How expectations of mentors have evolved for good and bad

What mentorship offers, how it works and what everyone expects have changed in line with other workplace expectations over decades. 

How expectations of mentors have evolved for good and bad

What mentorship offers, how it works and what everyone expects have changed in line with other workplace expectations over decades.  Mentorship has kept its relevance and become a hugely effective tool for development, culture, and retention.   But has the expectation of mentorship overstepped the realistic?

Originally, mentorship was seen as an obligation, that when you were at a certain level of success, you took one or more lucky individuals under your guidance.   It was a pathway a lucky few got tipped for, a gateway to fast-track success.  Inevitably, as the possibilities of mobility via success at work increased, so did the demand for mentorship.  So the ambitious actively sought it out.  

Tech meant requesting help from mentors more accessible and increased the ease of sharing of knowledge.  At the same time, millennials coming into the workshop had very different expectations of what they were looking for in their career to previous generations.   As a result, organizations started to scramble to provide mentors on a far broader reach. Mentorship within large organizations has diversified, so it is more common for fast-growing individuals to have several mentors with different skill sets and purposes.   

Millennials were raised to succeed in life.  From early school years, their performance was measured by stats; compared to their peers, the pack divided young.  Their perception of the workplace is a continuation, a place where the fittest rise to the top.  They know that learning is crucial to this and look for constructive, actional feedback so that they can develop further.  Personal development is their priority, so being held to actionable goals gives them familiar security.    

As opposed to taking a job for life and expected to be grateful for it as in previous generations, the millennials rejected the idea of being fodder for a corporation to profit from.  They have more freedom to think for themselves and access more information for themselves, thanks to tech.  And they loathe being micro-managed.  They don’t want to be told what to do; they want to learn and develop so they know-how. But the millennial dominated workplace is far less hierarchical place than the past.

 Millennials feel their voices are worth hearing and want to be free to and encouraged to offer their opinions.  One of the ways of enabling this is with reverse mentorship, where one team member might mentor a more senior member of the company in their specific skill set.   For example, a high flyer in tech might get softer skill mentoring from someone of a more junior rank.  It can be hugely beneficial to the company and all involved, developing leadership skills in the more junior person while developing a specific new skill in the more senior.  But there are other benefits; most of all, reverse mentoring plays a massive role in creating that culture where development and learning are ingrained, which has become so important to people.    

But Millennials are also the generation who embraced Sinek’s “Why.”  They want personal fulfilment through their work and purpose-led challenges at the heart of that.  They admire managers and leaders who are not just successful but that take a personal interest in them, and these are the people they aspire to be.  They look for that inspiration and want to be guided, challenged, and coached.   When they find it, they are hugely loyal.   All this means led to mentorship changing to a very different animal, not just a way to be successful but also a way of finding help and guidance, direction and personal fulfilment.  

Having been brought up to work for success and work towards becoming their best selves, it is hardly surprising that development, training, and mentorship are significant factors in both their choice of jobs and a primary reason they move jobs.  If they feel their development needs are not being met and there isn’t an opportunity for them to continue to grow, a millennial will move on and we have seen that reflected in attrition of the average years people stay in jobs.

As Gen Z began to join the workplace, they too wanted mentors, but only if the quality on offer met with approval.  Gaining a mentor become a reason to go to work, as much as a method of working.  The expectation is similar yet subtly different from the Millennials’.  They want to be fulfilled, to learn and advance.  But they are a generation with massive concerns about the future.   They are worried about job security and their economic future.  They have anxieties over how they could be discriminated against, be it through race, gender, or any other reason.  They are much more distrustful and place authenticity as a priority in both a leader and a mentor.   They want help in setting their goals.

Gen Z, too, want their voices to be heard and believe they have something worthwhile to say.  Reverse mentorship can be effective in providing this, but it is less straightforward than it was, with more specific demands to meet their expectations.  

Part of that Gen Z is seeking in a mentor is that authenticity but they seek it combined with in someone who cares about them as an individual and gives them space to air these massive worries.  Gen Z would rather not have a mentor than have one that doesn’t genuinely care for them, nor work at all, than in a job with no purpose and fulfilment. 

Millennials prioritize fulfilment and personal development.  When provided with that, they are hungry to self-motivate and succeed.   They see their own input as crucial.  But the expectation now from Gen Z is so much more.   They are looking for reassurance from someone they trust who cares about them and makes their world safer while also ensuring their fulfilment.   

Mentorship may support, enable and aid, but it is not a panacea for the world’s problems, not a provider of the meaning of life.   Humans have been looking for that one forever, and we all must find the answer for ourselves.

Jan Cavelle
Jan Cavelle

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