Monday, April 15, 2013

Of Millennials and mentorship

A recent online article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek related the differences in mentoring the Millennial generation. The article stated some familiar yawn-inducing ground (the younger generation uses multiple mentors to get ahead instead of sticking with one main person with whom to connect) and brought up some new problems for the mentor-mentee relationship (the mentee is better at certain tasks, especially those pertaining to technology, than the mentor, and all the mentor's clients want to work with the mentee instead). It was a decent article, to be fair, but like many articles about generational differences, it makes me want to barf in my recycling bin.

When I discussed mentoring interns at the 2010 and 2011 national AIA conventions, one of the primary points of my presentation is that, while generation can affect a person's behavior more than race or gender, it is one's humanity that affects one most of all. Mentors in this article who felt irritated by a mentee's behavior in a meeting or calling or texting them late at night regarding routine questions seemed to  be complaining that it was the mentee's youth that made this a problem.  I dare say the root of the problem is a basic one that plagues even my colleagues from my same generation (Gen X, to be precise): not everyone was raised at your house.  I've had interns look bored and text their friends in meetings with consultants, and I've had other interns sit in those same kinds of meetings and take notes, ask questions, and contribute ideas. These interns all had similar levels of experience--the difference was the kind of person they were and the kind of intern--and architect--they wanted to be.

To me, it makes absolute sense for an intern--and in fact anyone regardless of age--to have more than one mentor in one's career.  If an intern was thinking about changing jobs, I might not be the best person to talk to about that, since I've only worked at one firm for 13 years. However, if an intern had an ethical situation to deal with, I might be just the right person. Further, in a work world that is increasingly about who you know, then it makes sense to just know more people. Putting all your eggs in one mentorship basket is a pretty risky bet.

Overall, it sounds to me like Millennials are embracing a changing work world while older workers (including many Gen Xers) are not, and there's a little bitterness there, perhaps being taken out on the Millennials as a bit of shooting the messenger.  However, there are still "old-school" habits and practices that still work in the workplace, like not bothering your coworkers on the weekends, paying attention in meetings, dressing professionally, and listening in a conversation instead of waiting for your turn to speak.  These are things that appeal not to Boomers or Xers or Millennials, but to humans.

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