Mentoring programs used to involve a seasoned workplace veteran downloading their skills and experience to a fresh-faced new starter.
But mentoring is evolving to better serve a more diverse, multigenerational workforce.
“People are moving around quite a bit, you have older people getting into new positions, moving from place to place, they’re not simply working in one place and retiring as we used to,” says Dr Julie Nyanjom, Senior Lecturer at the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University.
“Mentoring will have to change to keep up with that, to reflect our organisations, and we need to recognise that it no longer goes in one direction. The notion that the only way we can mentor is from older to younger people is untenable these days,” says Nyanjom, who works with organisations to develop mentoring programs.
An increasing recognition that different generations have lessons to offer each other has led to the growth of reverse-mentoring, where older workers learn from their younger counterparts. Intergenerational mentoring, where participants take on both mentor and mentee roles, is a natural progression from that.
“The beauty of intergenerational mentoring is that it acknowledges the skills each generation brings to the workplace and beyond, to encourage knowledge sharing,” says Olga Zerefos, who works in digital strategy at Westpac, and has recently entered a mentoring relationship.
“It’s also key to retaining talent.”
That’s borne out by research – a report by Deloitte found that 68 per cent of millennials who intend to stay with their organisation for more than five years have a mentor.
Nyanjom agrees that strong mentoring programs which meet the needs of a diverse workforce are key to attraction and retention.
“That is going to be critical to the organisations we aspire to work for. People want organisations which are truly inclusive, and mentoring helps people understand others who make up that community,” she says.
Zerefos, 25, says she was surprised at first when older colleagues found her perspective useful. She is paired with Eugene Gustafsson, 58, in Westpac’s Curious & Wise Program.
It’s not the pair’s first time collaborating. Zerefos calls Gustafsson her ‘work mum’, and the two worked together on a travel marketing campaign shortly after Zerefos joined the bank as a graduate.
“I Iearned a lot by watching how Eugene operated. She does a lot of research and was focused on building a customer-centric strategy,” Zerefos says. “It was a lot more than executing a campaign, she looks at things end to end. She starts with the core problem and sees it through to the solution.”
Gustafsson, a senior marketing manager, said working with Zerefos gave her a valuable insight into the millennial mindset.
“I’ve always been interested in digital, and I’m far more comfortable having worked with Olga. I think it’s important for people to be honest enough to say they want to learn, even later in their career.”
For Zerefos, the opportunity to build soft skills has been key to the mentoring process: “Learning negotiating skills is daunting, and it was great to be involved in meetings where I’d see Eugene present to senior leaders.”
Gustafsson says the program recognises that even workers who have been in the industry for decades want to continually improve.
“The best career advice I ever got was to look at development areas as opportunities to shine. This program will help me continue to develop, and it demonstrates that regardless of your age you can contribute to someone else’s development.”
Effective corporate mentoring programs champion the diversity employees bring to work, Nyanjom says.
“Each one of us has experience and knowledge that we can bring to the table. It has been so long ingrained in us that as an older person it’s your job to be a mentor because you know more, you have more life experiences. That isn’t a bad way of looking at it, but younger people can step back and think they don’t have anything to offer.
“We need to create an enabling environment where age and status are irrelevant, and anyone who needs a mentor can have one.”
As for Zerefos, the best advice she has had is to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Be willing to make bold decisions and have the courage to venture into the unknown.”
It’s a journey she’s happy to be undertaking with her ‘work mum’.
“I never would’ve thought that I’d be able to influence decision-making to help drive key projects, but Eugene was a voice of reason, and has empowered me. With this relationship setting the benchmark of what it’s like to bridge the generational divide, I want to be able to continue learning across age groups."