Who should be stepping up as mentors? Maybe it’s not who we think

The world of work is changing more quickly than ever before and, as the generation that’s been at the helm for the past few decades begins to collectively retire, companies are going to face a talent deficit.

One of the best ways to prepare for this inevitable transition is to ensure the right mentors are available to get the next generation of leaders ready to take the helm.

But the mentors who need to lead this effort aren’t the ones you might expect. Mentoring is no longer about looking up in a straight line to someone whose role you covet; today, mentoring is more dynamic and about a trusted group of diverse perspectives. In this new world of work where everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student, mentorship has evolved from the static mentor/mentee role to something that’s about fluid and flexible relationships.

People often think they need to sit down with a top executive to get great insights, but they can often learn just as much by speaking with someone who’s just gotten their first job and is just a few steps ahead of them. It’s also a way to get access to more – and more varying – perspectives than you’d get if you speak with the one chief executive your parents may know, who happens to look and think a lot like them.

Young professionals at the start of their career may not feel like mentor material, but they have a lot to offer because they’re the ones going through this new pathway to work. The minute you get your first job, you can start helping others by talking to those who are trying to decide what they should study and what their role should be. Knowledge-sharing no longer requires you to have 20 years of experience: Everybody’s a teacher and everybody’s a student. When you’re asked to answer a lot of questions about your world to someone else, you’re going to gain new perspectives – and, as a bonus, practising the lost art of conversation will help you sharpen the soft skills that are so important to your own career development.

These days, “boomer” is on its way to becoming a bad word − you need to look no further than the endless “OK boomer” memes to see how that generation is being dismissed. I believe boomers, including those who are retiring or retired, are a critical and untapped generation to understand the future of work. We just need to create systems to enable this, because they are an incredible generation of professionals who have deep industry knowledge.

Just as new entrants to the work force can help you think about your next steps and well-placed alumni can help you imagine the future, people who have spent 30-plus years in the work force can share the type of institutional knowledge that’s increasingly hard to come by. You can’t build innovative solutions without understanding how things currently work, or how they have in the past.

The idea of nepotism has endured for a reason: It includes a transfer of knowledge that helps guide new workers and provides those preparing to leave the work force with a dignified, fulfilling way to transition into retirement while still feeling valued. If we can keep those aspects, but extend them to anyone looking for guidance, more young graduates can make connections with aging boomers who have valuable insights to share.

While providing work and industry experiences has always been part of university and college mandates, there are no specific guidelines that state what these schools must do. It’s not enough to hold a mixer once a semester or bring in a couple of guest speakers to expose students to the working world. Universities and colleges are at the forefront of the school-to-work transition effort, and some do a great job. But more concrete and specific initiatives need to be put in place to connect students with alumni who can help them explore their options and set them on the right path.

This is something our teams and I have been working on with Mark Beckles, senior director of youth strategy and innovation at Royal Bank of Canada. How can we help all young people prepare for the future of work, knowing that 85 per cent of jobs come through networking? And how can we provide that using modern technology?

It’s a life cycle of mentoring, networking and guidance that’s long been a part of American Ivy League schools, but is much less established in Canada. Such efforts are particularly important for these schools given recent rules that, in some regions, tie core funding to the value created by their experiential learning outcomes.

As the future of work changes, students, early professionals and retirees need to think about whether they’ve carved out at least an hour or two a month to diversify their perspective, explore an industry and practise the timeless art of having conversations. You don’t have to be at the top of your career game to help somebody out – we all play a role in supporting each other through all our career stages.

DAVE WILKIN – Dave Wilkin is the CEO of Ten Thousand Coffees, a global enterprise talent development technology company.

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