You can’t know it all: Mentoring across ages and stages

When most of us picture a mentoring relationship, we tend to imagine a wiser, older counterpart taking a young and impressionable person under their wing, though that’s not always the case.

While interviewing people for an article about getting rid of generational labels in the workplace, I learned that mentoring relationships can come in many different forms and span many unexpected age groups.

I’ve come to agree that “Mentorships can transcend age,” according to Nancy A. Shenker, CEO theONswitch marketing.

Shenker says “No matter what age or stage you are at in your career, you can’t possibly know it all.” For that reason, it’s always helpful to have a trusted but not overly invested third party to try to help you with big picture decisions. “Having an experienced sounding board and Sherpa to guide you through decisions — big and small — can be invaluable” according to Shenker.

She also believes that having one who’s not too close to you is probably your best option. “Friends and family members can be biased, hired contractors may be concerned with their own profits rather than your well-being, but a true mentor is compassionate, empathetic, and balanced in his or her role,” Shenker argues. But what about the age thing? Should you look for someone with more experience or simply different experiences and skill sets?

The modern workspace can be anything from a sleek high-tech corporate setting to your friendly neighborhood Starbucks. It’s also important to realize that mentorship relationships have adapted along with the evolving workplace so that it’s entirely possible that a former stay-at-home-mom who returns to the workplace may be mentored by a tech-savy teen; while a second-career baby boomer might find themselves asking a millennial for help in brushing up on their social media skills.

Shenker, who is a champion of mentoring across different age groups shares an anecdote: “One of my best sources of hiring advice was a former client of mine who was barely 20 but had his own business since he was 16.” Shenker also currently works with a woman about half her age who has “exceptional process management and organizational skills (one of Shenker’s weak areas) and she helps keep me on track.”

Conversely, Shenker also says that her sometimes mentor “is embarking on her own entrepreneurial journey and I mentor her in that area. Co-mentoring across the generations will become more common as each group cultivates unique skills.”

What should you look for in your own mentor? “A successful mentor is honest and balanced. You don’t need a bobble-head mentor who will just agree with your decisions and perspectives, but rather a good questioner and listener,” Shenker says.  In addition, “a great mentor will gently shut down negative thinking and prompt action — and even suggest a protege seek out different types of expert help (resume writing, therapy to overcome personal issues, additional training), if the mentor isn’t qualified to help in those areas.”

More than anything it’s give and take. “A great mentor will make herself available for time-sensitive decision-making. A great mentee/protegee won’t take advantage of his mentor’s time or immediately reject advice…otherwise it’s a big waste of time and effort for everyone, as opposed to a productive coaching relationship,” explains Shenker.

Before searching for your own mentor or mentee consider the following:

  1. Age and Experience: Is it important to you that your mentor be at a specific point in their career or have a certain number of years of experience? Why or why not? Unless you find a connection and comfort zone, you’re unlikely to learn from each other.
  2. Proximity: Do you hope to have semi-regular catch ups over coffee, or is checking in via email or text more convenient? Think outside the box and offer options. Your being a night owl might be the perfect motivation for someone in a different time zone to chat first thing in their morning.
  3. Availability: Can you truly devote an hour or two a week to helping someone move up in their career? If not, consider stepping back from the relationship or volunteering to connect a specific time each month.
  4. Outlook: Check out their social media feeds. Do they spout platitudes, or do they seem to be original thinkers? Are they bitter or optimistic? Try to connect with someone who shares your vision.
  5. Expectations: Like any great relationship, it’s important to communicate. If you feel your mentor isn’t paying enough attention or your mentee takes your advice for granted, you’re probably not a great fit.
  6. Reciprocation: Maybe you’re great at programming but not so great at pitches. Maybe the mentor of your dreams loves talking while in the car, but hates driving. Find ways to show your appreciation for their time, experience, and abilities. Offer to drive someone to their next meeting, or spring for their Lyft, if that’s what it takes to have one on one time together.
  7. Boundaries: While the best mentoring relationships can feel like close friendships, you should always remember to respect agreed upon boundaries. Helping someone with their career doesn’t mean being available 24/7 or for every meltdown.