The March 24, 2013 edition of Businessweek contained an article by Marina Khidekel entitled “The Misery of Mentoring Millennials” (Etc. Section). Among the article’s highlights that caught my eye were the following:
“For a new generation of workers, the idea of seeking out a single career confidant is as old-fashioned as a three-martini lunch.”
“According to Jeanne Meister, co-author of The 2020 Workplace, younger workers seem less respectful of more experienced colleagues and don’t feel compelled to follow in the same path as their superiors…..Millennials can be bold and hungry when it comes to getting what they want, Meister says, and today’s new mentorship models are more like Twitter conversations than the long-term relationships of days past”.
“Millennials look for those few to help them reach their goals in as short an amount of time as possible, Meister says”.
“The younger tech-savvy generation sees themselves as better equipped for the ‘new world’ work environment than their experienced senior colleagues, who still do things the old ways, says Susan Adams, a professor of Management at Bentley University”.
Reading these comments set me to thinking about similar articles and comments I have read — and countless conversations I have had over the years — focused on the challenges of managing and mentoring across generations: the Baby Boomers (Born 1946-1964); members of Generation X , aka. “The Busters” (Born 1965-1983); and the generational cohort now referred to as The Millennials, also frequently called “Generation Y” (Born 1984-2002). I have even seen speculation concerning the challenges the upcoming Net Generation will present to organizations in the near future.
Now if you think I am about to say that I believe there is actually little difference between these generations at work, you would be quite wrong. I have worked with Boomers, Xers, and Mellennials and believe me the differences generally ascribed to them are real. Each generation brings to the workplace a different world view, future outlook, attitude toward authority, preferred working style, technological acumen, and set of goals and ambitions profoundly shaped by the world into which they were born and raised. This, in turn, has a profound effect on the management skills and insights required of managers determined to help all their employees reach top performance and achieve professional success.
That is not, however, to say that all members of a given generational cohort are the same. We can only describe generations in general terms, knowing that various individuals will deviate — sometimes greatly — from those generalizations. I and many of my age colleagues for example — tail-enders of the “Silent or Traditional Generation” — were far less conservative, disciplined, trusting of the system and risk-averse than many of our older generational cohorts. Perhaps the 60’s and the Viet Nam war had a lot to do with that. And I can not even begin to speculate how all this plays out for the millions of each generation raised in non-Western cultures.
But for all the differences across generations that we can identify, their remains in my experience a few basic needs — mentoring only one of them — that all aspiring employees of any generation require if they are to succeed professionally in most organizations. How these needs are met will differ: they may be met with the help of managers alone; a series of manager and non-manager partnerships over time; or perhaps by an employee-constructed series of temporary social networks composed of managers, colleagues, peers in other organizations and experienced old-timers. Others may volunteer their services or we arrange things for ourselves. The important thing is that the following basic needs are met.
Need 1: Early ORIENTATION — How a new employee regardless of her or his generational cohort, is — or isn’t — welcomed into an organization and oriented with regard to basic expectations, organizational values and cultural norms, creates an initial and lasting impression that strongly shapes their attitude, work habits and performance. In high performing organizations, management plays a direct and active role in sculpting the features of their orientation process because they recognize its fundamental importance.
Need 2: Time and task-appropriate COACHING — I use the term coaching here to mean the teaching of basic professional skills that an employee does not initially bring to a profession or tasks specific to a particular organization. In my case, I needed to abandon the writing style of an academic, former college professor and learn the more succinct, less wordy style required of a government analyst. A wise and patient editor was my coach and a key contributor to my improved writing and career prospects. Whether a coach finds us or we find them, acquiring profession-specific skills is generally critical to one’s effective performance and advancement.
Need 3: Time and situation-appropriate MENTORING — While coaching involves skill acquisition in my view, mentoring as I use the term relates to the input we receive in situations where we must make important decisions that will shape our careers and advancement. Coaches teach us how to. The best mentors lay out options and choices, then give us the room to make our own important decisions. The best mentors are not interested in replicating themselves. Rather they are keen to ensure that we have sufficient information to make a wise and informed choice. Most successful professionals acquire several mentors during the course of their careers. ( See an earlier article in this series — “A Mentor, Mentoring, Being Mentored” — for more of my thoughts on this topic).
Need 4: Time-appropriate SPONSORSHIP — Finally, no matter how good any of us think we are, none of us generally make it without a sponsor. That is, someone or someones at critical junctures along the way who speak up for us, who personally attest to our skills and quality of performance, and who forcefully urge those in authority to undertake our advancement. In essence we need a sponsor to make a case that would only seem like self-serving, bragging if it came from us. I doubt this has changed much despite the generational shifts that constantly impact the world of work.
When the subject of generational differences arises in my management workshops, it is the above basic needs that I emphasize, stressing that it is management’s responsibility to ensure that they are being met for all employees. Organizations succeed through their employees. Effective management and managers ensure that all their employees have access to — and the latitude to exploit in their own ways — all the requirements for success.