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Talking ’bout my generation


Cross-generational mentoring is a great way of banking those essential skills that could be lost over time, says Gaby Marcon.

For decades we have known about the importance of mentoring in developing people. Yet few organisations have successfully leveraged it as part of their HR and training strategy in a way that aligns it with company objectives and supports organisational and individual development, and few organisations have used mentoring to engage multiple generations within their workforce. 

Skills banking for the future

This is surprising considering the cost effectiveness of mentoring in dealing with the development of talent and skills. Companies must train and grow staff and this is a cost. Often they see their investment move on, well before the investment returns are gained. What better investment is there than one that supports both skills and loyalty growth! When mentoring is seen as a talent strategy, one that allows staff to see continuous growth and learning opportunities and when this is made personal, then not only do we see talent growing but loyalty too.  
"Cross Generational mentoring can work in all industries: generation Y can help a baby boomer learn about social networking or a senior executive can pass on leadership tips to a promising young employee."
This, however, requires a culture of learning and a very flexible structure; a culture more creative than regimented. In some organisations, such as IBM, this has been happening for decades. IBM certainly knows a thing or two about mentoring as a means to pass on knowledge, not only between generations but in all directions through their global community.  What IBM has done is to leverage the very spirit of mentoring. Mentoring taps into a basic instinct that most people share, i.e. the desire to pass on their learning, knowledge and understanding to others.
This does not happen exclusively from more experienced, older generations to younger generations, but also the other way round. In the western world, the workforce now spans across four generations, each has been shaped by the events of their formative years and each has brought new ideas and new beliefs about work and life. Sometimes the results of historical and technological events have brought them together and sometimes they have pulled them apart in a continuous tension.

Getting to the heart of the matter

Invariably, each of these generations has brought about and forced change. Although generational gaps seem to be natural, many companies are unaware of how damaging generational conflicts can be and how to work to bridge them. I suggest that Cross Generational mentoring, particularly reverse mentoring, could be one of the most constructive ways of resolving the differences and of curbing the damage. This is because Cross Generational mentoring is a very fast way of improving relationships between generations and for them to learn from each other. Indeed, there is a great deal that needs to be understood about the values, perspectives and priorities of each generation, what drives them and motivates them, so that common ground can be found and the best can be made out of generational differences.
But how can a mentoring relationship where the mentor is substantially younger than his or her mentee flourish and help both the individuals and the organisation? And what exactly is the topic of their relationship? It may be argued that Cross Generational mentoring may work better in those work environments, such as IBM’s, where technology is essential to their activities. However, Cross Generational mentoring can work in all industries. These days it should not matter whether it is a generation Y helping a baby boomer learn about intranet, extranet or how to use social networking more effectively, or a senior executive passing on leadership tips to a promising young employee.
Learning in the 21st century is becoming much more informal and will require people to become competent in creating the conditions for this to occur.

What Gen Y can teach us

Take generation Y for instance, the workforce belonging to this generation demands a much faster pace and more independent thinking; it also wants to have more learning and growth opportunities and would like their employers to appreciate them in a way that previous generations perhaps have always desired, but have never had the confidence or faith in their own beliefs to demand. Generation Y has plenty to offer the hard working baby boomers and the generation X. It is highly rewarding for them to see their skills, insights and capabilities being valued. Neither generation Y nor X like to be micromanaged, appreciating instead the opportunity to demonstrate their particular set of skills.
"Cross Generational mentoring recognises the individuality that each person brings to work, engages employees of all ages to maximise their performance, galvanises people and breeds innovation."
At the same time, it is refreshing for ‘old dogs’ to learn ‘new tricks’. For both the baby boomers and the silent generation, it is vital that they share their vast knowledge and also learn new things.   ‘Baby boomers’ have ruled the workplaces for a long time and feel very comfortable where they are. Many conflicts within organisations seem to happen between boomers, managers and younger employees who do not fit in with the culture that baby boomers, competitive and focused on personal accomplishments, have created for themselves. What better way of challenging their position and rejuvenating their interest than pairing them up with younger professionals? The effect may well be one of retaining them and also solving current challenges more creatively. 

The mentoring relationship

As for the topic of their relationship, it can literally be anything. It depends very much upon what the mentor has knowledge of and the mentee has not. As with any mentoring relationship, there are guidelines to follow in order to achieve best results. The three most important things to bear in mind are to have well defined objectives, to dedicate the necessary time to the relationship and to have clear expectations. As long as these principles are satisfied, the relationship should be a clear win-win relationship where the mentee learns new skills or has access to information he/she would not otherwise be able to obtain and where the mentor really has no interest in a power relationship but in getting genuine fulfilment from engaging with an older professional.  The mentee is thus given a direct line to someone who is willing to share insights, which generation X and Y value, and the mentee can demonstrate a particular set of skills they have not yet developed.
However, the only way for Cross Generational mentoring to work within organisations is for the organisational construct to change - the era and the likes of Fast Company documented the last shift – what will be the next shift and how prepared are organisations to face the next generational challenge? Cross Generational mentoring could be a way to best recognise the individuality that each person brings to work, engage employees of all ages to maximize their performance and at the same time galvanizing people and breeding innovative magic!

Download the ‘Ten top tips for a successful mentoring programme’ free and be in with a chance of winning one of 3 free places at Shine People and Place's: ‘How to design and implement a successful mentoring programme’ workshop. Each place is worth £349.

Gaby Marcon is the director of Shine People&Places, talent management and mentoring specialist. Gaby is a qualified coach/mentor and an associate of the OxfordSchool of Coaching & Mentoring.  She is author of “The Mentoring Toolkit”, a practical and comprehensive guide to running successful mentoring programmes and contributes regularly to trade magazines both online and offline.

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