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When Ann Tardy was a young employee of a large accounting firm, she wrote a memo to a senior executive identifying shortcomings she identified in the firm’s workplace culture and offering ideas for how to address them. In response, the executive established standing, one-on-one meetings with Tardy to pick her brain and discuss her ideas. Some of her suggestions were implemented.

The executive easily could have dismissed Tardy’s memo as the work of a naive neophyte, but instead he saw the value in a different perspective unique to a younger generation. The result was not only improvements to the workplace but the accelerated development of a talented young worker and her strengthened engagement with the company. The partnership was not a formal mentorship, but it ultimately served as a type of cross-generational mentorship that worked in both directions: Tardy learned from the executive and the executive learned from her.

“I was never going to miss those appointments, and neither was he,” said Tardy, who is now CEO of LifeMoxie, which helps organizations develop and manage strategic mentoring programs with custom mentoring software and consulting services. “We treated them as important because they were important.”

Cross-generational mentorship emphasizes pairing a member of one generation with someone from a different generation. Typically, this means arranging for longer-tenured executives to offer guidance and advice to more junior employees from a position of authority. While cross-generational mentoring can encompass that standard relationship, some experts such as Tardy tout forms of cross-generational mentorships that allow younger workers to offer their perspectives and guidance to their more senior colleagues—and for those senior colleagues to listen and learn from them. 

Mentorships are prevalent in corporate America. Seventy percent of Fortune 500 companies have a mentorship program, according to the Association for Talent Diversity. However, forms of cross-generational mentoring that emphasize the younger generation’s insight are still rarely found in workplaces, Tardy said.

“Traditional mentoring is so ingrained in people’s minds that they don’t really even consider that is an option,” Tardy said. “But it offers so many benefits and I really wish that we would do more of it. So often it’s got to be the tenured senior individual who is mentoring a member of a younger generation. If people would just realize how much is offered in the opposite direction as well, then they would place more importance on it.”

In general, Rebekah Kowalski, vice president of ManpowerGroup’s global strategic workforce consulting practice, said cross-generational mentoring offers numerous advantages that organizations, including senior living providers, should consider. She said mentoring is a particularly useful tool for industries that are confronting an aging leadership demographic and looking to improve their pipeline of young, up-and-coming talent.

“I think this is a great time to be having this discussion in the senior living industry,” Kowalski said.

Sharing knowledge and bridging generations

Cross-generational mentoring starts with an understanding that generations differ from each other in their strengths, preferences, working styles, and ways of thinking, and it serves to make those differences an advantage rather than detriment in the workplace, in part by creating an opportunity for members of those different generations to share their knowledge with each other.

A firmer grip on new technology is often cited as the chief skill that younger workers have to offer more senior workers in mentoring situations, but Tardy said that amounts to an oversimplification that shortchanges the value of the junior employees. Younger workers are digital natives and often can help their more senior counterparts understand not only technology’s capabilities but its potential impact, but Tardy said they can offer important viewpoints in myriad other ways, too.

Younger workers can offer truly valuable insights that a senior executive can benefit from,” Tardy said. “In fact, senior executives could make some really course-changing decisions for an organization because they took the time to listen to someone younger in this setting. We look at problems all the time and think that we’ve got the solutions, but sometimes we really need new ideas and new perspectives.”

Meanwhile, just as younger workers are often reduced to their knowledge of technology, more senior workers frequently are viewed as long past finished with learning. However, Sylvia Benatti, associate professor in the School of Business and Public Administration at the University of the District of Columbia, said her research with Annabelle Reitman has demonstrated that older workers remain hungry to learn as a group. Consequently, many older workers grow weary of only being asked for advice and guidance, she said, while struggling to find opportunities to grow and expand their base of knowledge. A cross-generational mentorship that encourages a junior worker to bring their own knowledge to the relationship can invigorate their more senior colleagues.

“You want to give them opportunities to keep learning and being mentored by a younger worker is a great way to do it,” Benatti said.

Kowalski said efforts such as cross-generational mentorships that serve to bridge the generational divide and help workers of different age demographics erase their misconceptions and find a better understanding of each other “is hugely helpful.”

“Quite frankly we all could have a bit more age diversity in our networks,” Kowalski said. “It would do us all some good.”

Improving interpersonal skills—and the customer experience

When workers of different generations connect in a mentoring relationship, the result is a “sharpening” of their ability to relate to other people, Kowalski said.

What we see is a honing of interpersonal skills, in both directions, so that millennials may learn to soften the edges of their communication style and traditionalists or boomers may learn to offer more encouraging perspectives, rather than something that’s more critical,” Kowalski said. “That kind of development is a great thing.”

Kowalski said those improvements in interpersonal skills can have wide-ranging impacts on an organization. For instance, in senior living, Kowalski said, it can better train public-facing staff to interact with not only the older residents of their communities but with the families that visit them.

“There’s a real need to mimic what you’re experiencing with your consumer base rather just within your own organization,” Kowalski said. “We get so bound up in the day to day of our businesses that we don’t realize we’re doing business with actual people—people from many different backgrounds—and when we train each other across generations we gain more empathy and understanding for other people and that has a ripple-in-the-pond impact on our organizations and the people we do business with.”

Ensuring two-way learning

Amanda Cavaleri, founder and CEO of Connect the Ages, which strives to connect students and young professionals to multidisciplinary career, internship and volunteer opportunities with older generations, points out that an important element of mentoring relationships is the learning the mentor receives from the experience. For instance, she once had a younger employee she mentored informally. The employee was interested in new technology, so Cavaleri took her to conferences and gave her opportunities to practice and learn in that realm. This boosted the employee’s career. Meanwhile, though, the employee was helping Cavaleri.

“She taught me so much,” Cavaleri said. “She was very connected emotionally and I was getting burned out, and she helped bring me back to the ‘why’ of why I was doing this work, which is probably the most important thing she could have done. I couldn’t do anything for her that was that valuable. I think when you’re a mentor it helps keep you connected to the ‘why’ of why you’re doing something. Your purpose of being in this space. That’s good for you, your staff, and your business.”

A system of mutual mentoring formalizes that two-way learning and makes it an explicit objective. There is no mentor or mentee—both partners serve each role. Benatti and Reitman co-authored a book, “Creating a Mentoring Program: Mentoring Partnerships Across the Generations,” which details the benefits of that type of program and offers templates for implementing such a program in an organization. One of the advantages of a mutual cross-generational mentorship is that it removes the potential strain or resentment of someone being uncomfortable with their role, Benatti said.

Another form of cross-generational mentoring that departs from traditional mentoring is reverse mentoring, which is when the younger worker assumes the mentor role and the senior executive serves as the mentee. Tardy said senior executives who are mentored by younger workers worry beforehand about how passive they are expected to be.

“Sometimes, they wonder, ‘Well, do I get to say anything?’” Tardy said. “And the answer is: of course. The whole thing evolves into an opportunity for giving advice, too. It’s a conversation.”

An attractive carrot for younger workers

In Deloitte’s 2016 survey of millennials, 63 percent of respondents said their leadership skills were not being fully developed and 71 percent of those who said they planned to leave their jobs in the next two years pointed to that shortcoming as the chief reason for looking to depart. Placing those younger workers in a mentorship position can help address those feelings. According to a 2013 Journal of Vocational Behavior article, workers in mentorship roles are more committed to their jobs and their organizations, enjoy greater job satisfaction, and have more career success.

Tardy said that cross-generational mentoring, in particular, holds great appeal for younger workers because it engages them directly and connects them to the mission of an organization. Cross-generational mentoring gives younger workers a chance to share their perspective, gain access to senior leaders, and help shape the business while they remain lower on the organizational ladder.

“What younger workers like millennials want right now more than anything is a job that matters,” Tardy said. “They want to make a difference in their work.”

Benatti said placing younger workers in mentorships in which they have a voice, such as a mutual mentorship, shows above else that organizations consider their insight to be important.

“The beauty of this kind of program is that we’re acknowledging that our twentysomethings do have new ideas, do have things to bring to the table, and do have things that we can learn from,” Benatti said. “What often happens is they get very frustrated because their organizations act as though they don’t know anything yet and can’t contribute. This tells them the opposite.”

Keys to implementation

Benatti said organizations must demonstrate their dedication to a mentorship program of any kind with manpower. That means devoting staff hours to oversight of the mentorship program to ensure that it works, and that participants maintain steady contact with each other. Participants cannot be simply set loose—they need suggested topics and questions, worksheets, meeting schedules, and other guidance, Benatti said.

“An organization needs to show a commitment to running this program because it’s not going to work on its own,” Benatti said. “Maybe for a few people, a few diehards, but not for the program as a whole.”

Cavaleri believes that guidelines and suggestions for mentorships are critical. “You don’t want to provide too much structure, though, or it starts to become a burden,” she said. She said the balance between being committed and allowing for freedom ultimately is about an organization conveying both seriousness and trust to its workers.

“If you’re doing this because it’s forced and you have to or you don’t really follow through, then you might do more harm than good,” Cavaleri said. “It needs to be a genuine, purposeful experience for everyone.”

Tardy said the purpose of a mentoring program must be clear and established before implementation begins. Having defined goals both as an organization and individuals, she said, is “the crux of mentoring.”

“Those clients of mine who have launched [a cross-generational mentoring program] and been successful have made the case for the benefits of the program not only to senior executives but to other generations, too,” she said. “They’ve made a case for it and made it very clear that it could make a difference for them as individuals and for their organization.”

Kowalski said workers tend to crave and appreciate that guidance.

“When they’re in these programs, people want to know what they need to do to be successful,” she said. “All we have to do is create that for them.”


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