the way today’s world does business.
As every member of these five different generations has something precious to offer to all of the others, intergenerational (or cross-generational) mentoring is the answer. “While seasoned executives still have wisdom to share with young talents… modern mentorship is a two-way street”, says Doug Guiley, SVP of West Elm and Williams-Sonoma Inc., who freely admits he often asks his teenage daughter for perspective on his brand.
The time for a mentoring program is now
Because Baby Boomers are retiring in droves, most of them will be gone from the workforce by 2029. “That means they only have 11 years left to share all [their] knowledge and prepare future generations to take over leadership positions within the organization. Mentoring gives them the opportunity to make this happen” writes Vik Kapoor, a member of the Forbes Coaches Council.
Another reason the clock is ticking on setting up a mentoring program is employee dissatisfaction, particularly among Millennials, who often find themselves lacking direction or purpose at work; they’re hungry for learning opportunities but aren’t finding them. The result? They end up leaving in search of greener pastures, taking their precious talents with them.
Tracy Gravesande, Head of Product and Learning at Shirlaws Group (an organization that advises companies on how to grow and fund their businesses), states: “As business owners and leaders today, we’re operating in unchartered territory so it’s important to have a vision, strategy and plan to harness the opportunities and potential presented by a multi-generational workplace… These strategies need to motivate and engage, attract and retain talent, make communication between the generations easy, and in general meet their different personal needs, expectations and desires.”
The steps companies can take to begin
Intergenerational (also called reciprocal) mentoring is defined as pairing a person from one generation with a person from a different generation in order to foster mutual learning and growth. By creating a mentoring program where younger and older generations share their experiences, skills and ways of working, companies can eliminate the skill gaps that exist between generations. Here are a few tips for getting a successful mentorship program started.
Step 1: Define your program’s goals. For example, your particular company’s goal might be to foster innovation on all levels by having younger workers to teach their technological skills to older workers. In return, older employees can share not only their work-related skills but also impart the leadership qualities young people need to succeed – empathy, a strong work ethic, the ability to accept and learn from criticism… You can define your program any way you see fit, but one thing should be clear: all participants must be committed, and everyone’s goals must be aligned.
Step 2: Identify good potential partners. This requires employers to play a matchmaking role, as a productive and rewarding mentoring relationship requires good chemistry between both participants. Complementary partners should have skills or knowledge the other person wants or requires, and both partners should be willing to build a relationship with each other. It’s important to avoid forcing mentoring relationships on people who have no interest in engaging with them.
Step 3: The practical issues. How and where will your mentorship partners meet? For example, younger people may feel more comfortable engaging with others by email or instant messaging, while older colleagues may prefer to speak on the telephone or meet in person. It’s important to take the other person’s communication preferences and needs into consideration.
Step 4: Establish a culture conducive to meaningful mentoring. Valuable mentorship relies on real relationships and a culture that encourages and rewards ongoing learning, collaboration, and innovation. It’s even possible that the best kind of mentoring might be informal and casual: Kevin Baughen, the founder of Bottom Line Ideas, a charity marketing and communications consultancy, believes that intergenerational mentorships work best with less structure. “Being able to talk when an individual’s need drives the conversation seems to result in a more useful relationship,” he says.
By fostering a team mindset of continuous improvement and learning, no matter what form your initiative takes, you’ll reap the greatest benefit of mentoring: the creation of an environment of respect and trust where everyone feels they have the opportunity not only to speak up but also to be heard.