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Generational Differences: Managing Different Expectations and Meaning When Mentoring the Generations

Generational Differences When Mentoring the Generations

Mentoring serves a number of important functions in an organization. Among other things, mentoring helps people to learn important skills from one another, such as how to complete a task. Mentoring also helps people to develop a career within your company and the values of your culture.

As an important recruitment and retention tool at relatively low cost, mentoring provides crucial return on investment for your company. However, when we look at mentoring across the generations, the expectations for what mentoring is and looks like is different. Knowing what those differences are is key to developing a successful mentoring program.

Traditionalists – have been known to laugh at the idea of being mentored at their age. They often look at mentoring as a sage guide with a young apprentice who will follow in the footsteps of a master. The relationship is long-term and one-to-one. The apprentice takes time to learn and knows that much of the learning will be independent. Traditionalists look at themselves as being the mentors with a lot to offer younger colleagues that are prepared to go the distance. They feel rejected by those who stay with them for only a short time.

Boomers – similar to Traditionalists, typically see the relationship as one to one, for a specific period of time. Boomers will sign up to be mentors in mentoring programs with clear expectations and duration. However, in contrast to Traditionalists, Boomers are also looking for mentoring from their younger colleagues on specific skills, for example, learning about technology from their younger Millennial colleagues.

Generation X – often did not get mentored when they first started out because of lack of company resources. There may be some resentment toward the Millennials who are getting a lot of mentoring in their early careers that the Generation X:ers did not. The type of mentoring that they need is different from the Millennials. Generation X:ers need mentoring to step into leadership positions, something that many companies overlook. Similar to Traditionalists, Generation X:ers expect mentees to do a lot of the work on their own and to be very mindful of their mentor’s time.

Millennials or Generation Y – have a very different attitude toward mentoring than previous generations, which can create unnecessary conflicts if not understood. Many Millennials feel that they have been mentored anytime that they receive advice from someone. Their understanding of mentoring is typically many mentors to one mentee, in addition to being assigned a particular mentor through a structured mentoring program. That difference in understanding is what easily creates distrust in mentoring relationships where a senior employee feels set aside and rejected by Millennials who seem to seek out mentors in addition to a primary mentor. In turn, senior mentors may decide to stop mentoring because of the different interpretations of what the nature of the relationship is.

A good intergenerational mentoring program needs to include a training component where everyone learns what the interpretations of mentoring and implications are for the relationship. It needs to be clear what the company means by mentoring versus general advice, as well as how to appreciate and acknowledge one another across generations. Done well, focusing on intergenerational needs in your progam is a good investment. To top it off, a good intergenerational mentoring program is fun for everyone and that makes yours a great place to work at.

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About Dr. Annika Hylmö

Dr. Annika Hylmö is an Organizational Strategy Consultant and Executive and Leadership Coach with The Insight Generation. Annika has a Ph.D. in Organizational Communication and a M.A. in International Communication. She can be contacted at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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